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Chick-fil-A and the business of story listening

Evan Baehr

Consumer-facing businesses have a unique opportunity to touch millions of real lives in a personal way every day. Put on your consumer hat for a minute and think through your day: the coffee shop barrista, the cashier at McDonalds, the sales associate at Target, the attendant at the gas station, the waiter at your restaurant, and on and on. Indeed we have conversations with several people every day–probably dozens a month–in the context of retail businesses. Retail employees are amazingly prevalent in our lives – a prevalence surpassed only by our friends and family members. That consumers spend so much time and even emotional energy interacting with employees creates a real opportunity for businesses to go beyond traditional roles of sales and customer service.

A few weeks ago I had the privilege to visit Chick-fil-A headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, for an all-day tour and series of discussion with the company leadership.  Based on my conversations, here’s my impression of how Chick-fil-A sees its business: 1,600 community spaces where 7+ million Americans spend time with their friends and family… and to these spaces their customers bring their stories, their needs, and their hopes. Although it is great chicken sandwiches and a welcoming restaurant that get people in the door, once customers show up employees have an opportunity–albeit brief–for real interaction. Yes there is customer service: taking orders, making change, delivering food. However, there’s more. Chick-fil-A wants to serve the full range of needs of its customers. So when an elderly woman walks in the door, the posture isn’t just: “what value meal can I serve this woman?” It is also: “What is this woman’s story?” and “In my few minutes of interaction, how can I somehow connect with and empower this woman?”

So given these powerful personal stories of individual customers, what can Chick-Fil-A employees really DO?  Yes, it is unreasonable to be the personal social worker for every customer–employees can’t leave work to go run errands for an elderly person.  But let’s set aside zero sum thinking and explore ways that employees really can serve customers in realistic ways.

Consider Martha–a 73 year old woman who every day visits her husband in a senior home, where he lives out his final years while suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  Today is an ordinary Tuesday.  After her morning coffee and toast, Martha drives to visit her husband.  But on this Tuesday, after 2 years of visiting every day, her husband doesn’t recognize her.  Imagine: the love of your life–your best friend–no longer knows who you are.  That is a story.  That is an experience.  This is no ordinary Tuesday.

Consider the rest of her day.  She leaves an hour later with her world changed.  She drives to Chick-Fil-A to eat lunch.  Over the next 45 minutes, she will sit quietly, eating her sandwich and thinking about her morning. At that very moment what does Martha need?  Errands run? No.  Financial support?  No.  Educational opportunities? No. Martha needs empathy – she needs her story to be known – she needs to have an opportunity to tell her story – she needs someone to listen to her story.

Giving someone the opportunity to tell their story is a precious gift.  On its surface it seems silly.  You might say: that some nice guy sits and listens to an old woman talk about her husband doesn’t do anything–he’s still dying, she’s still sad–all you’ve done is feel good about yourself.  But think of it this way: remember back to a time when you first told someone something–”I love you,” “I’m pregnant,” “our dad died.”  Verbalizing an observation or experience brings reality to it in a way that simply keeping it in your memory does not.  Oral story telling is a performative experience for the listener and the teller.  It enables the teller to process, communicate, and share her experience, in a way that solitary reflection does not. And perhaps most importantly, that someone wants to be your audience says that your story matters–that it is worth hearing and worth telling.  Having an audience communicates “you matter.”   And the act of communicating that story forces a rational, psychological, and emotional processing of the experience for the story teller.  Indeed, story telling is about much more than communicating information; if employee Jim asks Martha “How are you?” and Martha begins to share her story, this is not an act of transferring information; Jim would not say, “Can you drop me an email on that?”  Rather, story telling–or rather story listening–is an opportunity to show someone that they matter. Giving someone your focused attention, listening attentively, and being emotionally present in the conversation together authentically say “I care about you.”

The reality is that most people have stories to tell.  The tragedy is that no one is there to listen–no one even bothers to ask.  So we are left feeling that our stories don’t matter–that we don’t matter.  Because most people interact with retail business several times a day, consumer-facing businesses have an opportunity to enable story telling on a massive scale. Enabling millions of people to tell their story will cause fairly profound social change (whether decreased depression and suicide, greater self-actualization, increased confidence and optimism, etc.).  In addition to serving customers’ material needs, businesses oriented this way might begin to serve customers’ social, psychological, and emotional needs.

To begin exploring the merits of this proposal, try out your hand at story listening.  As you navigate your day or show up at a conference, try to see how many stories you can enable to be told.  Practice asking good questions.  Practice creating little moments of authenticity and trust in which someone feels able to share openly.  Find the person sitting alone in the lunchroom or standing in the corner during the meet and great and go listen to their story. Go give someone an audience–you might be reminding someone that they matter – something we all need to hear from time to time..

Things I’m still thinking about:

  • How can we train and equip employees to be “story listeners”?
  • How can we measure the impact and relevance of story telling?
  • Are there story listening “best practices”?
  • Need we be able to do more than listen?  If the story teller has real needs (e.g. addiction, abuse, employment, etc.), should we be able to equip or at least refer them?
  • Historically: who in society serves as story listeners?  Pastors? Coworkers? Psychiatrists?  Is it odd that business would have to serve this role?
  • Maybe we’re really just talking about people being listeners… and they have to do so at a business because that is simply where they are during the day. So perhaps a business-led listening movement is ill-fated.