It sounds like a headline from The Onion, but no, this is true. When I went through the drive-thru tonight at our neighborhood Mickey D’s to treat the family to a first-day-of-school dessert, I asked for cups of water for five out of the seven of us. I quickly received a reply that cups of water were limited to two. “I can give you three, but that’s really more than I’m supposed to do,” said the drive-thru attendant. I asked for clarification, trying to understand exactly what she was saying. This was not something I expected! I asked if it was tied to an order amount, and she replied that no, it was two cups per order, and it was because of the cost of the cups.
I pressed further, because I wanted to understand what it would take to get more than just two cups of water. The attendant, thinking on her feet, asked how many people were in our car. “Seven,” was my reply. I had ordered individual dessert items for six of us, as well as one soft drink. Our youngest was asleep, so I only needed five cups of water to cover everyone else. She relented, saying she really shouldn’t be doing this, but we could have our five cups of water. She apologized again when we reached the window, saying it was an order from the district manager, and even though she didn’t agree with it, it was the policy.
So what’s the takeaway here? For one thing, the drive-thru attendant on duty tonight at the Spencerport, NY, McDonalds deserves a raise. She gets it: the relationship with the customer is the most important asset McDonalds has, and she is the primary person responsible for maintaining that relationship. She provided excellent service, was very understanding, and ultimately took our weird experience and transformed it into one that met our needs.
There’s another point here, though. The district manager or whoever made the “two cups per order” call doesn’t get it. Whether or not it makes economic sense, the availability of “free” cups of water to restaurant customers is a long-established tradition in the US. For the vast majority of my 30-some years in this country, I’ve ordered water with my meals, whether that be in a fast-food joint or an upscale eatery. It’s what my parents did, too. While one could argue whether or not it makes sense, free water with a meal has taken on the sense of a “right” that consumers are guaranteed and expect. In many restaurants, the water shows up whether you ask for it or not. To go against that custom will inevitably lead to dissonance with the customers, weakening the relationship.
Furthermore, the explanation and the limit don’t even make sense. The high cost of the cups was the reason given, which could be debated, considering even restaurants that serve water in re-usable glasses still have to pay for the distribution of the water and the washing of the dishes. Even if you allow that cups simply cost too much for McDonalds to be able to afford to give them away with a purchase (which is quite the statement, considering this is the company known for giving away toys with kids’ meals), the limit is incongruous with the cause. A more logical limit would be to tie the number of cups to the cost of the food ordered, i.e., one cup of water for every $3 spent or something along those lines. Or, you could limit it to one cup per person in your party. Better yet, simply charge for the water. I’ve found various prices for paper cups online, but it seems McDonalds could charge somewhere in the $0.25 per cup range and still make a profit. Granted, I wouldn’t have been thrilled with any of these responses, but at least they would have made sense.
You’d think that McDonalds, with years of experience in cultivating customer relationships, would understand all of this. Apparently they do not. It’s a sad reality, but McDonalds’ customer relationships are drifting away from being something valued, instead becoming burdens too expensive to maintain. That doesn’t bode well for McDonald’s future success. When it comes to business in the 21st century, it’s the relationships that matter.
Ben Martin is the CEO of THE FATHER LIFE. He lives with his wife and five children in the Rochester, NY, area.