McDonald’s customer service problem

General | April 24, 2013 | 4 min read

In a surprise to absolutely no one who has ever spent more than a minute inside one of their 34,000 restaurants, McDonald’s has begun admitting after a string of missed expectations that even in the world of fast food, being cheap and tasty isn’t actually everything—customer service matters.

By Giorgio Martini (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Ronald, in the face of news that could make anyone Grimace, has finally learned what we—the customers—always knew: customer service, or the lack there-of in this case, makes up a huge part of the combo meal we are looking for in a place to eat (or from any business for that matter).

Earlier this month the Wall Street Journal reported on a webcast that Mickey-D’s executives had with franchise owners, in which the company said 1 in 5 customer complaints are related to “friendliness issues, ‘and it’s increasing.’” According to the presentation, the top complaint from customers: “rude or unprofessional employees.”

Executives admitted that “service is broken,” and cited that customers find their service chaotic. The Journal added, “McDonald’s told franchisees that customers rate good service almost as highly as dollar value, pointing to a National Restaurant Association survey.”

One franchisee told the Journal where he feels the Golden Arches are headed, “The new leadership has decided to focus on customer satisfaction as a real driver for us to build the brand and build sales. So for us to maximize the potential that’s out there, we’ve got to be the leader in guest satisfaction.”

Well, duh. What took so long?

With 1.7 million employees worldwide serving 68 million customers each day at 34,000 restaurants in 119 countries, McDonald’s is the world’s burger behemoth. But stateside, the typical McDonald’s is a small business, with 90% of the 14,000 restaurants owned by independent operators.

Like any small business, a McDonald’s is much more than the products it makes and distributes, it is an organization driven by customer service interactions. Without quality employees delivering happiness to customers in harmony with a consistent and accurate product—the customers will stop returning, the sales will decrease.

For me, there is always somewhere else I can spend my money. In this case, the Chick-Fil-A across the street will always greet me with a smile and go out of their way to refill my refreshing diet lemonade. Of course, that is only if I am not at the local joint around the corner where they know me by name and have memorized my usual order.

Regardless of how cheap your food is, and how fast you can deliver it, if you continually screw up customers’ orders, treat them with contempt when they make requests, and are flat out rude—they won’t return. Those addictively delicious, crispy, salty fries and the smooth sweetness of a $1.29 hot fudge sundae can only cover up so much bitterness from your employees.

Known the world over for their iconic Golden Arches and greasy boxes of children’s happiness, Ronald and Co. appear to be slowly coming around to today’s customers—who value good customer service and support and will quickly and boisterously share with the digital world when they encounter sub-par service.

A real McDonald's. New and modern look, same old rude service.

Yes, this is a real McDonald’s. Seriously. (Credit: Freshhome.com)

Lately, they’ve focused on rehabbing the company’s image from a mechanical slinger of processed, fatty foods (Super Size Me” wasn’t the best PR), to an affordable, fresh, quick-service café with options (even healthy ones) for every mood, taste and budget. Their attempts to remain relevant to today’s customers—adding variety to the menu, redesigning their locations, even adding upscale beverages (they have real-fruit smoothies, at McDonald’s, seriously)—are impressive in contrast to the old McDonald’s. But while extensive, and expensive, these changes were only skin-deep.

Ronald is wearing the right things, he’s listening to the right bands, but underneath he is still the same old, creepy, rude clown.

The reason why others are passing McDonald’s by, as McDonald’s has finally admitted, is because they have a cultural problem with customer service. Their culture isn’t centered on the customer. The new expert-designed spaces and menus are aimed to make McDonald’s convenient, comfortable and friendly in today’s marketplace, but the key ingredient – the people delivering the customer service – was neglected rather than rehabbed.

Last week, for the first time in a very long time, I had a meal at McDonald’s. I stopped in for breakfast at a trendy, clean, well-designed space in downtown Chicago’s Loop. Uncluttered, well designed, easy-to-use digital menu boards welcomed me, enticed me to order. I even had a choice of fashionable mid-century chairs to sit in and eat. The space was great – it felt cool and comfortable, and was more an extension of it’s chic neighbor, the W hotel, than a competitor to the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street.

Yet the whole experience fell flat because the employees were mechanical, impersonal, and in the case of the one who handed me my order, flat-out rude. I was somehow inconveniencing them for making a simple request.

Maybe McDonald’s will get it right. Maybe the small-business owners that operate the majority of their restaurants in America will realize that the Golden Arches only go so far, that they need to focus on building a customer service culture that gives everyone, not just those under the age of 10, a happy meal.

Next time you stop in, please share with me your latest McDonald’s experience. Myself, I think I will track their progressing customer service elsewhere.