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Chick-fil-A Uses Technology to Give You a Great Chicken Sandwich and a Great Experience

Earlier this week I chaired CRM Evolution, CRM Magazine’s annual industry conference. And as usual it was a great event with industry experts, thought leaders and vendor executives participating throughout the 3 days of the event.  

But the most surprising person I ran into at the conference was my supervisor at my very first professional job, Jay Duff. I hadn’t seen Jay in close to 22 years and had no idea he would be there. Back in the early 1990s we helped pharmaceutical sales reps use CRM to manage their territories, but today Jay works at Chick-fil-A leading some of their technology development around analytics, artificial intelligence and speech technology.  

So, in addition to catching up some, Jay shared a few examples of how these technologies are helping the company improve the customer experience. And with Chick-fil-A recently being listed as one of the top 25 most loved brands in the USA by Morning Consult, there are a lot of takeaways from how they use technology to innovate around creating better experiences for their customers that go beyond serving up great chicken sandwiches.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.  To see the full interview watch the video or embedded SoundCloud player below.

Small Business Trends:  What are you doing at Chick-fil-A?

Jay Duff:  I have a role leading some of our technology developments specifically with analytics and definitely an eye towards artificial intelligence, so I’m here attending the speech tech conference. Chick-fil-A has a lot of interest in how speech technology and voice processing might improve our customer experience.

Small Business Trends: Why don’t you talk about why you’re interested in voice technology for Chick-fil-A?

Jay Duff:  Chick-fil-A, their customer experience is hugely important. Of course, we serve a great chicken sandwich, but it’s the customer experience that we keep our eyes focused on and we see some promising technologies with speech and voice that would enhance that. For example, we’re interested in improving the dialogue that people have when they’re ordering. So, it’s important to us that you have…We provide second mile service.  That’s a term we use internally, and again, it focuses around maintaining eye contact as we talk, and smiling, and engaging with the customer.

Having worked in the store, I know how difficult it is to work a POS system, a point sale system, while you’re trying to keep track of the customer’s orders and especially if they have any alterations like no pickles, or a different kind of cheese, or whatever it is. I’m spending all my time trying to get the order right, and what happens is our dialogue kind of suffers when I’m not able to maintain eye contact because I’m too busy trying to figure out the exception on my point of sales system. So we can see how speech and voice processing is going to help that;  if the computer assists us in taking an order, then I can maintain eye contact and smile and it’s a much better interaction. So that’s one of the primary goals.

One of the other things is looking at the acoustic quality and the content of what’s being spoken, particularly by our team members. So, we saw some technologies where we might, combined with vision, be able to measure our team member. Are they maintaining contact? Are they smiling? What choice of words are they using? What about their voice quality? And really use that for training and some feedback, and ultimately even to gamify it. So imagine if we randomly select team members, again this has nothing to do with our customers, we wouldn’t measure our customers, but watching our team members to give them feedback and say, “Hey, you were highly engaging, you were very pleasant,” and even to make a contest out of it. So, those are some ideas I might just have to go back and explore.

Small Business Trends:  The customer experience, it’s apparent it’s extremely important. It goes beyond just the food. Are there other interesting ways that you measure the customer’s experience, basically how they’re perceiving what they’re getting from Chick-fil-A, beyond the actual food?

Jay Duff:  We do a lot of, we call them CEM surveys and customer experience, so clearly a primary vehicle is to give you a survey, and it’s part of a receipt. We select you randomly, but we also get feedback in the app. So the mobile app is hugely important to us because that gives us some interaction, gives you a chance to interact with the brand. I’m a relatively new employee at Chick-fil-A, and I definitely tell my friends, “Hey, you’ve got to get the app. That’s how you get free stuff. That’s how you know what’s going on.” It’s a great way of interacting, and there’s clearly there’s good rewards when you use the mobile app. And then most of all what I like about it is it makes it easier to order.

Small Business Trends:  That’s really important. Actually, it’s funny. I was just at a Chick-fil-A down where I live, and I’m always amazed at, it doesn’t matter what time of day you go to any of the Chick-fil-A’s I’ve been to. There’s always a long line in the drive-thru, but you guys are doing a couple different things to make that experience a little better. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jay Duff:  The drive-thru experience is important to us, and how can we get your food to you as quickly as possible? How can we make that a good experience? So, if you’ve been to a Chick-fil-A drive-thru, you know people will take your order, upstream, and that’s an important part of how we take orders. We’re also looking at other metrics and using computer technology to watch and make sure that the flow is good. How can we optimize experience?

