Engaging customers is something Disney and convenience stores have in common. A former Disney employee-turned-convenience retailer shares how c-store employees can delight and exceed customer expectations each day with positive experiences that build brand loyalty and repeat customers.
Jeff Lenard, VP Strategic Industry Initiatives, NACS and Carolyn Schnare, Director Strategic Initiatives, NACS
About our Guest
Chris McKinney, Director of Human Resources, Sprint Mart
With experience spanning some of the world’s most recognized and admired companies, Chris McKinney now leads Human Resources strategy and operations for a suite of companies: Victory Marketing, LLC (dba Sprint Mart), Burgers & More, Inc. and Morris Petroleum, Inc.
Chris believes people are a company’s largest asset and dedicates every moment to providing organizations the tools to develop their people at all levels. Beginning his HR career with The Walt Disney Co. in Learning & Development, Chris has both designed and facilitated multiple training curriculums for The Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL.
00:05 Introduction [Music]
You’re listening to Convenience Matters, brought to you by NACS. Whether it’s for food, fuels, drinks, or snacks, about half of the US population shops at a convenience store every day. We talk about what we see at stores and what the future may hold for our industry.
00:21 Jeff Lenard
What do gas stations and Disney have in common? At its core they both want to deliver a wow experience, and we’re going to talk about some of the tricks of Disney and how they apply at gas stations. And maybe some things that Disney can learn from gas stations.
Welcome to Convenience Matters!
My name is Jeff Lenard with NACS
00:40 Carolyn Schnare
Hey, and I’m Carolyn Schnare, also with NACS.
And today, Carolyn, we’re going to talk about Disney and the wow experience, but really, it’s about convenience stores and how convenient stores can also do the same wow experience at the HR level and in what, especially how important it is. now, during the pandemic, when things are Team meetings and Zoom meetings and all these other things where it’s much tougher to pull people together.
We’re going to pull it all together with an HR expert today, Chris McKinney, who is with Sprint Mart, which is down in Alabama, has over 100 stores. So welcome Chris.
01:18 Chris McKinney
Thank you happy to be here.
So, we tee that up, Chris. We talked…I mentioned Disney and I mentioned gas stations and the reason I mentioned those as you have experience in both areas. Formerly a life at Disney and now HR in a convenience store company.
What are some of the commonalities because when people talk about Disney, it’s that wow experience. What do they do – everything is about the customer.
What are some of those skills that you’ve heard that you’ve seen whether it’s Disney or whether it’s others that really can be applied to our industry?
I think you touched on it.
It boils down to the people.
The people are the same thing that bring an experience to life at Disney World and the people are the same thing that provide that wow experience inside a convenience store.
I think in the convenience segment where 80% of the items on our shelves are similar to the store that is down the street, it is the brief but impactful interaction that a customer is going to have with a convenience store’s people, where the customer service it provides.
And that theme reigns true whether or not you’re operating the most famous theme park in the world where the expectation is to give me a once in a lifetime experience or a convenient store that someone is bopping into on their way to work, and their expectation is in an out quickly.
If you can surprise and wow them with a level of customer service that they weren’t expecting in that interaction.
That’s the same thing that Disney does so successfully every day.
I thought it’s that’s a perfect tee-up because when we look at things we’ve done consumer focus groups where we ask people who previously were in the convenience store industry about what was helpful in their convenience store experience that they’re now successful in a another job, and it’s not necessarily because they were in the convenience store, but they were smart enough to pick up some of the things that they learned in the convenience store.
And one of the things that they mentioned was that you can literally change somebody’s day.
You have the power to do that and people would say ‘I’m an excellent salesperson now and I learned how to do that by knowing how to change somebody’s mood when they’re third in line and they look upset. They look frustrated and when they get to me, I’ve changed them through something.’
That’s an amazing skill to take somewhere else and its amazing self-actualization to know you have that skill.
Or to see it in action.
I would imagine that if there’s a way to communicate to HR or through HR to perspective employees, that that’s really powerful.
If you could tell somebody that you’re gonna learn a lot of things that will really apply somewhere else.
We’d love to keep you, but really cool applications elsewhere.
