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In turnaround, McDonald’s focuses on accuracy

To keep its sales revival going, chain aims to get the order just right

The burger chain has adopted an “ask, ask, tell” policy that involves repeating the customer’s order to ensure that no detail is incorrect.
The burger chain has adopted an “ask, ask, tell” policy that involves repeating the customer’s order to ensure that no detail is incorrect.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

CHICAGO — When you're cruising the drive-thru, what matters more, how quickly you get your Big Mac or whether they remembered to hold the pickles?

McDonald's is betting on the latter. In its latest comeback maneuver, the world's largest restaurant chain is switching up the outdoor ordering process to make it more personal, and hopefully, more accurate. The new method — called ''ask, ask, tell'' in McDonald's speak — provides three opportunities to check that what the customer requested is what the customer gets.

That's crucial, because about 70 percent of sales are made to people who don't leave their vehicles. To make the experience more pleasant, the company has also asked restaurants to turn off prerecorded drive-thru greetings so that real workers say hello to customers instead.

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And then there's this: Employees should no longer fold over the tops of paper bags but leave them open so the contents can be inspected.

''They've got to get it right in the drive-thru because it touches so much of their business,'' said Peter Saleh, an analyst at BTIG Research. ''Things are moving in the right direction.''

Accuracy had become an issue, particularly after the menu grew unwieldy over the past five years with the addition of a slew of new offerings, such as honey mustard and chipotle barbecue snack wraps, and the introduction of limited-time specials like Mighty Wings.

So over the summer, the chain removed more than half of 130 offerings from outdoor menu boards, highlighting just the bestsellers. ''Simplifying the drive-thru operation underpins everything else we're doing,'' chief executive Steve Easterbrook said on a conference call in October.

Since becoming CEO in March, amid the company's worst sales slump in more than a decade, Easterbrook has made waves, turning breakfast into an all-day thing, demanding toastier hamburger buns, and experimenting with kale. He has spearheaded initiatives to streamline kitchens, speed up service, and improve order precision.

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His efforts got a boost last month when McDonald's announced a gain in US sales after seven consecutive quarters of declines. Now Easterbrook, who previously announced plans to cut costs and return more cash to shareholders, expects to cut overhead expenses by $500 million a year.

But first, the basics.

Service had slowed to the point that drive-thru waits in 2013 grew to their longest since at least 1998, according to a study by QSR magazine and Insula Research; 2013 is the most recent year for which data are available. That year, McDonald's got about 88 percent of its drive-thru orders right, better than some rivals, including Wendy's Co., but worse than Taco Bell and Chick-fil-A.

''We've got humans working in the drive-thru. There's just no way to automate that,'' said Dick Adams, a restaurant consultant in San Diego and a former McDonald's store owner.

Competitors are taking other routes. Starbucks Corp., a leader among fast-food companies with its mobile-ordering capabilities and rewards program, is introducing video screens at 2,400 of its US drive-thru locations. The screens, which allow the person in the car to see the person in the store, are part of a push to use technology to improve efficiency and personalize service.

At McDonald's, ask, ask, tell started over the summer; it's optional for franchisees, who own about 90 percent of the chain's 14,350 US stores.

Here's how it works: After a customer orders, an employee repeats the full order and asks if it's correct, and the customer is asked again at the window where he or she pays. The tell comes when the food changes hands: The employee reminds the customer what's in the bag.

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