McDonald's Solution to its "Broken Service" Should Include Freedom and Trust

Last week I read an article on the Wall Street Journal that pointed to poor customer service and execution to explain McDonald's recent earning disappointments.  You can find the entire article at this link.  McDonald's own management acknowledged those problems in a web-cast with franchise owners.  They candidly admit that "service is broken" in most of their locations, mentioning that a high number of complaints cited "rude and unprofessional employees".  The WSJ article reports that some analysts say that the fast food chain is continuing to lose customers because of these service issues.  Let's analyze the likely reasons behind McDonald's poor financial performance and present some ideas and suggestions that might improve the current operations.

McDonald's recent troubles are indeed the result of a service failure.  The WSJ article reports how McDonald's scores poorly in both friendliness and service timeliness when compared to its competitors.   It also mentions that complaints related to "friendliness" are on the rise.  Ironically, the tough economic conditions of the last few years masked these weaknesses, as a larger share of consumers relied on fast food restaurants for an increasing number of meals.  However, today's improved customer confidence and the abundance of alternative choices in the market, have highlighted McDonald's problems with customer service.  Consumers can be more discerning and are suddenly more aware of the customer experience and service.

McDonald's, because of the intrinsic characteristics of its current business model, is faced with particular constraints that make it especially challenging to develop efficient, if not remarkable, customer service.  It is worth considering the following:
  • 90% of the chain's restaurants are owned by independent operators
  • The restaurants are plagued by high employee turnover, estimated at 60% per year
  • The restaurants need to minimize staffing expenses, especially salaries
The company's management has already instituted a few measures aimed at improving service, specifically it introduced a new ordering system, it added the new position of "runner", and it adopted a new software that optimizes staffing levels.  These measures are likely to be beneficial, but they are probably not going to be enough to develop exceptional customer service. 

McDonald's should consider empowering their staff and developing a restaurant environment that stimulates freedom and trust.  Restaurant operators should genuinely get the entire staff involved in the decision process and earnestly listen to every suggestion, instituting a more collaborative structure rather than a rigid and coercive organization.  They would also need to give their staff the freedom to modify standard operations to address any sudden service issues.

A number of studies have demonstrated that organizations that promote trust and freedom and as a result a more inclusive and collaborative workplace experience significantly more innovative thinking and ultimately better financial performances.  They also tend to develop a more involved and loyal workforce. 

In McDonald's case, a restaurant environment that incites staff's operational freedom and that invokes trust would increase the staff's degree of involvement and attachment to the restaurant and even an interest in its success.  It could also reduce employee turnover.  Most importantly, it would certainly improve customer service.

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