CX Insight Magazine

April 2023

How Panera Bread Is Making Personal Connections and Eliminating Barriers to Exceed Guests’ Expectations

KIA Online Community Member Spotlight: Cindy Oberkirsch


Cindy Oberkirsch, Director of Guest Care for Panera Bread


Cindy has spent her entire career in the Contact Center industry. Her 30 years of Contact Center experience from Customer Service Representative to Director has enabled her to gain significant leadership experience and build a track record of driving results. As the Director of Guest Care for Panera Bread, she is focused on building strategic partnerships across the organization to drive operational efficiencies and create better agent and guest experiences alike. Execs In The Know recently caught up with Cindy to talk about her passion for helping customers, why ‘Panera Warmth’ is at the heart of everything the bakery-café chain does, the elements of customer experience that matter most to guests, and the philosophy and culture of Panera Bread as it applies to CX.


EXECS IN THE KNOW (EITK): What initially drew you into the Guest Care space, and what keeps you passionate when it comes to helping customers?

CINDY OBERKIRSCH: My first job right out of college was as a customer service representative. I wouldn’t have imagined at the time that 30 years later I would still be working in the contact center space. Throughout my career, I’ve always found myself coming back to the contact center and/or customer experience roles.

Working in a contact center is not for everyone. Customer Service Representatives have a tough job and while there is satisfaction in resolving guests’ issues, front-line agents handle a lot of guests that can’t always be made happy.

I am extremely passionate about removing barriers for our agents and enabling them to provide a warm and positive guest experience that will keep our guests coming back.

In Guest Care, we get to make things right! There’s nothing more satisfying than turning a negative guest experience into a positive one and having a happy guest thanking us by the end of the call!

Panera Bread muffins and refreshmentsEXECS IN THE KNOW (EITK): When creating memorable customer experiences, no detail is too small. In what ways does Panera Bread seek to “wow” its customers?

CINDY: At Panera Bread, we strive to ensure every guest has a great experience.

Warmth For Guests is one of our guiding values and behaviors which consists of anticipating guests’ needs, making personal connections, eliminating barriers to exceed guests’ expectations, and when things go wrong, acting urgently to resolve the issue.

‘Panera Warmth’ is at the heart of everything we do. In the Cafes, we are focused on WARM (Welcoming, Attentive, Relaxing, and Memorable) Hospitality. Guests enjoy frequenting our cafes because of our commitment to WARM hospitality and the family-like atmosphere.

EXECS IN THE KNOW (EITK): What elements of the restaurant customer experience matter most to your guests?

CINDY: Panera Bread opened with a belief that sharing great bread is an expression of warmth and generosity, and we extend that WARM hospitality to every guest.

We have many ‘regulars’ that frequent the same cafes every day, and many that use our cafes as their ‘office’ for the day so it’s important that our guests feel at home when they visit like it’s their second home, and that’s why we treat them like family.

At Panera, we serve food that is made with responsibly raised proteins and freshly prepared with clean ingredients — it is food that we are proud to serve our own families and one of the many reasons our guests feel good about eating at Panera.

EXECS IN THE KNOW (EITK): What can you share about the philosophy and culture of Panera Bread as it applies to CX?

CINDY: It all stems from our Mission and Purpose — ‘One Panera for a healthier and happier world,’ which entails ‘Panera Warmth’ and being the Most Guest Responsive.

In Guest Care, our agents are empowered to make things right for our guests. Whether that’s adding rewards to their loyalty account, sending an eGift Card, or in some instances offering a refund, our agents are empowered to make those decisions. In a cafe, this might look like an associate adding a free pastry to your order just because, or offering a free cookie to a child. Every small detail matters.

Panera Bread coffeeEXECS IN THE KNOW (EITK): As a Guest Care leader, what is one of the most important things you’ve learned over the past year?

CINDY: Customer expectations change and develop year after year. More important than ever, we must be able to meet the customers where they are. It’s necessary to stay abreast of new technologies to stay ahead of the curve but it can be challenging to know which direction to go as multiple vendors are selling very similar products.

One thing is for sure, whatever customer-facing technology is implemented must drive a better customer experience.

EXECS IN THE KNOW (EITK): Even the most successful and productive leaders make outside interests and passions a top priority. How do you prefer to spend your leisure time?

CINDY: My husband and I have committed to getting out of our “bubble.” Therefore, we are slowly making our way around St. Louis trying different restaurants. I love a good meal and a good glass of wine! Spending time with friends and family (we have two boys, 18 and 21) is very near and dear to me, as is reading, listening to podcasts, and running. I am registered for a half marathon in October to keep me accountable.

EXECS IN THE KNOW (EITK): Since joining the Execs In The Know “KIA” (Know It All) Online Community, what stands out about your experiences so far? Can you share how your involvement in the EITK community translates into value for yourself, your organization, and the community at large?

CINDY: I love knowing that I have access to a large network of people in my same industry at the ready. If I have a question, am looking for recommendations, need suggestions, a second opinion, or otherwise, I know that the KIA Online Community is a space I can go to for help. The KIA members are always very helpful and insightful.

Thank you to Cindy Oberkirsch, Director, Guest Care at Panera Bread, for her leadership, participation, and insights. To connect with Cindy, or to participate in the wider conversation, consider joining the Execs In The Know “Know It All” (KIA) Community. The KIA Community is a private, online community designed exclusively for CX Leaders at consumer-facing brands. Come learn, share, network, and engage to innovate.

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