And then also we have multiple lanes coming down into one lane. We’re looking at some technology to verify that the right order is at the window, despite how you went through the other lines. Again, we don’t want to do anything creepy in terms of identifying people, but we do want to make sure that we’ve got the right order going to the right person when you go through the line. We also offer curbside delivery, so you can place an order. We’ll deliver it to you at the curbside, and I think that’s going to have a big future. I think the day’s going to come when you might not even have a drive-thru. I can imagine a day when I would rather not wait in a line but I would rather just park and place my order using my phone, or a car app, and then just have it delivered. And I think that there would be some efficiency gains with that so certainly looking at technologies that will make that possible as well.

Small Business Trends:  And Chick-fil-A, I’ve thought of it as more of a southern thing, but you guys are all over the place now.

Jay Duff:  We’re expanding rapidly. So we’re definitely expanding out into the west, and it’s an exciting time to be at Chick-fil-A. We’re definitely growing. We’re growing rapidly. We have a lot of new positions open, so check our website at, a lot of engineering applications. You don’t generally think of technology when you think of great chicken sandwiches, but given the success of Chick-fil-A, we definitely have the money to invest back into the business, and I think we are definitely at the forefront of applying technology into the quick-service restaurant industry.

Small Business Trends:  Well I had an opportunity actually, this was years ago, to go to Chick-fil-A headquarters, and one of the things they allowed us to see is you’ve got these mock stores, full blown Chick-fil-A stores on campus. And it seems like they were always looking to try to do things to positively impact customer experience.

Jay Duff:  Absolutely. We call that “The Hatch,” so there’s great deal of innovation at Chick-fil-A, many different areas in the business. We would say innovation is everyone’s job. Just two weeks ago, we set up a complete drive-thru simulation, so we had all the drive-thrus we reconstructed using foam board. We hired 30 or 40 people from the outside that weren’t Chick-fil-A employees to participate in the simulation, and we did have physical cars in the building to simulate the drive-thru experience. And the whole idea was using speech technology to take the order. And we tried two different solutions. We tried one drive-thru where there was no person there. You would just pull up to the window, and technology would take your order and repeat your order back to you, and then in the other one, we had a team member there, and it was kind of what I described earlier in that they were there with an iPad, and the speech was picking up your order. It was being displayed on the iPad, and then the team member was there to make sure it was correct, but they were there engaging with the customer.

Small Business Trends:  So like you said earlier, instead of concentrating on getting the order right, it was more just trying to create a connection experience while the technology is getting the order for you, so you don’t have to concentrate all your efforts looking down and typing, you’re able to concentrate on the person.

Jay Duff:  That’s right. Our goal is clearly to improve the experience. It isn’t to eliminate a person. It isn’t really even to save money. The whole idea is how can we make that experience better for the customer. That’s been the success of Chick-fil-A.

Small Business Trends:  I have to say, I get a chance to look at a lot of research and talk about with different companies, one of the things that I’ve seen, companies are spending lots of money on this kind of technology, and they say it’s to improve the customer experience, but a lot of that is really spent on reducing cost of serving customers, or how do they cut down on certain time frames, like drop a call from one minute to 50 seconds. So it all is kind of focused on them, but what you just said is you’re focused on using all these great technologies to actually improve the customer experience first.

Jay Duff:  Well that’s true, the other thing I need to add, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention, we also want to make it easier on the team member. As you mentioned earlier, when you go to Chick-fil-A, we’re blessed with a lot of success. There’s frequently a line at Chick-fil-A. We love our restaurant operators and the team members there. We know they’re under a lot of stress with the vine that goes through restaurants. So how can we make it easier for them? If we make it easier for the team member, we know they’re going to serve the customer better.

We’re not really into a cost reduction mode, we’re really into, “Hey, how can we help our team members serve customers better and in a way that’s sustainable?” That’s clearly where the focus is. We never talk internally about, “Hey, how much can we reduce operations?” It’s always, “How does this impact team members or operators and how does this improve the experience for the customer?”

Small Business Trends: And apparently the customers must enjoy it because like I said, there’s never a time when I don’t see a line out there.

Jay Duff:  And the simulation, it really isn’t ready. This isn’t something you’re going to see next week at a Chick-fil-A restaurant. That was clearly one of the conclusions, but we did see how this would work, we did see, “Hey, these are some of the aspects we didn’t think about, these are the things we need to explore a little more deeply.” Totally confident the technology is going to get there. We definitely see technology providers on the way to achieving this type of capability, but it was apparent that as of the moment, it’s really not ready. So we would never roll this out if it was going to make an unpleasant experience for five percent of our customers. That definitely wouldn’t be acceptable to us.

Small Business Trends: Absolutely, that totally makes sense. Does being at this event make you like CRM any more now?

Jay Duff:  No, I think I’m going to stick with serving customers great chicken sandwiches.

This article, “Chick-fil-A Uses Technology to Give You a Great Chicken Sandwich and a Great Experience” was first published on Small Business Trends

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