I mean, there’s skills that are applicable across the gamut of career choices that all begin in the basic level of customer service in retail, and we try and play that up from a human resources perspective, specifically from an orientation standpoint, where someone may simply be thinking that they are entering a career stop that’s going to be a bridge for them there.
They’re in between primary destinations within their career journey and a convenience store was just an option along the way to try and bridge a gap between two formal career stops.
And they maybe oftentimes think they’re simply signing up for a basic cashier position, but Jeff, I think what you mentioned that power in literally watching someone’s day be changed by a positive interaction. I mean, there’s behavioral science behind why that is impactful.
And goodness, to bring it home I see the same thing when I interact with my 12-year-old daughter.
The way that her day starts can be somewhat dictated by the way that I greet her in the morning when she finally wakes up and the same holds true for every interaction and the beauty of the cashier position in a convenience store is quite simply you are gifted that that interaction opportunity hundreds, if not thousands of times a day depending on where you work.
Well, just I wanted just to warn you 12- year-old yes cause and effect. You can see the relationship. Wait until they’re 16, 17, 18….
That’s what I was thinking!
This is what I hear!
And then you say, well, that didn’t seem like it made any sense. But anyway, we digress.
Mine just crawls out of the bedroom at some point on like a day off at 11 and stares at me like ‘how dare you speak to me right now.’ But, she’s 15 so you’ve got a few years.
But you are so right. It’s, you know, just that simple hello, especially nowadays. You know you’re kind of starved for people time. At least you know I am.
You know where you know we’re here.
We’re still in this pandemic and we’re still kind of getting out.
Maybe not as much as we used to, and I’m like, oh, that was so nice to see a smile even if it’s just from the nose up.
But what do they call it – smeyes or smile eyes?
I think you’re right it’s just it’s greeting people and it’s engaging them in some way or another.
Which brings me to another topic, sort of — how do you keep employees engaged and interested in such a trying time?
Now this is kind of a little more a two-part question, because we’re looking at both store employees, an headquarter employees. So you can pick or answer both, but you know I would imagine there’s almost a blending too, because you know there’s probably team meetings that are done over Zoom or Teams or something like that now and, you know, between a corporate somebody or a zone manager, I don’t know who’s getting out into stores as much as they used to or whatnot, but I guess my bigger question is – how do you keep ‘em engaged so that they want to stick around and so trying and keep their morale up, do you have any thoughts on that or tips on how is it working for you guys?
Yeah, I think from a leadership perspective, if it took the pandemic to find yourself asking that very question for your organization, my advice maybe that you’re a little behind the leadership skills that develop engagement and teamwork and rallying a group of employees or people towards some similar cause that begins on employees very first. Day. And that’s why in the HR community, specifically in the training community, we know that training specifically, orientation or on the job training about how to do the job. We know that that’s why it’s so important that that take place as close to that employee’s first day as possible.
That’s a long-winded way of saying, do it early and often from a training perspective, simply because you want to begin crafting that camaraderie and that team building effort.
And you also don’t want to leave that employee guessing about what the expectation is or what the what the job is that needs to be done.
And so from a store level perspective we have found success in not only making it the business policy to have orientation as close to an employee’s first day as we can, but then also convincing the operators as to why that is important from an operator’s perspective, you can understand that keeping the store open and when they are down from a from a staffing perspective, they just want someone to fill the shift, and that is in their nature. And it is the absolute appropriate response to have from an operators perspective, but then convincing them why training should take place in the beginning and then also, not just convincing through our words, but convincing through a process that makes them feel as if they’re not always strapped for labor resources where we can have this continuous, hopefully pool or influx of available employees in case we get in those positions to where when HR says, you know, we need to send him to orientation first, their initial reaction is not ‘so how are we ever going to keep the stores open, we need them to close today.’
I think we found success from a store level perspective just by doing that building a process that provides a pipeline or consistent pipeline of talent and then really driving home the idea that orientation training, be it procedural or cultural needs to happen quickly.
And then from a corporate perspective, there’s a whole different set of expectations there, right?
The corporate staff has a different, well, they have a different expectation for their careers and the nature of their work is very different.
And I think the same leadership principles that apply from a store perspective in that people want a leader that they can follow, that they trust that they firmly believe has their best interests at heart. Those principles don’t change, even though someone’s expectation of their career changes or expectation of their employer change.
