McDonald's Double Cheeseburger

9 December 2011

What’s The Beef? McDonald’s Gets The Customer-Centricity Treatment

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + IMC Instructor and Practitioner; photo by BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons…

So I’m reading IMC The Next Generation by Professor Don E. Schultz, the father of integrated marketing communications. This seminal book offers some good approaches to marketing management, such as value-based customer segmentation and goals-based budgeting, with a large side-order of raw naiveté, the nonsensical customer-centric marketing mix.

But what inspired me to write this isn’t Schultz’s ivory tower myopia but his Golden Arches slam on pages 167-168:

“On any given day, 11 percent of McDonald’s customers are dissatisfied. About 70 percent of dissatisfied customers are further dissatisfied with the way their complaint is handled. More than half of all dissatisfied customers visit McDonald’s less frequently as a result and tell as many as ten other people about their unsatisfactory experience… While the company is still a fast-food giant, it loses an estimated $750 million a year as a result of this marcom inconsistency. Even for McDonald’s, that’s a lot of money.”

And that statement is a lot of bull…

Now, I’m no fan of McDonald’s, but it’s not because I’m dissatisfied with their service — I’m actually impressed by McD’s clockwork operations and consistency. I just happened to see the documentary Super Size Me, and I’m not interested in putting any McD products in my body.

But I will defend the chain against superficial thinking. Schultz’s “estimate” (not proof) that McD’s loses three-quarters of a billion dollars annually because it dissatisfies 11% of its customers is not only a hasty assumption, it could be completely wrong. Why? Because he fails to ask the key question:

Who are these customers and what the hell are they complaining about?

Customer-centrists like Schultz rarely acknowledge the existence of a creature called “the bad customer.” Anyone who has ever worked as a waiter has probably met more than a few bad customers, and has probably had the urge to throw them out (or worse). Indeed, smart businesses do throw bad customers out and, even smarter, encourage them to patronize their competitors.

Who are these 11 percent and what could they be unhappy about? Consider this possibility…

McD’s Employee: “Welcome to McDonald’s! How may I help you?”

11 Percenter: “Yes, I’d like a Big Mac, cooked medium-rare, without pickles, and double the cheese.”

McD’s Employee: “Uh, sorry sir, all of our Big Macs are prepared the same way.”

11 Percenter: “That’s bullkaka! Then give me a Quarter Pounder, but double the cheese and…”

McD’s Employee: “Uh, sir, all of our food is prepared the same way.”

11 Percenter: “What?! That’s outrageous! It’s the age of the customer, and I’ve got a B.S. degree in customer centricity! I demand to get what I want how I want when I want! Or else — or else — or else I’ll tweet about it!”

He then demands to see the manager, and won’t budge out of line until he does, and when the manager says nothing can be done, he bangs out a steaming email to corporate, which ignores him. He’s thus further dissatisfied, so he posts a music video about his complaint on YouTube in hopes of scoring some gift certificates and maybe a record deal.

Can you imagine some of the other people who might be dissatisfied with McDonald’s?

  • “What do you mean I have to vacate my booth? I’m a paying customer! If I want to sit here for three hours without buying anything more, then I will sit here for three hours without buying anything more! Where’s your manager?”
  • “OMG, this bun has wheat in it! I’m allergic to wheat! Why didn’t you tell me this bun has wheat in it?! I’m so gonna sue… unless you give me $100 right now for my pain and suffering. Where’s your manager?”
  • “Don’t you dare tell me how to raise my kids! If they want to run around screaming and throwing french fries, that’s their First Amendment right! Where’s your manager?”
  • “Why is there a line at lunch? I’m in a hurry. Why aren’t the McRibs ready already? Damn, this place is slow! Where’s your manager?”
  • “Don’t tell me you’re out of apple pies. I come by here every day to get my apple pie, and I always get it! And no, don’t try to push that cherry pie on me. Where’s your manager?”
  • “Damn, you’re cute in that uniform! What time do you get off? And by ‘get off,’ I mean, ‘get off’! Get it? What’s your phone number?”

Any of those could be possible. We don’t know, because the book doesn’t tell us.

The real issue here is that mass-marketing and efficiency are anathema to customer-centrists, who fail to understand that not all businesses can or even should satisfy all of their customers, since trying to please everyone can lead to failure.

McDonald’s has spent more than six decades honing a system that works by emphasizing uniformity and efficiency. Catering to individual requests would either throw that system out of synch or drive up McD’s costs (and prices). And either of those outcomes could cost the company much more than $750 million.

And what’s so bad about the number 11? Is that dissatisfaction percentage unusual for a large business? And what would happen if those 11% went away forever? You know the answer: McDonald’s customer service satisfaction rate would reach 100%.

That’s right: the key to satisfying all of your customers is to make the unsatisfied ones go away.

There’s a reason McDonald’s is “still” a fast-food giant after 60 years, and that it still satisfies an impressive 89% of its customers. How many businesses can claim to do that?

So as you read business books and articles, beware of undercooked statistics and sloppily assembled estimates. Numbers without hard questions are just junk food for the mind.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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