McDonald's got one important thing very right (Chick-fil-A, not so much)

But as technology sweeps through the fast food business, what real effect is it having on customers?
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
McDonald's cup filled with clear liquid.

Being good at what you do only goes so far.

McDonald's/Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNET

I'm constantly confused by McDonald's.

Here's a brand that bathes in world fame, whose products seem to inspire enormous love, and yet whose customers seem all too willing to complain about seemingly everything.

It remains bemusing that in the recent American Customer Satisfaction Index, McDonald's lurked near the very bottom -- even more so during the pandemic -- while the likes of Chick-fil-A sat at the top and likely giggled.

Both McDonald's and Chick-fil-A have committed themselves to tech investment. The latter has humans with iPads in drive-thru areas, so that customers can feel a greater customer service orientation. Meanwhile, McDonald's has committed much effort toward innovations such as robot drive-thru ordering.

I wondered, then, whether customers have some warped perceptions with respect to both these brands.  

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Helpfully, QSR recently released the results of its annual Drive-Thru Report. And what results they were.

You might think that customers value drive-thrus for their sheer convenience and, of course, their blistering speed. Technology has wired humans to want things on a whim and believe they should have them right now.

Well, in this 2022 study, fast-food-loving humans were quite delighted with the convenience of drive-thrus, but whined quite spectacularly at the (slow) speed of service.

Did it cross many people's minds that the relative slowdown in service may be related to the increasing convenience -- and hence popularity -- of drive-thrus? Might it also have something to do with difficulties in hiring employees, especially ones prepared not to earn very much?

The report dug a little deeper. What, it asked, were the main factors affecting whether customers would return to the drive-thru?

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Would you believe that speed of service was a pifflingly minuscule factor when compared with order accuracy?

Yes, 58% of customers said if their order was accurate, they'd happily return. A mere 23% said speed of service was a vital factor.

I lurched, then, to see the specific results for drive-thru order accuracy. It drove me to opening my eyes unnaturally wide.

At the top was Arby's, which managed to perfectly execute 89.6% of its orders. But look who was right behind it. Why, McDonald's at 89%.

For all the apparent customer dissatisfaction, here was the biggest brand proving that it was actually delivering a high level of service. 

And what of Chick-fil-A with its iPad-clutching humans? Well, it managed a mere 83% accuracy rate.

Also: McDonald's and Chick-fil-A both have a big problem. Only one has a solution

Data clutchers will offer their own interpretation of these numbers. It seems, for example, that Chick-fil-A has the longest drive-thru lines, but is the fastest at keeping them moving. Could it be that the need for speed is affecting the delicacy of accuracy?

Then again, McDonald's was second in speed of moving its lines.

And so we reach a bracing lesson for every single fast-food brand -- and, indeed, every brand in the world. You can look at all the data and draw severe conclusions. You can also decide that humans are spectacular hypocrites.

You see, when customers were asked to rate their overall satisfaction with the drive-thru customer service, who was at the top? Why, Chick-fil-A, with an 88% score.

McDonald's was right behind, of course. Not quite. It stood at a mere 60.6%.

Please make your mind up, people. What do you really want? The answer, I suspect, is the human touch that Chick-fil-A delivers so well.

QSR discovered that McDonald's was at the top (or, depending on your perspective, the bottom) of the "not friendly" ranking. The most friendly? Chick-fil-A.

It must be maddening for those who do a job right -- more right than almost every rival -- and still aren't appreciated.

Yet, no matter how much technology you have, no matter how efficient your organizational systems are, people still want to feel some warmth and care.

Even if you get their order wrong.

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