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TinotopiaLog → Customer Parity and IT at McDonald’s ( 8 Nov 2005)
Tuesday 08 November 2005

Customer Parity and IT at McDonald’s

The McDonald’s restaurant in Front Royal, VA offers a real bounty of customer-service lessons. The place is actually not all that bad by the standards of modern McDonaldses, and most of the problems seem to be pretty deeply rooted in the McDonald’s system rather than in the local management. There’s still a lot of room for improvement there, but the place is still a cut above most Front Royal fast-food establishments, and they do at least seem to try.

Anyway, the other day Nicole and I were in there, and ordered our usual food. Nicole ordered her burger with extra pickles, as always. But this time there was something new:


What was new was a $0.10 charge for ‘pickle’.

Now, this could have been entirely in error. McDonald’s cash registers are one of the world’s great stories of UI failure: there’s hardly an aspect of them that isn’t done wrong.


Start with the physical device itself: McDonald’s uses an odd model of cash register, suggesting that they’re either custom-made for McDonald’s or at least targeted pretty directly at the fast-food business. Yet they all have some home-made-looking thing jammed under them to change the angle of the screen so it’s readable. In some places, I’ve seen the cash registers propped up on piles of paper napkins.

At the Front Royal McDonald’s, the napkins and little plywood wedges aren’t enough: the placement of the light fixtures behind the counter means that the employees still have to shield the screen with their hands, move their heads around, and squint.

But that’s not the half of it. One of the reasons so much squinting is required is that the UI of the things seems to be unnecessarily complicated, possibly as a reflection of the unnecessarily-complicated nature of McDonalds’ menu. When you order anything with anything else, or without something, the process has a tendency to go off the rails.

(Or maybe you don’t have to order anything special: the other day, I saw a customer walk up and say ‘Number 4’. That’s all: ‘Number 4’. This is some biscuit-hashbrown-coffee combo. Fully twenty seconds of screen-tapping ensued behind the counter.)

The entire interface of the cash register is an LCD screen; it can change dynamically. It doesn’t appear to, though. The computer system knows certain things — or, in any case, it should know certain things — about the menu, and it could use this knowledge to make the job easier, faster, and (presumably) more profitable.

This is easier to demonstrate than explain. Let’s say that you order a Big Mac, and that you want to make some changes to the standard burger.

When the employee hits the ‘Big Mac’ button, two other buttons should light up: ‘With’ and ‘Without’. If the employee hits ‘Without’, the system — knowing about the menu, mind you — would only present the employee with buttons for ‘Two all-beef patties’, ‘special sauce’, ‘lettuce’, ‘cheese’, ‘pickles’, ‘onions’, and ‘sesame-seed bun’, because those are the components of a Big Mac (the thing also comes with ketchup and mustard, but these are not mentioned in the song so I am leaving them out here).

If the employee hit the ‘With’ button, the system would present a list of things that can theoretically go on a Big Mac: ‘more pickles’, ‘tomatoes’, etc.

The system doesn’t seem to do this, though: in fact, it makes the employee navigate through a series of sub-menus to access certain burger-customization directives, because the entire McDonald’s system appears to be set up from the perspective of the kitchen, not the customer.

But I digress. We were charged $0.10 for extra pickles, which may have been a mistake attributable at least in part to McDonalds’ obtuse IT, or which may reflect a new push for increased profits through nickel-and-diming the customers.

Note that the Double Cheeseburger was ordered without ketchup, but that no credit was applied for this omission.

This is a violation of Customer Service Rule #17, Practice Customer Parity. The example given in the rule has to do with offering refunds in the same form in which the customer originally paid (i.e. you shouldn’t take cash from him for a purchase and then, when he brings your defective merchandise back, offer to mail a check from headquarters in a week), but this is another important point: if you charge for small extras, you must offer credit for omissions. If you feel that you must be paid for such things as two extra slices of pickle, then the customer is quite justified in feeling that he should not pay for anything he’s not getting.

The simple solution is to build in a margin for things like extra pickles on every nth burger. The pickles aren’t free, and as McDonald’s is in business to make a profit the pickles have to be paid for somehow. In every business, there is a limit to the amount of goods and/or services that can be delivered for a given price.

Calling undue attention to this fact, though, can only end in disaster. If you make it clear that you are carefully parcelling out the ketchup, napkins, pickles, or what-have-you, as a customer I am going to be quite vigilant that I get everything that’s coming to me: Weigh those fries, mister! Far better to rely on a process of give-and-take, while managing your overall process to make sure that the give remains in balance with the take.

Posted by tino at 11:36 8.11.05
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I hate it when they’re stingy with the ketchup in the drive-thru. Just for the record, Yes, I want ketchup with my fries. No, I don’t want to have to remember to ask you every time I go through the drive-thru. And if you are required by stingy management to ask me how many of those packets I want and I tell you my standard reply of 20, I do not appreciate the dirty looks I normally get back.

Obviously the solution here is to outsource your order taking in the drive-thru to someone in India that gets tutored on baseball and other USA neologisms , just so you can manage to afford to put the ketchup in every bag, like you mostly do with napkins and always do with straws. ;)

Posted by: Standard Mischief at November 8, 2005 03:11 PM

The Big Mac has no ketchup and mustard, only the special sauce.

One of the great things about the Big Mac: double pickles, no catsup (I guess it’s actually ketchup at Micky Dee’s). I call that double pickles because the special sauce contains pickles and they put pickles on the burger.

Mmmmm, pickles.

Posted by: Nicole at November 9, 2005 01:34 PM