Revisiting the outsourcing of McDonald’s


The original article came more than fifteen years ago. Long enough that while I know it still exists, I won’t link to it. Instead…

It got me thinking. And rereading the original essay has me thinking again, but this time about what has changed, what hasn’t changed, and more to the general ideas that are yet to come, what is happening in the world today.

Two ideas we need to have in place before we begin wandering about.

First – The original essay was posted in 2005, and then brought back in 2017. It was based on an article that discussed how McDonald’s was beginning to research the use of centralized centers for taking drive-thru orders. Yup, hot fries to go call centers.

Second – A couple of cheeseburgers was the order. I got one cheeseburger. I also got a hamburger bun, with cheese and all the fixings (ketchup and onion and such), but no burger.

Here’s where the two of these (and more) collide…

The first thoughts I explored when it came about based on the idea of having an office in Oklahoma taking orders for Oregon, Vermont and Arizona. Those looked at the money involved, the possibility of errors being made, and general responsibility. An interesting trick that I kind of hinted at, but honestly didn’t develop, was specific responsibility.

How would you like to be a cashier, manager, or working one of the prep stations, and have customer after customer complaining about orders? One claims they said no onions, another wanted light ice, and the hits keep coming. But as a manager, you don’t know where the mistakes are. The orders you see displayer are being filled accurately. This isn’t someone that needs to be shown how to have a heavier hand when putting salt on the fries or another that needs to know to include napkins and a straw in the bag. It’s the call center not passing along the exact details.

I’ve never worked in a true fast-food establishment. But friends of mine have, and I have heard plenty of stories. And one of the funny things is how special the drive-thru can be. You learn a lot about people, and in particular, what motivates them. Person eating in the restaurant may come to the counter for salt, or to point out that they ordered a chocolate shake and not strawberry. At the drive-thru—and I can verify this because I didn’t have the time or the motivation to go back and complain about me burgerless burger—many times people take it and run.

I even made fun of some aspects of the whole thing, but the reality was pretty simple. And here it is…

Call center professionals with ‘very strong communication skills’ could help boost order accuracy and ultimately speed up the time it takes customers to get in and out of the drive-thrus, the company said.

I quoted the article—ok, fine, here it is, from USA Today—and I think I missed a chance to point at something quite important, even when I did in fact point it out.

People don’t care. They definitely don’t care when everything is right. And, they usually have a decent amount of flexibility when things go wrong. But you really need to bump into a jerk, or tremendously mess up to see a major issue develop out of a small thing.

Let’s head to the beach.

Almost thirty years ago, I was working front desk and reservations at a seasonal hotel. The basic run of dates the property was open spanned from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Opened a few weeks ahead of that, and closed a few weeks after, but usually a chunk of the property was unavailable because room demand didn’t exist outside of those magical oceanside summer season dates.

One day, a woman came back to the desk after checking in and visiting her room. She was quite upset. Nothing was what she had expected or requested. There was no refrigerator in the room. There was no television. And she continued. She insisted she had double-checked and was told she would have an oceanside room, with a television and a refrigerator. When I asked if she recalled the person she spoke with, she claimed it was a very rude young girl. She said she’d never forget how poorly the girl had treated her, but she didn’t know the name.

Back then, computers weren’t as common as they are today. And, being seasonal, the first few weeks of business were more taking reservations with honestly no one staying in the rooms yet.

Combine those thoughts and you wind up with reservation sheets that contained a ton of notes, along with staff working on multiple things. I had been trained, with it repeated several times, to note everything on the form so that all of us had any and all details we might possibly need.

After the woman left the counter, my manager came out to me. She handed me a reservation form.

“This might make you smile,” she said.

I took it from her and looked at it. It was in my handwriting. The woman had spoken to me. When I flipped the form over, on the back were some special notes.

Woman informed that no oceanside rooms have a refrigerator. Told only rooms with fridges are street-facing units that are like suites, but are one room with multiple beds mainly used by families with kids. Stressed that no rooms have phones or televisions. Woman insisted oceanside was what she wanted above all else, and she confirmed she understood that meant no television or fridge.

Did I feel better? Yes. Selfishly, I can admit I did. Did the woman? Well… probably not, but she was friendly during the remainder of her stay. And I learned an interesting lesson that my manager later summer up like this: Some people are content living their life angry and wrong, often while insisting they’re right.

Back to McDonald’s

I have not seen a massive wave of independently owned, secluded, providing efforts for multiple locations in a variety of states support offices taking over the fast-food industry. Hasn’t happened. (Yet.)

But the lessons I learned on the beach… the comments friends of mine have made… the experiences I have had as a customer… do confirm that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

People are convinced that we are seeing a change of days right now. That business will never be the same. And I don’t think that’s true.

Not completely.

Look, from debits cards to phone apps, we have seen plenty of changes come sweeping in. Change is a constant. Of course, nothing will be the same. Nothing is ever the same.

But… people, by and large, don’t change. They conform. They adapt. And… most importantly to our questions about hot fries to go call centers… when the order is correct, they take their order and drive away.

Does it matter where the order was taken if the bag has all the right contents and the fries are hot? You know, it might not.


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