Why I Love...Panera Bread

I've been a Panera Bread fan since they came to town in 2004, long before I was meeting clients regularly in their perpetually busy storefronts. These days, I go to Panera  two or  three times a week to meet up with colleagues and clients, taking advantage of  easy-to-access  spacious booths,  free wi-fi, hot coffee, delicious pastries and healthy, well-priced salads, soups and sandwiches.

A St. Louis based company started in 1981, Panera gets it right on so many levels that it is no wonder they made Business Week’s 2010 list of top 25 “Customer Service Champs". But what makes me a raving fan is the Panera Rewards program.

Panera has the easiest, least annoying customer rewards program on the planet. (Disclaimer: I am a total crank about rewards and coupon offers that make you jump through hoops to get a 'deal'. Make it simple, or forget about it.)  Here's how it works:  sign up on-line, show your card when you buy and get free stuff.  That's it. And if you don't have your card, they look it up for you so you get credit for purchases every time you buy. They tell you when you have earned free stuff and tell you when the offer expires.  I don't have to keep track of paper coupons, % off amounts, bonus limits, anything. All I can say is 'aaaahhhhh!"

So why aren't other companies following that model? The E-A-S-Y model, in case you weren't catching my drift. I recognize that not all products can be offered for free as easily as a $1.80 cup of coffee or $2.75 Cobblestone Sweet Roll. But the concept is still valid - make your customers love you by making it easy to love you. Sending me a birthday e-mail for a free pastry is a smart and simple example of growing the love -  thanks, Panera!

From a marketing perspective, the take away is Panera makes a positive impression by being remarkable outside of the direct sales process. They provide simple, easy incentives to stimulate  frequent purchasing. They looked at rewards programs from the  customers' perspective and streamlined the process. No hoops to jump through. No coupons to remember. Lots of places have good bread and pastries but no one is rewarding frequent buying quite as simply as Panera. That's enough to bring me back again and again.

One final story. In yet another brilliant example of customer service focus, Panera  impressed a client group I met with recently by showing up unannounced with free cookie packs and catering menus for each person in the group. Panera employees were obviously paying attention, realizing we were in a business meeting and made a point to connect in hopes of gaining our business in the future.  Very smart. Very easy. I'll be back for my free pastry very soon.