Talent Over AI: Which Fast Food Chain’s People Will Outperform Automation?

Kris Dunn A.I., Kris Dunn

I was driving back from vacation last week and saw the scene pictured below in a routine McDonald’s – many of you have seen the same thing, right?  Take a look (email subscribers click through to see the IG post below) and we’ll break it down after the jump:

So here we are.  You’ve stopped into a McDonald’s and you’re presented with the option of using automation to order and pay, or to speak with a live human.  What you do next squarely depends on your take related to the human behind the counter.

If you traditionally like the experience with the human, you’ll go that way.  If you’ve routinely been disappointed or underwhelmed, you start humming Mr. Roboto and maybe even make eye contact with the counter person while you’re using the automated display.

In an ironic and somewhat evolution-based twist, the person behind the counter is likely rooting for you to take the automation option.  That’s shortsighted for obvious reasons, but that’s the scene, right?

Which brings me to the big question for today’s post:

Which Fast Food Chain’s People Practice Has a Shot at Outperforming Automation Over Time?

Not an easy question, right?  To outperform automation, the human talent present at any fast food chain will need to provide service and revenue opportunities which drives brand loyalty and is clearly linked to business results.

We’ve all seen the eager counter person at McDonald’s who surprised and engaged us – but that’s not the norm.  To outperform automation over time, the experience for consumers has to be consistently excellent.

That means the list is short.  Here’s what I have.

Likely to outperform automation and keep live humans:

1–Chick-fil-A Seriously, what did you expect?  For my friends in the NE and West that don’t have a lot of opportunities to experience CFA customer service, it’s stellar.  It’s so stellar as a matter of fact that I once watched a Chick-fil-A counter beside a Taco Bell counter at the Hoover Galleria and had to stay for 30 minutes because the contrast was so real.  I felt like an anthropologist.

I don’t have a lot of information on the hiring process at Chick-fil-A, but let’s be clear.  They eliminate bad or even average eggs in their hiring process like I knock back coffee and Diet Mt. Dew, which is to say early/often/consistently and without discretion.

Chick-fil-A is a monster at hiring people who give quality service.  A good parenting question is this – do I think my kid is nice enough to get hired at Chick-fil-A?  If the answer is “I’m not sure”, you better start spanking the hell out of your kids now.

PS – I’m neutral on Chick-fil-A food and I’m aware of their past stance on gay rights.  You can hate the food and/or the stance, but the service is above reproach.  So much so that I got a bad counter person on the road a month ago and I was like, “How did this person get through?  Should I email the CEO?”

That’s how hard-wired the service expectation is.

2–No one else – As our POTUS would note, sad!

Unlikely to outperform automation and keep live humans:

1 through infinity–Everyone else – I’m looking at you, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Burger King and everyone else.

I get it – labor costs money.  So does training and high-end selection systems.  But how can Chick-fil-A get it so right and nobody else follows suit?

3 words: CULTURE IS HARD.  So is franchising, yo.

A small chance to outperform automation and keep live humans 10 years from now:

1–Fast Casual Chains like Moe’s and Chipotle that are at least somewhat high touch when it comes to food prep – Shops like Chipotle are considered fast-casual restaurants, meaning they offer a mashup of the convenience of a fast food chain and the quality and atmosphere of a casual, sit-down restaurant.  But many of us have come to consider them in the same choice stream as fast food, so I’ll include them here as well.

I’m on the record for evaluating the sincerity of the mandatory “Welcome to Moe’s” call I get when I enter the door.  Customization of food while you watch has a better chance to prevent automation through high touch/high-end service, but only if these type of fast-casual chains invest in the hiring process to the extent that Chick-fil-A has.

The robots are coming, my friends. The only thing that can stop it in fast food is if you enjoy/value the human interaction enough to demand it or avoid automation options presented.

Hit us in the comments with chains we haven’t considered that have a chance to ward off automation as a result of their kick a## people practices.