A million years ago, I worked my first W-2 job at my local McDonald’s. And sure, it wasn’t my most glamorous role, but I did learn a lot in my time flipping burgers that I still think about today.
At the time, the “cool” job was getting to work the grill. That’s probably counterintuitive — the main perks were that you got sweaty and reeked of onion. But it did just barely beat out asking people if they wanted fries with that, so it was a coveted role.
While working the grill, we’d get into busy periods where we’d all compete to see who could cook the fastest. Most of it was on a timer (don’t worry, we weren’t serving raw meat), but there were tricks like pre-measuring condiments and laying things out that could shave a few seconds off our times. But assembling the sandwiches was where the magic happened.
A Big Mac is a lot more than just a patty and a couple of buns. There's a specific way that things must be set up on the sandwich to give that classic Big Mac experience — put the pickles in the wrong spot or get sloppy with the sauce, and it's still perfectly edible, but it's not a Big Mac.
Well, suffice to say that the finer points of Big Mac integrity were lost on me at the time. We made them by the dozen, and if you really nailed it, you could toast the bread on a tray and flip them all over at once, saving precious seconds. But unfortunately, while these shortcuts were fun for the people in the back and made the time go by faster, they didn't translate to a better burger.
In fact, the faster we went, the sloppier we got. The lettuce wouldn’t be spread right, pickles would be in the wrong spot, and just generally, it would be a close approximation to a Big Mac, but not quite there. And hey, if 11 of the 12 Big Macs looked right, what did the teenager working the grill care if one was a little sad?
But really, it wasn't just one Big Mac out of 12. It wasn't a minor mistake or a statistical anomaly — it was someone's meal. And to the customer who got that one sad Big Mac, they might not have complained, but they were indeed less likely to enjoy it and order it the next time they wanted a quick bite.
Forgive me for waxing poetic about a sandwich, but part of McDonald’s universal appeal is that you can stop in, anywhere in the world, and get the same thing at any location. A Big Mac is a sandwich, yes, but it’s also a promise that you’re going to get what you’re expecting with no deviation. And when we were goofing around in the back, trimming seconds off our times, we were breaking that promise.
Unfortunately, it's not just stupid teenage boys who are guilty of this. Plenty of brands promise a certain standard and then fail to deliver. And I think it's in your interest to take stock and make sure you and your people deliver what you promise to your customers.
My first piece of advice is to examine your products for consistency. When I laid out those dozen Big Macs, you could tell the difference between "good" and “fine” quickly. Of course, that's harder in some businesses, like digital content or service providers that work outside of earshot, but you should still be tracking hard, quantitative data that you can review to make sure that your customers are getting what they're expecting.
And what are they expecting? Whether you intended to or not, I'd bet that your marketing and sales materials make some big promises to customers. So whether it's immediacy, pretty packaging or high quality, you need to check and make sure that's what you're delivering every time.
The good news is that you don't need to do all this in a day. First, inspect your highest yield product or service, then look for times where you fail to deliver. Is the cause a single person or area of the business? If so, fixing it shouldn't be too hard.
It'll be more challenging if the issue is inconsistent across your channels, but you can still run it down. Ask your staff what they think they're expected to deliver. Identify a workgroup that performs well and have them explain the standards and their approach to the work. Define product expectations, and make sure everyone's in the same place with them.
Repeat. Sooner or later, you'll start changing your delivery or your promises, and either one is wonderful. What matters is that you're giving your customers an accurate idea of what they can expect when they spend their money with you. You don't need to be all things to all people, but you do need to follow through on the promises made to your customers.
Doug Phares is the former CEO of the Sandusky News Group. He currently serves as managing director of Silverwind Enterprises, which owns and provides management services to small businesses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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