The Sledgehammer

Talking Turkey: Butterball’s Customer Service Secret

November 17, 2020

Have you ever enjoyed your Thanksgiving dinner while sitting in a desk chair?

We have.

And no, this isn’t a sob story about working on Turkey Day; rather, the desk chair was needed because there were more guests than there were dining room chairs. So, when all the solid wood Windsors were claimed, we scored the swivel seat from Staples.

But that random recollection probably won’t repeat itself this year as Americans will likely be participating in much smaller Thanksgiving celebrations. Whether due to a desire to social distance or avoid risky long-distance travel, many dining room tables will be a bit less crowded. And this celebration scattering will likely yield… a flood of first-time turkey tacklers.

But Butterball—the largest turkey company in the US—is armed and ready to help these clueless cooks via their Turkey Talk-Line.

This customer service offering is not a new side dish for the brand. Each November and December since 1981, fifty or so Butterball experts have been on call to guide as many as 100,000 nervous cooks through their Thanksgiving meal prep. Along the way, the Talk-Line has become an institution. Competitors and other food-minded companies have copied it, and the Talk-Line has even achieved the ultimate name-drops: in an episode of the The West Wing, in which President Bartlet calls the Butterball hotline to settle a debate on how best to cook stuffing, and in a series of Stephen Colbert-led pranks on The Late Show.

Even though the Talk-Line took shape as a marketing ploy to sell more turkeys, the truly helpful service has yielded a feast of deeper connections with Butterball’s current and prospective customers. How?


Real Experts, Not Salespeople

When you send out the Butterball “bat signal,” you can rest assured that the superhero coming to save you is a trained professional. Every Butterball expert is truly that—they all have culinary backgrounds, including registered dietitians, chefs, culinary professors, and food stylists. Many have been doing this for over a decade and any newbies must receive schooling from “Butterball University.” Callers aren’t connecting with someone focused on selling Butterball turkeys or a random operator who is “winging it.” They’re getting trained individuals whose motivation rests in making turkeys the best tasting they can be.

🦃 Turkey Takeaway: Is your field force approaching their physicians with a service mentality or a sales mentality? Are you too fixated on the closing message when it comes to speaking to patients? Or are you creating trust by offering to help these audiences solve their most immediate needs?

Personalized Support

In addition to the more prevalent questions about prepping the bird (thawing, cook time, basting), home cooks who call in have also demonstrated a desire to ask for more personalized guidance. After all, they have a real person on the line and sometimes the holidays can be complicated! For example:

“The family dog is inside the turkey and can’t get out.” (The chihuahua was safely extracted.)
“I have guests coming from the Bahamas—do you have any suggestions for how to make a turkey more tropical?” (Place pieces of aluminum foil over strategic spots on the bird and let the exposed skin “tan” in the oven.)

Point is—the experts go above and beyond to help cooks with whatever challenges they face. Similar to a Zappos-style customer service, this anything-goes support has earned the Talk-Line its top reputation.

🦃 Turkey Takeaway: Is your customer service full of canned comebacks and rote rerouting to other information? Is there a way to make guidance more personalized and human, particularly when helping someone who really needs your support?

Constantly Optimizing

The Talk-Line service started small—a phone bank staffed by six home economists armed with 3-ring binders. However, the ways to reach the Butterball experts have evolved to match their audience and its preferences. Today there are a myriad of ways to reach the hotline—phone, email, text messaging, online chat sessions, social media support, and even an Alexa voice-activated skill. The Alexa integration was made possible by all the data and learnings that Butterball has collected after nearly 40 years—a wealth of info that allowed them to pre-record real experts responding to all the most common questions. They have also worked to keep up with the latest culinary trends, arming themselves with info around Instant Pots and sous vide methods in order to support more ambitious endeavors. Finally, the Talk-Line has recently begun offering what Butterball calls “an expert for everyone.” The experts have expanded beyond the typical Midwestern-grandma stereotype to connect their diverse callers with Spanish-speaking experts and male experts.

🦃 Turkey Takeaway: The content of your guidance and support can be spot on, but if it’s not delivered according to customer preferences, then engagement may never get off the ground.

Butterball isn’t the only company that has made customer service a cornerstone of their success. The aforementioned Zappos centers itself around customer happiness vs shoe sales. Apple’s Genius Bar has helped millions of customers through their tech trials and tribulations, clearing the path for both new users and ongoing loyalty. And a different type of poultry purveyor, Chick-fil-A, is known for their pleasant and helpful employees who have been charged with the mission “to inspire people to take care of one another.” The company’s current marketing plan, The Little Things, is even centered around the bonds that have been formed between servers and customers over small encounters at the restaurant.

Much like there is no shortcut to thawing a turkey (Butterball experts cite callers who have tried an electric blanket and throwing it in with a toddler during bath time), there is no shortcut to developing excellent service and support. Instead, it’s superb support that can be a shortcut to the type of brand success that not even years of marketing campaigns could achieve. And, in a year where we could all use some reassuring words from a Midwestern grandma, there is no better time than now to reconsider how customer service and support fit into your brand strategy.

Wishing you a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. And in case you need it, the Turkey Talk-Line is 1-800-BUTTERBALL.

At any given time, there are 200+ actual sledgehammers present in the Heartbeat office. To celebrate their first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge—a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you.