Win the Hearts of Your Customers
In August 2011, Philadelphia magazine described a burly, 300-pound, 24-year-old man named Jeremy Plauche, getting the logo of a convenience store called Wawa tattooed on his inner biceps. Plauche, according to the magazine, works night shifts for the rescue squad in Millville, NJ, but is originally from Louisiana. “I tried to explain to my friends there what Wawa was and what it means to people who live up here… and they kind of didn’t believe me,” Plauche tells the magazine. “Wawa is part of our culture. It’s part of our way of life.”
From the couples who marry at the Wawa where they met to the Facebook group People Who Miss Wawa, consisting of former Wawa customers who have left the chain’s service area (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and now Florida), Wawa is indeed a way of life for its fans. How does a regional convenience store elicit such devotion from its customers and even its employees (like those who kept a store on Long Beach Island open during much of Superstorm Sandy even though some had had their houses washed out to sea)? The history and principles of Wawa, as presented by former Wawa CEO Howard Stoeckel in a new book, The Wawa Way, can offer lessons for any business seeking to engender fanatic customer and employee loyalty.
Private and Shared Ownership
One key to Wawa’s success, according to Stoeckel, is its unique ownership structure. Nearly 40 percent of the company is owned by the Employee Stock Option Plan (ESOP), with the rest owned by Wood family members. The shared ownership with Wawa “associates” motivates all employees to make the stores a success, Stoeckel writes. Perhaps even more important, Wawa does not face the short-term pressures of a public company. “We’re not making decisions, as a lot of companies do, based on what Wall Street analysts or minority investors will think,” Stoeckel writes. “We’re making decisions based on the best long-term interests of the business.” One example are the concrete posts in front of every store to prevent customers parked in front of the store from accidentally plowing into the store (as happened a number of times). Deciding to put the posts in front of every single store “was hard to justify in terms of return on investment, but in terms of living our values and protecting people, it was the right thing to do.”
The Six Core Values
The true secret to Wawa’s success, however, is that it lives its six core values, Stoeckel writes. The ESOP and concrete barriers are just two examples of Wawa’s core value of “valuing people.” Stoeckel also recounts numerous stories of how associates “delight customers,” from bringing a Thanksgiving dinner to a wheelchair-bound customer who would be alone for the holiday, to lending a $200 coffee pot to a customer when the store ran out of coffee-to-go boxes (the customer cared for an invalid spouse and usually bought a coffee-to-go box every morning). The Wawa Way is also filled with examples of how the company follows its remaining four core values: “embrace change,” such as the decision to add fuel to its business model; “do things right,” “do the right thing,” and “have a passion for winning.”
Any company will have ups and downs, and Stoeckel is candid about some mistakes the company has made — including a poorly thought-out strategy for adding fuel to the mix in the 1980s and some questionable products. Wawa continues to excite the passion of its customers, however, because as it moves through different strategies and decisions, it continues to remain true to its core values and traditions. This is a manual on delighting customers.
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