The effort there, though from an HR perspective, is reminding those leaders at the corporate level that the recognition and the team building and the camaraderie is, is and always has been an ongoing thing, and is only even more important when we physically get split up as we have been over the course of the last year. So having simple check in meetings that are scheduled for no more than 15 minutes just to see how people’s lives are going as opposed to talk specifically business, I think go a long way in in meeting those expectations that a corporate, or as we like to call it, The Support Center employee, expects out of their employer.
I know Carolyn had a question but I just I want to follow up because I think you probably used the word expectations a half dozen times.
And when somebody uses a word that often it’s important and it strikes me that you know I was joking about the comparison between Disney and convenience stores, but maybe a better comparison is football.
My understanding is I think people in Alabama kind of like football. Same with Mississippi.
But I almost think of it like a pregame where you get together and you say this is how we’re going to get together and do something great today and this guy is going to pass the ball.
Maybe you can pass the ball. Great. But, this guy is going to pass the ball today and you kind of give everybody the ability to succeed together by telling them what the bigger expectations are. And it’s much different than a game where you win lose in the same day it’s about building over time, but I think that’s kind of a little bit similar to what you’re talking about with expectations, just continually reinforcing what the bigger thing is you’re working towards.
I would completely agree.
I think expectations were that word that I keep leveraging. Communicating the expectation builds clarity or provides clarity in the mind of the receiver, right?
If you’re communicating expectations. So, I mean, what hasn’t been said about the way businesses have responded to COVID-19, but if I go back to the very beginning, it was as simple as pulling our HR team into my office and simply saying to them, ‘look, we’re entering a time where there is no playbook for success.’
All of my colleagues that I’ve spoken to, I think we’re all navigating this for what feels like the very first time, and there’s no predominant advice, and so all I wanted to do was call you together and give everyone the freedom to say that there’s going to be times where we have to make decisions quickly that we may not be able to gather for prior to that decision needing to be made, and while there may be a better decision than others, it’s difficult to say that one is right versus wrong. So I want to give the freedom to everybody to know that the expectation is that we need to support our operation as best we can from an HR perspective, and if that means making a decision in the moment that we’re not fully confident about, but they need guidance, then by all means do it, and let’s discuss it when we reconvene
But, to your point, sometimes it’s just as simple as saying the things that you may be thinking, but may be slower to articulate simply because there’s so many other things going on.
One of our, um, our CEO Henry Armour said to our staff earlier, and he has said a few times here at NACS, who said that we all need to have empathy for each other, too and I think that’s an important reminder because everybody is dealing with something, whether it’s kids and schooling or lack thereof in some cases.
Or you know, parents or grandparents living in the household or just you know, sicknesses and it’s just such a tough time and that’s even beyond just what we’re dealing with.
I think on a regular day we could have all used that advice, you know, before in the before times, if you will, because it’s just like you don’t know if someone…it’s the same thing with people and customers come in the store.
You don’t know if they just had a flat tire on the way to work.
You don’t know if they’re running late, you don’t know what’s going on.
Maybe they’re having a great day and that and that rubs off on a on a staff member because it’s just empathy is so important; I think just what you said.
Forgiveness and empathy are two big keywords I want to walk away with, if anything, after this this episode, don’t you think?
Yeah, I’ve had the blessing of being able to be a part of a leadership development program during my time with Disney, and one of the most powerful things that the facilitator mentioned in in one of the sessions was this notion that we’ve held onto for so long about we have work life, and we have a home life, and he teed that up and then simply said that’s false.
There’s one person who is living all of that and to expect them to drop everything from a home life the moment they step into a work life and vice versa is just simply unrealistic and I mean, imagine the freedom that gave me as a brand new leader at a place that is widely regarded as well, it’s just admired as the number one entertainment company in the world to have that organization provide the clarity and establish the expectation that take care of that person, regardless of whether or not it’s a work concern, or it’s a home concern.
Part of leadership is showing that empathy and taking care of them, regardless of what it is.
And it definitely blurs more like you said. I mean it’s, you know, and that was in the Before Times.
