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McDonald's customers are really unhappy (Chick-fil-A's just laugh)

All fast-food chains are furiously investing in technology to make their service go more smoothly. But what do customers think?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
McDonald's on a black screen with words, "I'm lovin' it"

Too many, it seems, aren't.

McDonald's/Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk

The pandemic is, apparently, officially over.

This means some businesses will be adjusting by ordering their employees back to the office.

Other businesses, however, concluded that, having adjusted their way of doing business and raising their investments in technology, perhaps there's no point going back to older ways.

Also: Remote working has changed the rules of the workplace, so watch out

I can't help, for example, but smell the reluctance of fast food companies encouraging customers to come and sit down in their restaurants.

Instead, online ordering, delivery, and drive-thru have become such bastions of modern life that, well, why bother filling up your restaurant? Anyway, wouldn't that require more hiring, which no company enjoys doing?

The problem for many fast food companies, though, has been that injecting more technology into, say, their drive-thru offerings hasn't instantly solved their problems.

Chick-fil-A, for example, has openly confessed that 30% of its customers leave because the drive-thru line is too long. Worse, some cities resist Chick-fil-A drive-thrus because they cause traffic congestion.

Yet the company has continued to invest -- by placing employees clutching iPads into parking lots, and by offering two drive-thru lanes, one for mobile orderers, and the other for the ordinary people who just suddenly get hungry.

One might imagine, then, that Chick-fil-A's customers are getting mightily annoyed by it all. It may be the restaurant whose employees declare it's their pleasure to serve you, but the pleasure tends to wane if you can't get your food the instant you want it.

This isn't just Chick-fil-A's problem, of course. Most fast food chains have struggled to please.

I wafted, therefore, to the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index scores to see just how disgruntled fast food customers truly are. Surely they've happily punished fast food brands for their imperfect ways, and their inability to solve all problems with new, exciting technology.

And goodness, did human nature play out in fascinating manner.

Domino's, Starbucks, Taco Bell, Popeyes, and Five Guys for example, all dropped three whole percentage points from 2021, a vast dip when you're trying to please the whole of America.

Also: Chick-fil-A just took an idea from Starbucks (and some customers may hate it)

And they weren't even the worst.

Look at McDonald's. Despite its considerable investments in robot drive-thrus, delivery, and mobile ordering, here are its customers dropping their satisfaction scores by four points. Only Dunkin' -- the artist formerly known as Dunkin' Donuts -- slumped so badly.

This seems quite unfair. Why would McDonald's customers be so much more unhappy than those of most other chains? Has McDonald's really been so much worse than so many of its competitors? What, in fact, has McDonald's apparently done so badly? Surely this can't all be caused by its constantly malfunctioning ice-cream machines.

I asked McDonald's for its view of this perplexing situation and will update, should I get it.

Also: How McDonald's keeps getting embarrassed by an engineer's little app

This all seems strange.

Pizza Hut, Panera, Jack In The Box, Sonic, and Arby's dipped a mere single point. Painful, but not irretrievable. Yet there were McDonald's customers, grumbling like someone had stolen a french fry. Or even all of them.

But what of Chick-fil-A? Surely its customers would have tweaked its nose and made rude gestures in its direction. But no. They seemed to have chuckled and said: "All good here." Yes, their satisfaction scores stayed just the same.

The only fast food brands that matched Chick-fil-A's performance were Chipotle and Wendy's. But Chipotle's satisfaction scores are a hearty six points below Chick-fil-A's and Wendy's a fulsome ten points.

Some might conclude, then, that furiously updating your technology can only go so far. If you don't have a truly strong brand that produces a consistent product and which customers actively embrace, you may have a bigger problem than you thought.

It's quite staggering, indeed, that McDonald's -- which recently announced it's consolidating its innovation center in Chicago -- is fifteen points behind Chick-fil-A in satisfaction. I confess it makes little sense to me.

McDonald's new innovation center will be called Speedee Labs.

It seems, though, that speed may not be everything.

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