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Tuesday 21 May 2019

The mighty Quinn taught us how to crown customers

Superquinn's legendary founder left a vast legacy for businesses in Ireland - with listening to customers at the top of the list

Feargal Quinn was famous for engaging with focus groups to gauge customer feedback. Photo: Martin Maher
Feargal Quinn was famous for engaging with focus groups to gauge customer feedback. Photo: Martin Maher

Alan O'Neill

Alan O'Neill, author of Premium is the New Black is Managing Director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to

The 'mighty' Feargal Quinn passed away last week and I'm sure it will be a big loss to his family. For the rest of us, he has left an extraordinary legacy on Irish business life.

Although there are many who were closer to him and are better qualified to write about his legacy, I want to share my thoughts on what I believe are some of his key attributes. And there are lessons here for all of us.

He was particularly known for 'crowning the customer', and I too believe that customer service is an essential ingredient for success for any business, whether it's B2C or B2B.

This is an age-old concept, yet we don't all do it.

As businesses are less able to differentiate themselves on product alone, I'm convinced that customer experience has become the new battleground for all businesses.

When the business was led by Feargal Quinn, you could say that Superquinn "owned" customer service in Ireland. This was its niche.

How did it do it? Today, I'd like to share what I have observed in Feargal's great legacy.

I'll firstly summarise a key belief that he role-modelled and expounded. It's the employee/customer value chain: employee engagement - customer satisfaction - customer retention - business results.

Successful companies that achieve extraordinary results have high levels of customer retention. Feargal called it the 'boomerang principle'. Customers will come back if they are satisfied after having had a great experience.

And the biggest driver of customer satisfaction is your own people. If you have high levels of employee engagement and your people are motivated, they will give great service.

Now I'll explore how Feargal and Superquinn achieved this and sustained it consistently every day, in every store.

Focus on culture

In order to deliver great service consistently, a customer-centric culture is essential.

That means putting the customer at the heart of all strategies, changes and decision-making. The opposite is where organisations get totally wrapped up in their own internal shenanigans, such as managing costs, developing new products, driving efficiencies and so on.

But if those changes are made without due consideration for their impact on the customer, then your organisation becomes too inward-looking.

Prioritise your own people

On various radio programmes over the last few days, I listened to ex-Superquinn employees talking about how great it was to work there.

One made the point that if you shout at or otherwise treat your employees badly, then how can you expect them to then turn around and treat your customers with a positive attitude?

And, of course, it's even more than that.

By focusing on all elements of the HR mix, such as recruitment, training, communications and care, you will secure better employee engagement.


Superquinn was exceptionally original in introducing new customer-focused concepts.

Constantly raising the bar with new initiatives for customer service, it was the first to introduce a loyalty card, umbrellas to the car, in-house bakeries and self-checkout. Just like customer-centricity, innovation is enabled by organisational culture.

To not innovate is to keep doing things the way you've always done them.

If you also agree that the rate of change today is multiple times faster than even when Superquinn was in its prime, then procrastinating will hold you back.

Listen to your customers

You may remember the RTE1 programme Retail Therapy. Each week, Feargal visited a retailer to do a makeover. A core element of the programme format was Feargal consulting with customers.

In the Superquinn days, he was famous for engaging with focus groups to gauge customer feedback.

Removing sweets at the checkouts was a brave initiative that came from that forum.

By listening to customers in a structured way, you too can learn so much about your own business.

Lead from the front

Everyone knows that Feargal was a gentleman. He was charismatic, friendly and respectful.

He had a reputation for spending time on the shop floor, meeting and greeting customers and his own teams. By ensuring the store managers' offices were tiny, he encouraged them to similarly lead from the front and be on the shop floor.

That is where leaders act as role models and 'generate followership' in their teams.

The last word

I had the pleasure of meeting Feargal on a number of occasions. The first time was when, as a 24-year-old, I had a shop attached to his store in Kimmage. He came in to my shop one day to buy something and to wish me well.

Some 15 years later, when I changed career, I had the privilege of training some Superquinn managers and buyers. As the years rolled on, I emulated his mantra of putting the customer at the heart of all decision making.

That led me more recently to write my first book, Premium is the New Black. I asked Feargal for a comment, and after reading a first draft, he gave me a quote. It is proudly included on the front cover.

If you can take one thing from his business legacy, try 'crowning your customers'.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam

Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black is Managing Director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to

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