The best drive thru restaurants 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.”