Thing is, like I mean, Jeff knows me very well and we haven’t seen each other physically in a long time, but he knows I wear my emotions on my sleeve.
I come in and I would walk in the morning and like flop myself down on the floor.
“I just had the worst morning with my kids and blah blah blah” and he’s like “OK tell me all about it” you know but then I did. OK now let’s go let’s move on to the work stuff so I’m one of those folks that have always, you know, married the two and probably drove him nuts.
But Jeff, you must admit you must miss my theatrics, huh?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m sorry I was on mute.
I know. And speaking of Disney, I just thought like a great idea that that stores can steal from Disney – fireworks every night outside the store at 10:00.
Maybe, maybe not. Probably not.
I think that’s just good life advice for every business. [laughter]
We could really use a lot of fireworks, but I loved Carolyn’s point about empathy and in it’s a word that we probably know.
It’s always been out there, but it’s really come to the fore over the last year where here about haves and have nots.
And just everybody is coming at things in the store from a different angle and there’s a great Chick-fil-A commercial that just shows everybody is coming into the store and has a different experience. Some are joyful, some are the opposite of joyful.
Are there any…in HR circles, when you look at how you hire talent and how do you look for people? I know there are various test set that try to suss out characteristics of people, but is there any way you can teach somebody that’s in their 20s thirties, 40s, a higher level of empathy to deliver that customer service, particularly when they have their own things going on.
Boy, what a question.
If you can answer that one, you can make a lot of money.
Well, I think every fast-food establishment along with every retail establishment anyone providing customer service would be asking themselves that that very question.
I think I always try and live in a very transparent way.
I think if I was honest with myself, there were times in my late teens early 20s that now I would not have hired myself just for that very reason.
Oh, I could add a couple of years to my age and say the same, yes.
I mean there’s a period of time where we all go through this.
We’re just we’re searching for who we are and we have an idealistic view of the way the world works and when it doesn’t work that way, we feel slighted and I am speaking about myself and I recognize that in other people in in similar developmental stages.
I think…boy, the most successful organizations are simply being more candid and transparent about these kinds of things.
If you take a look at the way that certain aspects of society have behaved over the course of the last year or so, I perceive that there has been this deeply rooted desire to receive transparency and I guess just for lack of a better term – being real.
There’s so much, so many filters I should say, that communication comes through before we receive it and there’s a clamoring for real speak and someone being open and honest.
And when we when we find a leader who is willing to say something to the effect of ‘you know what I messed up and we’re going to figure this out and we’re going to do better going forward.’
That that transparency, that honest, candid dialogue tends to really resonate with people.
Or maybe it just resonates with me and I, I appreciate it and gravitate towards it but.
The acknowledgement from an organization that if you are hiring predominantly in a life stage where someone is potentially in their first or second career stop and they have potentially never been introduced to work policies and work policies that could result in you going from employee to customer.
I always love that phrase.
I think acknowledging that and understanding it will go a long way in helping a business maybe stop shaking its fist at the sky to say, ‘why can’t we just find good talent?’
I’ve also, kind of, tried to blend this idea into some of the ways in which we approach our current position in the workforce and that is – that from a convenience store perspective, I think there’s a fair amount of strategy and opportunity that can be achieved or garnered by leaning into the idea that oftentimes it’s not viewed as a 15-year career when working at a convenience store, from the vast majority of the individuals who are applying for a job at a convenience store, they may be looking at it like I mentioned before, as just bridging two different career stops, and I think accepting that is a tremendous opportunity for leaders within the convenience store business because it allows so much ability to first off, acknowledge the fact that some level of turnover is good and that we are going to thrive with a higher level of turnover than then really any other business leader that we speak to is going to deal with.
But the opportunity there is the amount of ideas that could come out from potentially new talent coming in the door. I think one of Disney, one of Disney’s biggest successes, is the way in which it embraces ideas at every level of the organization. If a cast member is brand new and they’re coming in from the college program, and they look at their leader for the day and they say, you know, have we ever thought about doing it this way?
Those kinds of ideas have led to massive operational shifts for the better- property wide – and I think providing leadership within the convenience store that freedom to listen to any idea from anywhere and then if it has value, promote it and install it top to bottom.
