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Customer Service: Publix Creates a Culture Beyond Slogans

Publix Super Markets looks at customer service in the broadest sense — from interaction with customers on a personal level to providing things customer want, such as sharp pricing and clean stores. And it succeeds at providing that service on a massive scale across its operations.

Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillanDoolittle, Chicago, said that while a lot of companies might talk about emphasizing great customer service, at Publix that mission, as established by founder George Jenkins, is always at the forefront of everything the company does.

“They deliver great customer service because its associates and the people in the stores believe that’s why they are there,” he said. “Every company tells you customer service is the most important thing, until they tell you that shrink is more important. Of course it is important, but then they violate it because it is not THE most important thing.

“I think at Publix it is always clear that it is THE most important thing.”

At companies known for customer service, such as Publix and Nordstrom, customer service “goes beyond what they say — customer service is what they do.”

One of the keys for Publix is that employees own stock in the company, “so they are all invested in the outcome,” said Andrew Wolf, a Richmond, Va.-based analyst at BB&T Capital Markets. “That’s a huge thing that the company has going for it.”

As an employee stock ownership plan, or ESOP, Publix workers share in the success of the company based on the value of their shares.

But other operators seeking to emulate Publix’s high level of service might need to do more than offer options or a share of the profits. At Publix, customer service is ingrained as a core value from the time an employee is hired.

“From their first days on the job, new associates are immersed in a culture of customer service,” wrote Joseph W. Carvin, the former Publix human resources executive, in his 2005 book, “A Piece of the Pie: The Story of Customer Service at Publix.”

He went on to explain that employees quickly learn themselves whether they are suited for a job at the retailer, as they either choose to become immersed in the “family” culture, or they opt to leave during their early trial employment period.

Wolf noted that at Publix, “every person has to somehow be inoculated with that culture — it starts with their hiring and training.”

Stern of McMillanDoolittle also cited West Des Moines, Iowa-based Hy-Vee as another supermarket company that provides strong customer service. Like Publix, Hy-Vee also has a system in which employees — in Hy-Vee’s case, store managers — have a financial interest in the performance of the company.

“It is very tangible,” Stern said. “When you walk into a store that has great customer service, you can feel it.”

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