Special Report

The Drive-Thru Experience

You’re fast, you’re accurate, but today’s consumers want more from your drive-thru experience.

You’re fast, you’re accurate, but today’s consumers want more from your drive-th
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Ralph Bower and his colleagues at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen saw room for improvement.

For years, the Atlanta-based brand’s drive-thru experience suffered in industry studies, while the company’s own internal and external measures found drive-thru customers wanting. In search of better results, Bower, Popeyes’ chief operating officer, spearheaded the company’s drive-thru reinvention. 

In 2009, Popeyes unveiled its Service with Speed initiative, a systemwide program aimed at turning the brand’s languishing drive-thru service in a positive direction. No longer could—or would—Popeyes shoot for the norm.

The program started simple: Provide each restaurant with headsets and timers, equipment fewer than half of existing Popeyes possessed. Later in 2009, the company instituted detailed training initiatives and reporting channels to provide the necessary metrics to gauge the program’s success and ROI. Finally, in January 2010, Popeyes corporate introduced the third and final Service with Speed step when it launched a formal employee recognition and incentive program, a move aimed at inspiring enthusiastic workplace performance.

The seemingly modest changes have added up to steady gains, both in customer satisfaction and the bottom line. In 2010’s second quarter, consumer perception of Popeyes’ speed of service increased 9 percent compared to Q2 2009 on Popeyes’ own internal Guest Expectation Monitor (GEM). In that same time frame, domestic and international same-store sales both jumped as well. (Popeyes’ internal data suggests that serving just four more cars each day at each outlet would lead to a 1 percent increase in same-store sales, a sign that little changes can make a big difference.)

“We’ve noticed a direct correlation between speed and satisfaction,” Bower says. “The drive-thru was a place where we were falling down, but I’m happy to say we’ve made huge improvements.”

In June, a focus group completed for QSR reminded all that speed and accuracy remain the top drive-thru consumer demands, giving credence to the fact that “the basics” should stand paramount. 

While quick-service brands such as Popeyes have made mastering the basics a principal objective, customers have expressed a desire for even more—faster service, more accurate order fulfillment, better technology, and more personable employees among their chief rallying cries.

Customers tell us that the status quo is not OK anymore. They want a drive-thru experience that is positive and personal.”

QSR’s recent Drive Thru-Experience Study showed negative perceptions of the drive-thru experience continuing to cloud the consumer mindset, opening up an opportunity for quick-service restaurants to impress customers with extras big and small, simple and stylish, practical and personal.

“Customers tell us that the status quo is not OK anymore. They want a drive-thru experience that is positive and personal,” Del Taco’s director of operations Kevin Pope says.

With such insights in hand, a number of quick-service brands are getting even more involved, dedicating increased time, attention, and innovation to their drive-thru business to heighten customer satisfaction and deliver an experience that transcends both traditional expectations and the competition.

Despite its gains, Popeyes’ corporate team and its operators know more work remains. In fact, Popeyes termed its systemwide program Service with Speed precisely because they wanted service to improve alongside speed. Although the latter has advanced, Popeyes’ focus moving forward will be on providing a more customer-friendly experience with the improved speed.

These types of improvement are occurring throughout the industry, as quick-serve restaurants see the drive thru as a business opportunity primed for growth, particularly as time-starved customers seek the convenience drive thrus offer. 

But improved service need not be super flashy or expensive.

Take Chick-fil-A, a routine gold-medalist in drive-thru studies. The Atlanta-based chicken purveyor focuses more on substance than glam, including the customer-favorite of drive-thru lane trashcans. Consider as well Chicago’s Portillo’s restaurants, whose drive-thru staff often distributes dog biscuits to canine-carrying cars.

Such features are “expedient, helpful, and bring in the element of the human touch,” says Oli Olafsson, the CEO of Utah-based Human Touch Consulting, a leading market research firm that performs analyses of the drive-thru experience at quick-service locations. “Customers enjoy those small things and it helps foster a positive experience.”

Del Taco added outside order takers, finding what Pope calls “considerable success” with the operational change that injects personal service and order accuracy into the traditional drive-thru experience. Outside order takers use a “linebuster” handheld computer, often 5–7 cars behind the speaker. The subtle change gets orders into the kitchen quicker and has cut window time down as much as 25 seconds. 

“Operators need to remember that customers come to quick serves for convenience, so the importance of that element cannot get lost as restaurants seek to improve,” Olafsson says, crediting brands that blend personal interaction and technology to improve the drive-thru experience.

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