McDonald's customers are in for a very big surprise (Can they cope?)

Technology can often change the customer experience and McDonald's latest tech-driven move may raise eyebrows with many. There is, of course, a potential catch.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer on

McDonald's. Where everybody knows your name.

Screenshot by ZDNet

If I asked you why you go to McDonald's, you'd likely tell me that it's a mixture of a need for speed and a desperate desire for up to 1,000 calories of slightly greasy goodness.

I suspect, however, that you may not instantly mention the profoundly personal service, nor the proactive customer care.

It seems that the burger chain may want to change your impression.

This week, the company announced that it's rapidly expanding its use of technology to make customers feel more like individuals, rather than automatons standing in line for the next iPhone.

As CNBC reported, McDonald's has been testing its MyMcDonald's Rewards program at fortunate drive-thrus in Arizona and Nevada. It's now entering New England and may be blanketing America by the end of the year.

You might think that a rewards program is not entirely revolutionary, given that the likes of Starbucks have had them for seemingly a decade or more.

But Starbucks always had the customer experience somewhere near the front of its corporate mind. McDonald's was far more about in, out, and (milk)shake it all about, even if the kids used to love Ronald.

Perhaps driven by the company's experience with loyalty programs in Europe, the burger chain has realized that the time is (way past) right to show some homegrown loyalty.

The combination of Covid-19 sending more and more people to drive-thrus and enhanced technology -- especially after its purchase of personalization and recommendation tech company Dynamic Yield -- means that McDonald's can finally offer something akin to a personalized experience.

The idea here is that when you roll up to the drive-thru you'll be greeted by name -- if you're a loyalty program member.

Little could be more startling at McDonald's, surely. Little could be more painful if you hear the people in front of you being greeted like friends while you, sad ingrate, haven't signed up for the program yet.

Imagine, too, that after their drive-thru experience the loyal will get an email encouraging them to come again, with some enticing offer attached.

And please conceive of the sheer joy in adding up your McPoints so that you can get something for free, at some future moment of Nirvana.

Truly, this is something to be celebrated. One of the cleverly insidious aspects of technology lies in making customers feel a little more noticed, a little more special than they felt before. (At least that's what Mark Zuckerberg says.)

Personally, I'd be quite stunned if I suddenly heard a drive-thru employee address me by name. And those employees aren't being left out of the entertainment.

In a pleasing twist, the employees get loyalty points too. If they go through all the steps of learning about the loyalty program, that is.

McDonald's needs staff loyalty almost as much as it needs the customers'. Indeed, as you watch the Super Bowl you may see a McDonald's ad entirely devoted to the joys of drive-thru customers.

Nationwide rewards and personalization offer a much-needed advancement, fueled by technology. There is, though, one potential kink. 

Some McDonald's franchisees recently became disenchanted by the company insisting they now pay monthly for all the tech enhancements. (It used to be every six months.)

Such was the rancor that, at the end of last year, some franchisees were demanding more control over the tech decisions the company makes. Relations between McDonald's and some franchisees have, I understand, remained near McFlurry temperatures.

If you're going to impress customers with your tech-driven personalization -- especially if you're something of a legacy business that hasn't quite kept up with swiftly changing times -- you need to have everyone involved entirely committed.

It really wouldn't be too good if you arrived at the drive-thru, a loyal MyMcDonald's Rewards member, and were greeted by: "Oh, hey. You again, Mrs. Smallpiece? What do you want this time?"

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