Let's congratulate McDonald's. If rehab requires admitting you have a problem, then the company's first step was a webinar with franchisees, noting that 20 percent of customer complaints are due to "unfriendly service." Steve Levigne, the fast food behemoth's vice president of business research, was quoted in a Wall Street Journal piece saying candidly that McDonald's "service is broken." The number one complaint: "rude or unprofessional employees."
For McDonald's, a company that spends an estimated $2 billion annually on advertising to attract customers, having counter personnel who alienate them in the final moments of a transaction is a disaster. Fixing customer service will require more than admonishing hundreds of thousands of employees to smile. Let's hope McDonald's is serious about service and that its confessional was just a first step.
In our most recent book, Judgment on the Front Line, we describe what it takes for an organization to become truly "frontline" focused, ensuring people at the customer touch point are able to represent a brand effectively. Here's how our research into more than 20 organizations, ranging from Ritz-Carlton to the Mayo Clinic to Yum! Brands, can apply to McDonald's:
1. Create shared emotion around delivering a great customer experience. You can't compel people to have a great attitude. Sure, mystery shoppers can count the number of smiles in a small sample of the more than 14,000 restaurants in the U.S. But we've all been exposed to service personnel whose words and conduct avoid being overtly offensive, while tinged with just enough sarcasm or apathy to make it clear you are not their priority.
McDonald's has stressed speed, cleanliness and operational discipline. It's time to refocus on service by painting a vision of the ideal customer experience. Just as Ritz-Carlton talks about "creating memories" for its guests, or Yum! Brands, which owns Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell, stresses "customer mania," McDonald's needs to articulate how someone at the counter can make a customer's day a little brighter with quick service and a smile. The first value listed on McDonald's website is "we place the customer experience at the core of all we do." For that to be more than rhetoric, company leaders need to give vivid examples of the difference a frontline employee can make when they show they really care about their work.
2. Keep simplifying work processes and rules. McDonald's just announced a new ordering system that moves customers down the counter from the register, while a "runner" bags the food. Why is this so important? Imagine how you'd feel standing in front of a customer impatiently waiting for his food to come out of the kitchen, while the line of other impatiently waiting customers continues to grow. Broken processes put frontline employees in the hot seat without the ability to help. The company's franchisees, who own roughly 90 percent of U.S. stores, have always been a source of great ideas. Our guess is that if corporate is willing to listen, the thousands of McDonald's employees could tell the headquarters' folks exactly what other operational changes need to be made.
3. Invest more in tools and training. The company reportedly doesn't cross-train employees so they understand what other team members are doing or have the ability to pitch in if someone gets behind. Upgrading people's skills and changing their mindset will require investing in human capital. While McDonald's doesn't release employee turnover figures, it's undoubtedly well into the double digits. This means resources should initially be focused on training franchisees and the managers they hire so they have the right skills to train workers and build local environments where people want to work.
This starts with helping franchisees think carefully about the people they hire. For example, Wawa, a regional chain of six hundred convenience stores known for its near cult-like customer following, screens potential store managers fiercely against two values: Delight Customers and Value People. Once McDonald's teaches its frontline employees new skills, it should trust them to fix customer problems. At Yum! Brands, employees in each of its restaurants are entrusted to spend up to $10 to fix any customer problem, allowing them to make any transaction a money loser if that's what's required to satisfy the customer.
4. Reward and recognize great service. Driving change means publicly recognizing new behaviors. The company needs to showcase stories of great frontline service by recognizing employees who deliver, and encouraging associates to recognize each other. Whether the "wow stories" of Ritz-Carlton personnel going above and beyond the call of duty that are shared globally every week, or Wawa's system in which employees nominate each other for a series of pins, representing each of the company values, corporate and peer recognition make customer service feel truly meaningful to employees in frontline focused organizations.
McDonald's has a long way to go, but let's applaud them for publicly admitting that its declining service is unsustainable for a multi-billion dollar brand in a ferociously competitive industry. Let's hope the company has the perseverance and commitment to stay on course - and that they eventually give employees some real reasons to smile.
This article was co-authored by Noel Tichy and first appeared on Forbes.com.