KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Professional truck drivers are a promiscuous bunch when it comes to brand loyalty. They go where the best deal is. Pilot Flying J is working on several fronts to ensure that the chain’s travel centers are where they choose to go time after time.
Core pillars in Pilot Flying J’s current growth strategy include:
Investment in its people;
Guest experience; and
Diversifying its businesses.
While the climate in the travel center industry these days is good, according to Pilot Flying J’s Chief Merchant Brian Ferguson, there are some challenges facing all operators, such as declining customer counts, mile-per-gallon improvements in trucks and cars, a tight labor market and the rapid expansion of distribution in the United States, which is bringing everything closer together and, in turn, means truckers don’t have to travel as far to deliver their goods.
“To compete in this environment, we want to have a tremendous store experience. We want to have a tremendous digital experience. We want to have a tremendous food offering, and a tremendous retail offering,” Ferguson told Convenience Store News.
In its new television commercials, which began airing last year, Pilot Flying J focuses on the hospitality that customers can find at its more than 750 travel centers in the U.S. and Canada. The “Welcome to Pilot” campaign shows a smiling team member who greets you at the door and is ready to help; who can get you through the travel center quickly; who can point out great food and beverages along the way; and who can get you checked out fast and thank you on your way out.
Hospitality is about identifying what each guest needs, almost instantaneously — and it’s a big part of what the retailer believes can differentiate its locations from its competitors, explained Shannon Johnson, vice president of food innovation at Pilot Flying J.
Delivering hospitality, though, requires capable and engaged team members. Thus, Pilot Flying J has been investing in its people skills, from recruiting to training to retention.
Along with strong initial training and progressive training that continues throughout one’s career, the company is also in the midst of a multi-year project with Disney that is focused on creating a high-performance culture throughout the organization.
Another aspect of taking care of its team members is making their role in helping the guests as frictionless as possible, noted Johnson. This means simplifying processes. If a team member finds that it’s difficult to do the things they’re being asking to do, they’ll just go somewhere else to work, he acknowledged, pointing to the tight labor market.
“We’re distinguishing ourselves in the competitive set by how we treat our team members. This is a very competitive labor environment and if we don’t start with how we take care of our team members, we will never get to a differentiated guest experience,” Johnson added.
Making Life Easier for Drivers
Hospitality is at the heart of Pilot Flying J’s digital strategy, too.
Because they spend so much time on the road and away from home, professional truck drivers are heavy digital users. Their phones are “really their whole life in their hands,” Ferguson commented, noting that it’s how they conduct business and how they stay connected to home.
For this reason, Pilot Flying J is putting a lot of resources toward making its myPilot mobile app the best it can be. Guests can find free myOffers every day. They can reserve on-site parking through the app. They can reserve a shower and then receive notification when it is ready. They can do mobile fueling. The retailer is also allowing trucking industry companies to integrate their own apps into the myPilot mobile app so that drivers only have to go to one place to conduct business.
“It’s all about the ‘Get Mes.’ Get me fuel, get me a shower, get me food,” said Mike Rodgers, chief strategy and information officer, noting that the plan is to continue adding more and more utilities to the app to increase its “stickiness” among the driver community. “…The better the offer we have, the better the experience we have, the more ease of interaction we have, we can win.”
These days, the leadership team at Pilot Flying J is thinking more long-term about what the brand and its locations can be, rather than just thinking incrementally. This change is just one of the positive benefits that have materialized since Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. acquired a 38.6-percent equity stake in Pilot Flying J in late 2017.
“We can take bolder steps going forward,” said Johnson.
The retailer recently underwent a restructuring that eliminated some positions. The measure was not a cost-cutting measure, but rather a realigning of resources around the core pillars, according to Ferguson. The company has since hired more people than were laid off in the restructuring.
“We’re a growth company. We have a lot of growth happening. We had to pause and ask: Do we have the right people in the right spots for all the growth initiatives we’ve set out?” Ferguson explained. “It was a level-setting to make sure we’re set up to be successful.”