McDonald's: Want VOIP with That?

A hungry consumer pulls up to the drive-through window in a California McDonald's restaurant and places a dinner order. The person taking the order points out that the caller placed only three drink orders for four dinners and reminds the diner of a special that day on apple pie.

This might be a fairly typical fast-food?or, in industry parlance, QSR for quick-service restaurant?exchange were it not for the fact that the customer and the order-taker are dozens of miles apart, connected through a VPN-secured voice-over-IP hookup.

Although it's unlikely to ever replace the chain's once-famous slogan, "you deserve a break-even today" is more in line with the financial motivation behind the initial nine-store experiment.

The move leverages efficiencies in the ordering process, even factoring in the rush-hour delay between one order being completed and the time it takes for the next car to pull up and roll down the window.

"When we had two stores, we had to have two people. At six stores, even at the busiest times, five people could handle it," said Doug King, president of Bronco Communications Inc., who is managing the McDonald's experiment. "At nine stores, the efficiencies get greater and greater. At nine stores, we can manage it with six, assuming a manager is nearby to handle the periodic overflow."

Underneath the sesame seed bun is an assortment of PC-based current technology?VOIP riding on a 768K DSL connection through a VPN, all headed to a proprietary patent-pending voice-order-processor.

Turning ketchup packets into voice packets is made all the more difficult because of their having to connect with out-of-date drive-through speaker and microphone systems.

"We're using VOIP to talk through the existing speaker input and these things are of all different vintages," King said. "The speaker boxes, some of them have been out there for literally 20 or 30 years. They are using all different kinds of mics, including some that still use 'push to talk' technology. We've developed our own hardware interface that lets us standardly connect with all of those systems."

King argues, however, that the call center drive-through approach is not merely a factor of efficiency. The position answering those drive-through calls is "the absolute hardest to train. It involves knowing the menu and knowing all the buttons," King said, as well as understanding short- and long-term special promotions such as offering two apple pies for a dollar.

"Today's thing is if they order a Big Mac, to ask them if they want it in a meal," King said. "Spotting the deficiencies in an order?such as if they didn't order a drink?is critical."

King's position is that a call center allows for greater training and employees who can focus fully on the calls, and that doing all of this will leverage a call center's inherent efficiency.

After this initial experiment, King said, he wants to move this effort beyond drive-throughs and use kiosks to move into other locations, such as restaurants within malls or where a drive-through is prohibited.

The system also has a backup system. When McDonald's hardware detects a car pulling up, it alerts the call center to start the process. If there is a problem?either because of a network outage or excessive congestion at the call center?the system automatically plays a voice recording asking customers to please wait.

If no response comes within 30 seconds, it plays a second message asking the customer to the move to the first window where the order is taken manually. Store employees then quickly revert and put on their old headsets and take over order-taking until the call center is reconnected.

Just such a problem happened on Tuesday, when the company's ISP suffered some routing problems between SBC Communications and MCI, said Glen Miller, general manager at Bronco. The problem was resolved when calls were moved to an AT&T pipe.

"We couldn't take orders for four hours," Miller said. "It was the longest outage we have had."