Customer Experience Insights From Fast-Food Chains

Hamburger and french fries

In today’s experience economy, customers are no longer comparing you to your direct competitors. They’re comparing you to every experience they’ve ever had, anywhere. With intense competition and ever-increasing customer expectations, it’s crucial for brands to seek inspiration from unexpected sources, including those completely outside of their industries.

In this article, I’m breaking down the customer experience lessons we can learn from chain restaurants through the lens of my SUPER Model framework. Despite being often overlooked as mundane or unremarkable, fast-food chains have silently honed their customer experience strategies to perfection. From the operational efficiency to the innovative use of technology, both fast-food and quick-serve chains are often unsung heroes of customer centricity at scale. 🦸 

Keep reading to find out which chain excels at each step of the SUPER Model and their key ingredients that can fuel success in any category. 

S: Start With Your Story – Sonic

At a glance, many fast-food chain brands blend together. McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s definitely share brand personality traits. One franchise that really stands out despite its burger-centric menu? Sonic. They’ve created a unique customer experience by “sticking to what made drive-ins so popular in the first place: made-to-order American classics, signature menu items, speedy service from friendly Carhops and heaping helpings of fun and personality.” 

Doubling down on its motto of “America’s drive-in,” Sonic locations often host car shows and gatherings for automotive enthusiasts. In fact, a Tennessee restaurant is hosting its 5th Annual Sonic Hot Rod Nationals Open Car/Truck Show this summer with tons of games and prizes, including an award given to an individual who has had an impact on the classic and vintage automotive restoration industry. 

Sonic’s distinct branding, complemented by its carhop service and vintage ordering system, has set the brand apart and established itself as the destination for a nostalgic and fun dining experience.

APPLY THIS TO YOUR BUSINESS:

Identify ways that you can further tell your origin story. Whether it’s through your physical location design, voicemail message, website branding, customer giveaways, or donations to charitable organizations related to your story, there are endless touchpoints that can reinforce your brand with your customers.

U: Understand Your Customer’s Story – McDonald’s

If you’re looking for a masterclass in understanding your customer’s story, look no further than McDonald’s. McDonald’s excels at segmenting its audience and serving them equally.

The fast-food chain draws in millions of pop-culture lovers with its rotating slate of celebrity-inspired meals. Meanwhile, kids who’ve never heard of the celebrities who rep for McDonald’s beg to stop when they see the Golden Arches because of the licensed Happy Meal toys or the PlayPlace playground. And, of course, the special offers in the McDonald’s app and its bargain menus appeal to budget-conscious customers. None of these campaigns interferes with the others because they’re all designed to connect with different customers. You can connect more than one of your stories with more than one community of customers simultaneously. 

APPLY THIS TO YOUR BUSINESS:

There are several ways to segment your audience, including demographically, behaviorally, psychographically, and geographically, to name just a few. Figure out which method makes the most sense for your company, and create two or three customer segments for your brand.

P: Personalize – Starbucks

I’m not a huge coffee drinker, but I’ve always appreciated the personalization at Starbucks. In addition to the highly customizable beverage options, Starbucks combines low-tech and high-tech tactics to personalize their customer experience.

The baristas are trained to write customers’ names on their coffee cups, a seemingly small gesture that helps patrons feel acknowledged. Sometimes, they’ll write funny nicknames or purposely misspell the name to transform a neutral interaction into an amusing one. Meanwhile, the Starbucks Rewards App offers personalized perks based on customers’ preferences and purchasing history. Members receive customized offers (like a free birthday drink!), free refills on select drinks, and a digital dashboard to track their rewards.

APPLY THIS TO YOUR BUSINESS:

Ask your customers for their communication preferences and then tailor your outreach accordingly. When you incorporate their preferences, they’ll think you’re easier to work with and feel like they’re getting individualized attention from you. 

E: Exceed Expectations – Chick-fil-A

TBH, I could have written about Chick-fil-A for any category (in fact, I wrote about its strong branding in a previous newsletter), but I’ll highlight some of the many ways the brand consistently exceeds customers’ expectations. Chick-fil-A employees are taught to provide ‘second mile service’ to all customers by responding to each request with a friendly “My pleasure” and seeking out ways to WOW their guests. 

Last summer, when CFA announced on social media that their seasonal peach milkshakes were back, customer Beth Ann Smith commented that her late grandmother was so obsessed with the milkshakes that she chose to have one instead of a cake on her 97th birthday. Because her grandmother had just passed away, Beth said she’d be having many peach milkshakes in her honor. Chick-fil-A saw the comment and asked Beth to send them a picture of her grandmother enjoying the special treats. A few weeks later, Beth was stunned when a package from CFA came in the mail with a hand-written note, an ice cream keychain, a mug, milkshake voucher cards, and a beautiful peach-colored frame with a photo of her grandmother drinking her peach milkshake. 🥹

APPLY THIS TO YOUR BUSINESS:

Kindness is the easiest and most effective way to leave a lasting impression. If you can ensure a smile and friendly attitude in each interaction, you’ll quickly exceed your customers’ expectations. You can even steal the line, “my pleasure” from the Chick-fil-A team. 

R: Repeat – Domino’s

‘Repeat’ is the main philosophy behind chain restaurants. The consistent and predictable experience creates a sense of familiarity and comfort for customers and a well-known brand reputation. 

However, Domino’s especially excels at the final step in the SUPER Model by leveraging technology to streamline its customer experience and ensure repeat business. Domino’s was one of the first chains to develop a robust app, allowing customers to track their pizza from the moment it’s prepared until it arrives at their doorstep. Over the years, the pizza chain has further simplified its ordering process down to single — or even zero — clicks.  According to Next Gen Customer Experience (and yours truly, a frequent customer!), customers can save their favorite menu option on the Domino’s app and enable the zero-click ordering option. You will automatically place an order after 10 seconds of opening the app. 

Even cooler? Domino’s developed a Hotspot feature within the app. This helps users order delivery to locations without traditional addresses, such as beaches, parks, or sports fields.  Lastly, Domino’s was an early adopter of voice-activated ordering, integrating with Amazon Echo and Google Home devices to enable hands-free interactions. No one tell my five-year-old, please!

With such innovative systems in place, Domino’s has created an exceptional customer experience that drives customer retention and loyalty. 

APPLY THIS TO YOUR BUSINESS:

I challenge you to find ONE task in your business that you can automate or delegate to someone else. Just one! This could be as simple as creating a template for an email you send over and over again.

Whether it’s harnessing the power of branding, optimizing digital platforms, or implementing effective training programs, fast-food chains offer a blueprint for exceptional customer experience for any business. I’d love to know: which industry would you like me to delve into next?

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