Hey, KFC — Treat your Employees Better and Your Customers Will Stop Hating You

KFC Chicken sandwich billboard on Wendy’s property

It all started when this billboard popped up in our neighborhood. I had to laugh out loud at the placement. The first time we drove past it, I said to my husband, “That’s what happens when you don’t read the billboard company’s fine print.” Wendy’s probably thought having a billboard on the property was a good way to make a little extra cash. Oops.

A little investigating revealed that KFC did this at three locations in the country — in front of the Wendy’s by our house, at a McDonald’s in Manhattan and a Burger King in Miami. Smart marketing.

And, it got us, as serious fans of the Popeye’s chicken sandwich (ohmigod — so good!!), wondering if maybe any of the other chicken sandwiches come close. Notice — KFC didn’t put one of their big hairy billboards in front of any Popeye’s restaurants.

So we planned a fun day. It would be a grand taste test of all the fried chicken sandwiches available from the fast food joints in our area. Shake Shack was ruled out for being more bougie than fast food, but the others (in the order we chose to taste them, spread throughout the day) were: McDonalds, Wendy’s, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Arby’s, Carl’s Jr., Church’s, saving the two with the best chance of coming close to Popeye’s for last— Jollibee (a Los Angeles joint) and KFC, based on the picture on the billboard.

I’m not writing this to slag on any of the places we tried. This was a personal taste test for a focus group of two.

(Okay, a little slagging, because Jack in the Box was so bad…they sent us home with a totally wrong order. As in — no chicken sandwich at all. And when we went back 30 minutes later, they tried to give us the bag of food that had just been returned by the person who was given our order, which we saw happen, and then the manager refused to speak to my husband about it, leaving it to the hapless cook to agree to make fresh food to replace what had been ordered half an hour earlier.)

Other than Jack in the Box, it had been a really fun day up to that point!

(But if the Jack in the Box leadership team is watching, your customer service is truly horrendous — like, this post might have been about you if KFC wasn’t determined to say, “Bad customer service? Hold my beer…”)

…but back to the super-fun-chicken-sandwich-taste-test-day…

It was designed to end with Jollibee as the penultimate and, because it was both on the billboard and on the way home, KFC.

After Jollibee, we drove to the KFC at 8800 Sepulveda Blvd. The website said they were open until 10:00 pm. We pulled into the parking lot at 9:03. Someone saw us pull in and flashed the lights off once, then back on. I checked my phone again — yep, open until 10.

So I hopped out of the car, went to the front door and when I tried to open it, nearly wrenched my shoulder out of socket. There was a massive chain with a padlock keeping it locked from the inside. I could see the two young women working in there, with no customers, but this was so jarring that I wanted to make sure they were okay. Literally, I was worried a crime was taking place.

I tried the door again, and it rattled the chain, but no one even turned around. At this point, I guessed they were not in danger, so left. It was 9:05 when I got back in the car and told my husband that we’d have to go to the other KFC on the way home. At this point, the Jollibee chicken sandwich was getting less fresh by the minute (and yet it still kicked everyone else’s chicken sandwich butt during taste-test day…just sayin’).

So we went to the KFC location at 8644 Balboa Blvd. Walked in at 9:12. The woman in front of me took a while to order, and I was the only other person there, but as soon as she finished, the cashier walked to the back and started talking to the other employee there. He glanced up and saw me standing at the register, so pretended to start putting together her order. After literally picking up and carrying the sides the other guy prepared all of one foot to put them in boxes, I finally said, “I’d like to order.” He said he’d be right with me and went back to his conversation.

At 9:17 (I looked at my phone) he came to the front. I had walked in a full five minutes earlier and there was ONE person in front of me. He looked up and said nothing, apparently waiting for me to start the dance.

“Classic Crispy Chicken sandwich, please.”

“We don’t have those right now.”

“You mean, you’re out of them or none are prepared?”

“We’re about to close.”

“You aren’t closing for 45 minutes.”

At this point, he walked back to the other guy, which is when I noticed the third man — the one mopping the floor in back, who had clearly finished the area around the fryer already. The cashier said something to the one putting the other customer’s order together and he made a face, looked at the fryer and shook his head.

The cashier came back and said, “We don’t have any.”

“What does that mean? You aren’t willing to cook one? Even if I wait?”

“We don’t have any because of Covid.”

I’ll spare you the rest of this idiotic conversation, but it involved two more lies, an attempt to get me to buy a “sandwich” made of two chicken tenders on a bun, and my departure, sans the chicken sandwich whose billboard launched the whole excursion.

How many millions of dollars are you spending on those ads trying to get people to try this sandwich, KFC?

My original plan was to share a smidgen of these details with KFC on their Facebook page, but after seeing the hundreds of comments about experiences identical to mine, it made more sense to air it all out on Medium, rather than get one of their insincere: “We would like to look into this. Please send us a private message” replies, which — if posters on that page are to be believed, go nowhere and just get ignored.

(Not kidding about the experiences identical to mine. This comment was posted exactly five minutes before I logged on:
KFC Ave. Piñeiro San Juan Puerto Rico is closing an hour earlier than supposed to (9 pm instead of 10 pm) employees were inside but refused to take the order-said they were closed at 9pm because of the curfew-that doesn’t start until 10pm. They just don’t want to do their job.)

The slogan on the billboard that started it all was, “We Make the Chicken Sandwiches Around Here.”

Clearly, you don’t.

Maybe that’s KFC’s master plan — you can’t compare their chicken sandwich to anyone else’s because you can’t get one, so you’ll just have to take their word for it. Although there’s something in that business model that doesn’t seem to work, if only I could put my finger on it...

Not getting the last sandwich on our list didn’t diminish our fun day, especially since we ended it with the Jollibee sandwich, which still didn’t knock Popeye’s out of the top spot, but did wash away the bad taste left by KFC’s service.

But in writing this, I need to make one thing as clear as possible to Yum! Brands (corporate parent of KFC) —

This is ALL YOUR FAULT.

Not the employees or the franchise owners, but you and your executive leadership team.

All culture comes from the top down. Miserable customer service is the result of miserable employees, which are the result of miserable, poorly trained managers with atrocious priorities. No customer ever has an experience like this at In-N-Out or Chick-Fil-A (which I know is problematic for other reasons, but damn those kids who work there are happy!) Maybe only fast food places with dashes in the name treat their employees well.

As a Happiness Expert (yep, that’s actually what I do for a living…), I can promise you that there are very, very easy ways to start getting this right, that cost next to nothing and will show up in your bottom line in a matter of months, not years.

But you have to make it your top priority. Literally, freeze all other research, development and marketing and pour your resources into creating a happy workforce. Doing that will save you millions across more than a dozen unique metrics, including absenteeism, turnover, workers comp claims, workplace accidents, and several others. (Hey, how’s that shrinkage problem? Guess what — happy employees don’t steal nearly as much, nor do they “accidentally” leave 50-pound sacks of nuggets out of the freezer overnight).

This is your chance to return to profitability across all brands, and it will make customers not only want to come to your stores, but stop going on Facebook and other sites (like Medium) just to tell you how awful you are.

And it will just make your restaurants more pleasant places to be.

Won’t that be a breath of fresh air and a welcome change?

It’ll be almost as tasty as Popeye’s chicken sandwich.

Valerie Alexander is a renowned expert on happiness and inclusion. She is a globally-recognized speaker on the topics of happiness in the workplace, the advancement of women, and unconscious bias, and her TED Talk, “How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious Bias” has been viewed over 375,000 times.

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