Press 1 for Fries

The voice from the speaker at the local McDonald's drive-through lane may no longer be that of a person working at the fast-food restaurant.

A handful of McDonald's restaurants have drive-through voice communications routed via a high-speed line to a call center, rather than to an employee on location. The call center employee reads back the order to the customer. Once the order is taken and confirmed at the call center, the call center agent transmits the details back to the restaurant via high-speed transmission line. The order details appear on the kitchen video screen for the on-site staff to assemble. A photo taken at the drive-through ordering board helps match the order with the customer. The photo is destroyed when the customer drives away.

This all occurs so fast that customers are unaware that their orders have gone high-tech, according to McDonald's spokesman Bill Whitman.

Routing the order to the call center rather than to a worker juggling greeting the customer, cooking, order assembly, making change, etc., enables the order-taker to concentrate on one job. Consequently, orders have been more accurate during the ongoing test of the system, according to Whitman. On-location employees may be assigned to a certain station, but they typically handle several chores at once.

The technology has also resulted in faster service, according to Whitman, though the actual amount of time saved hasn't been determined. McDonald's target order-handling time is 90 seconds. Speed is one of the most important customer service elements for fast-food restaurants, which is why some have experimented with transponder technology, and an increasing number are starting to accept payment cards. Payment-card transactions tend to be at least as fast as cashed-based transactions, with fewer errors, according to payment industry experts.

The call center ordering system was developed by franchisee Steve Bigari, who owns a handful of McDonald's restaurants in Colorado, according to Whitman. The call center also handles orders from a few other franchisees' restaurants, as well as tables at some of Bigari's McDonald's restaurants. Those locations have telephones at the tables for customers to place their orders.

Bigari researched all the hardware, software, communications lines, and call center technology before opening his call center about a year ago, according to Whitman. Though franchise operators have specific policies and procedures for franchisees, Bigari didn't need corporate approval before changing from the traditional drive-up communications system. He and McDonald's officials have been pleased with the results so far. "We're interested in anything that helps us streamline the process and provide better customer service," Whitman says.

However, Whitman stresses that the call center ordering system is still very experimental. "It's something we're going to continue to look at," Whitman says. "One of the challenges would be how to replicate that system for our more than 13,000 restaurants. We don't want our customers to be misled--we don't want people to think that this is something that will be coming to your neighborhood McDonald's any time soon. It is a test."

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