Running a KFC empire is about more than fast food

As KFC Africa expands across the continent, it focuses on the customer experience as much as it does on the chicken it serves. Andrew Gillingham spoke to Doug Smart, CEO of KFC Africa.

KFC’s ability to understand and service its market is amply illustrated by the fact that the international company has been operating successfully in South Africa for 45 years while expanding across the African continent and attracting loyal customers.

Doug Smart, CEO of KFC Africa, says service is crucial. It is the centrepiece of KFC’s role in the fast-moving consumer goods industry.

“Although people might come to us for some chicken and satisfy their hunger, they expect the whole KFC experience,” he says. “In our industry, the two elements that influence that [customer] experience the most are hospitality and speed.”

“We have the best product but if we do not provide it with hospitality and speed, it becomes a terrible experience for our customer.”

While KFC is in the fast-food market, it has found that hospitality surpasses speed in determining the value of customer experience.

“Before the functional aspects of speed, people want to be respected and treated like individual human beings,” says Smart. “In our business, if you are served by an amazing customer service representative who is cheerful and helpful and brings a smile to your face, you may not notice the speed at which your meal is prepared. Someone has just connected with you. That is what we are looking for in our brand.”

KFC’s goal of achieving terrific hospitality and speed while connecting with every customer is complicated by the fact that many of the company’s stores are owner-operated by franchisees.

“This is the most significant execution challenge in our business,” says Smart. “We own and operate 92 of our stores in South Africa. Distributing the values and executions across 850 company and franchise stores in this country to achieve the same standards is extremely difficult.

“However, it is less about who owns the store and more about who takes ownership of the store and its customers. It is all on the shoulders of the leader [the restaurant’s general manager] in each store. Where we have a great general manager, we have a great store with great people delivering great customer service.”

Smart is one of his own best customers, dining out on KFC several times a week.

“It is essential as a CEO to be your own customer,” he says, “and for us, it is very much a part of putting customers front and centre in everything we do. Always look at your business through the eyes of your customers, not through the eyes of an operator.”

Given the continental size of Smart’s territory, the pressure and stress that he faces as a CEO are significant. However, his job serves as one of his main motivators.

“Working in business is intellectually stimulating and things are happening all the time,” he says.

“When I wake up in the morning there are a number of tasks I know I will be tackling, but there are also a bunch of challenges and opportunities that I did not know would come across my desk. This makes it very interesting for me.”

He stresses that he loves his role as CEO. The opportunity it affords him to watch people grow and take a hand in their individual development is one of the rewards of the job.

“People never cease to amaze me with what they are able to achieve, often within a relatively short space of time,” Smart says. “As a CEO, developing people is a core passion of mine.”

And for relaxation? Well, he is the mountain biker who just whisked past the traffic heading for one of Johannesburg’s lesser-known bike trails – often completing a 35km route before breakfast.

Smart was a participant in the Odgers Berndtson 2016 CEOx1Day Programme.