The best drive thrus run like machines. Simple goals are met over and over: Orders go out quickly, the food is delivered fresh, and the right orders get to the right cars. But in the drive thru, pressure can run high and the smallest mistakes can prove catastrophic, backing up lines and spelling disaster for both customers and the restaurant’s bottom line.
With so much stress to deliver on metrics like speed and order accuracy, some employees might be tempted to forget about a seemingly secondary goal like customer service. After all, it’s hard to quantify, difficult to spot, and tough to teach. But experts say genuine customer service can encourage diners to come again, while a bad service experience could be enough to convince a customer to never return.
For now, it would appear customer service is one of the last drive-thru components that is in need of significant improvement. Quick serves have invested heavily in all other areas, with pre-sell menuboards helping to speed up the process, order-confirmation boards preventing the confusion and disappointment caused by incorrect orders, and suggestive sells increasing the average ticket price.
Those operational improvements are reflected in brands’ performance. Though volatile year over year, metrics for speed and accuracy have generally improved over time in QSR’s Drive-Thru Performance Study. The seven benchmark brands studied this year completed orders with an average service time of 180.83 seconds. Accuracy rates for the seven brands for the most part hover just below 90 percent.
Strong customer service, however, remains elusive. In this year’s Study, only 33 percent of visits to benchmark brands resulted in a “very friendly” customer-service experience, with 40.3 percent coming in as “pleasant.” But industry insiders say it’s hard to understate the value of giving customers something special by way of customer service—a warm welcome, a friendly smile, or a kind word.
“It’s not a transaction. This is an experience,” says Adam Noyes, chief restaurant operations officer for Checkers/Rally’s restaurants. “They want to drive away feeling good about their three minutes. ... Having that connection with your guests is what I think really makes the difference in being able to steal share from your competitors.”
Operators say that smart hiring and training—and retraining—are the best ways to ensure that guests receive exceptional service. Checkers/Rally’s implemented a new automated hiring system that can detect customer-service skills early on. An online learning management system ensures that employees stay sharp. The two brands also offer bonuses to all employees, not just management. In addition to rewarding strong sales, speed, and accuracy, those bonuses offer incentives for meeting service-related benchmarks.
In the last six years, Noyes says, Checkers/Rally’s has reduced service times, as well as improved overall guest satisfaction, which includes metrics like staff friendliness. Ultimately, he says, drive-thru customers want it all.
“Guests lead very busy lives,” Noyes says. “This, many times, is an escape from work, or sometimes home. They want to be able to count on the fact that they can get their food quickly and hot. But you can’t just stop there. You’ve got to provide that friendly service, too.”
Some customers may be turned off by a drive thru that operates too robotically. But too much focus on speed can also hurt a drive thru’s quality and accuracy, says Scott Boatwright, Arby’s senior vice president of operations. “I don’t think the customers want to be herded through like cattle,” he says.
Boatwright says the roast beef chain puts quality first, not speed. But he adds that there’s no ignoring the role of good service. That means every drive-thru window needs an employee with a friendly personality and positive demeanor.
“I want to hear a smile through the speaker post,” Boatwright says.
That’s where hiring becomes key, because genuine friendliness just can’t be taught, he says. Some may be able to fake it for a while, but only up until something goes wrong.
“It’s a pressure cooker at lunch and dinner,” he says. “In those moments, you revert back to your natural tendencies and who you really are.”
Rob Savage, chief operations officer at Taco Bell, says building great customer service in the drive thru does indeed begin during the hiring process.
“We had a franchisee a few years ago at a conference tell us that you need to hire cheerleaders and teach them to make tacos,” Savage says. “We pay particular attention to selecting people who like to engage with people. That might sound like a no brainer, but in a world of these personal devices and game players, you don’t always find people that like to interact with others.
“We bring them in with that raw skill, and then we teach them our ways of doing it through our learning zone,” he adds.
Savage says that, several years ago, Taco Bell studied other top companies about tactics they used to empower employees and teach them great customer service.
“It’s not easy. We all look at it and say, well, couldn’t you just put a friendly person there,” he says. “Well you know what, first, finding that person; second, building their capability; and third, reinforcing that and rewarding that as part of our recognition culture, all of those are important elements to bringing it to life. So you really can’t take it for granted.”
There are some experts who still debate whether customer service is crucial at the quick-service drive thru. Some think that customers will forgive an employee’s bad attitude so long as their order is delivered hot and fast, while others hold hospitality up along with the quality of the food. But everyone believes that great service can build loyalty, and loyalty increases the likelihood of repeat business.
“I think you build a little more loyalty to a specific store, but I think you also realize if you’re on the other side of town or in another town, that you’re still going to get that same level of hospitality and service,” says Thom Crosby, CEO of Pal’s Sudden Service, a Kingsport, Tennessee–based regional burger chain.
Pal’s has grown to something of a legend in the quick-serve arena; stores can move a car through the drive-thru window every 18 seconds under full pressure. And the Pal’s Business Excellence Institute works to help an array of companies improve their performance. But for all its speed, service remains a focal point at Pal’s.
“All businesses are built around human beings,” Crosby says. “And the sales transaction is based around hospitality and providing good food. I think it’s vital in building repeat businesses and building relationships with your customers.”