There’s a blessing or an opportunity in a higher level of turnover that that brings something like that, and it also allows you the ability to edit your training experience from the beginning to really ask yourself, does this training add value, does it convey the message or the nugget of learning that we want this particular employee to achieve in their learning journey?
And if it doesn’t, let’s get rid of it and shorten the training experience and give them exactly what they need to know, along with installing a culture.
I think there’s a lot of freedom in acknowledging what a convenience store career is and how it can be beneficial to both the workforce as well as the leadership in leaning into the way in which the job market perceives a job at a convenience store, and I say that from the most positive of perspectives, it can be a benefit to both the employee and the employer.
So now we’re getting to our big finish and before we do just to amplify something you said earlier …
Are there fireworks?
Um, there could be. Um, did you bring them? I got the lighter…
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s do that!
OK, will do that, but going back to your earlier point in talking about your people… you have to, kind of, some people it’s a career; some people it’s not, some people it becomes a career. I had a friend like in my mid 20s and he’d asked me so many times like what’s your five-year plan and it’s like…um… ‘Is it OK that I don’t have one because I’m focused on what’s going to happen this weekend and that’s about it?’ And, I think that’s most people’s mindsets just kind of to be where they are, but I wanted to end with a maybe a fun question, um, you talked a little bit about earlier about how at Disney there was an example of a cast member would do something and it would pay off massive dividends to the company.
At some point when a new idea comes into play, can you share an example from your new space where you just were blown away by either hearing a story or seeing what some person can do under the right conditions that just makes your company so much better by either a simple action or a simple idea that took it well beyond where general expectations are.
The South recently went through a winter, snowmageddon is what we’ve been referring to it here, from Mississippi.
This kind of weather is, you know, once every 50 years and top to bottom all across our company I have been on the phone with district leaders and store managers from everywhere who have shared stories of people swinging by other people’s houses to pick them up so they could come into the store.
Because we all know that in these times people look to convenience stores to always be open and during a disaster convenience stores are typically the first organization to resume operation.
I know the same was said when Mississippi received hurricanes as well as tornadoes, it’s the convenience stores that people look to provide fuel for vehicles and fuel for people.
And the stories, I think oftentimes, it would be in our nature to talk about a business process that really saves tremendous amounts of money.
But if we keep within this theme of empathy that we’re talking about from an employee perspective, we’ve seen more of that in four days assisting people dig out of their houses and maybe show up for a shift at a Sprint Mart location.
And we’ve seen more of that than, goodness, we’ve seen in years prior and that’s not a knock against the way we behave prior to disaster, but the stories of our leadership and our employees going above and beyond over the course of the last four days have become an inspiration to every employee at every level as we continue to communicate out the people who are working so diligently to provide somewhat of a retreat, maybe, from the challenges that are taking place at home be unideal weather, or just trying to get out of the driveway, they find themselves taking, uh, you know, exhaling when they finally get to work like ‘OK, I can put all that beside or behind me while I treat customers’ to a little bit of normalcy throughout what we’re dealing with and it would just simply be those simple stories of people working to care for both their fellow employee and the customer in a time that the remainder of at least our communities are closed, as it’s just not the safest thing in the world to be out on the roads right now, so that’s a long winded way of saying the empathy and the people approach to what our leadership in what are our employees are doing right now to try and assist the communities in which they serve is a perfect example of trying to get what you were speaking about earlier, right.
Well, our job is communications and in one quick suggestion when things get a little lighter on the workload, tell these stories.
Put them on Facebook. Film videos.
I think it will motivate your teams.
It will excite your customers.
You’ll remember how amazing things can be when things are at their worst and that goes for three quarters of the country that’s going through bad weather right now or various other things. So that’s a great way to end on just the joy that we can bring in tough times and the joy that we can bring every day. And it’s when you manage HR and get great people and have them to do great things.
So thank you for joining us today and Chris, we see you oftentimes at NACS events, and the NACS HR Circle and Human Resources Forum and other events and we hope to see you live and in-person soon or virtually otherwise.
Until then, thank you for joining us today.
And thank you all for listening to Convenience Matters!
27:29 Closing [music]
Convenience Matters is brought to you by NACS and produced in partnership with human factor. For more information visit convenience.org.