In an issue devoted to empathy, you might be surprised to see Chick-fil-A in the headline. After all, it was just six years ago that the founders incurred wrath from liberal fans for their staunch Christian beliefs and disavowal of gay marriage.
But that was six years ago, and Chick-fil-A sings (clucks?) a very different tune these days.
The company has always encouraged franchisees to delve into their local communities. In the past, that delving was primarily in the form of involvement with local churches. The passion Chick-fil-A regulars have for the chain comes in large part from that community and church development.
That cultivation of community started to expand beyond the church a few years ago. In 2016, for example, Chick-fil-A remodeled their corporate headquarters, replacing cubicles with open, collaborative rooms. They added an innovation center to test new recipes that appeal to a broader customer base. They began to encourage franchisees to expand into the community (beyond their church) and to be cognizant of any ways they might be excluding anyone based on gender, race, religion, or sexuality. Chick-fil-A has quickly turned its reputation into one of inclusivity.
But even before these tangible evolutions of a more connected company, Chick-fil-A was investing in consumer research to find out what they truly wanted—and how they were uniquely qualified to deliver it.
The results of that research are now long-standing facets of Chick-fil-A, including family-centric events like Daddy Daughter Date Night and Stuffed Animal Sleepovers (in which kids drop off their favorite stuffed animals for a fun “sleepover” at the restaurant). Such events tug at the heartstrings of customers—and the savvy puppeteers know exactly what they’re doing. Extensive research led to the development of these programs, as well as others that appeal to other age groups—like Fifth Quarter for high schoolers on their way home from the big game. Each franchisee can curate their own events to appeal specifically to their own local community.
Though it’s intentional, it’s not necessarily fraudulent. These small business owners are just that; they’re not moving cogs in the big machine, they’re kind-hearted pillars of their own community (or at least Chick-fil-A marketing does a really, really good job at making them seem that way). They attend the events and snap smiling photos of customers. The customers have a good time and feel supported; the restaurant makes money; everyone’s happy.
Beyond the events, Chick-fil-A is empathic in their support of their local communities. The company really does give back: honoring and giving to service members and veterans and funding community projects like styrofoam park benches. It’s not a facade; generosity and connection are true tenets of the company.
And perhaps that’s one of the truest keys to empathy in business: honesty and genuine connection. Does Chick-fil-A make money off these ventures? Absolutely. But is their involvement in the community also real? Again, absolutely. You can’t fake kindness or generosity.
So what does that mean for your business? Take a cue from Chick-fil-A and start at the bottom: research. Take the time and resources to find out what your community, specifically your customer base, actually wants. That might mean employing a consulting firm, but the expense will be worth it so you can discover the true wants in order to truly satisfy them.
Beyond the research: do. Give back to a local organization you care about. Host family-centric events. Be open with your customers. Be willing to change (goodness know, Chick-fil-A has). Perhaps put profits aside for a moment and consider your impact on your community. Connect, and you might be surprised by how you grow.