Do You Want Fr-AI’s with that?

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Imagine you’re pulling up to your local McDonald’s, hunger gnawing at your insides like an angry wolf. You place your order, enunciating as clearly as a drama school graduate in an effort to make sure the new AI drive-thru system gets it right. You finish with a sense of satisfaction, only to drive up and find yourself handed a bag of random items — maybe some packets of ketchup, a coke that’s mysteriously transformed into a diet tea, and no sign of those fries you were craving. Welcome to the dystopian nightmare that is McDonald’s AI-powered drive-thru trial. 

In a move that seemed straight out of a sci-fi flick where machines rise against humans, McDonald’s decided to trial an AI system to take orders at their drive-thrus. 

The rationale? To cut costs, streamline operations, and, perhaps most crucially, to mitigate labour shortages. The idea was simple: replace humans with robots. The execution, however, was nothing short of a comedy of errors. Customers were subjected to laughably incorrect orders, bizarre substitutions, and a frustratingly surreal experience that would make Kafka blush. 

When AI Gets Your Order Wrong: Lessons for Customer Experience 

McDonald’s ambitious foray into AI ordering systems has been a spectacular showcase of what happens when technology leaps without looking. The AI drive-thru system, expected to hit a 95% accuracy rate, fell flat on its face, delivering an accuracy rate languishing in the low 80s. That’s a sizable gap, especially when you’re expecting a Big Mac and end up with a McFlurry instead​ (Futurism)​​ (Mashed)​. 

For those in the customer experience (CX) and contact centre industry, McDonald’s misadventure is a textbook example of what not to do when integrating new technology. Here’s a rundown of the key takeaways: 

  1. Test Thoroughly Before Scaling: McDonald’s rolled out its AI system to several outlets with high hopes but without enough rigorous testing. The result? A series of epic fails documented gleefully by frustrated customers on TikTok and other social media platforms. In the CX world, this is akin to deploying a new customer service platform without adequate testing. Always ensure your tech works flawlessly before it hits the front lines. 
  1. Human Oversight is Crucial: While the idea of AI handling mundane tasks is tempting, the reality is that complex or nuanced customer interactions often require a human touch. The AI at McDonald’s couldn’t handle variations or corrections well, leading to comically incorrect orders. Contact centres should heed this lesson: AI can assist, but it should never fully replace the human element. Automation should complement, not complicate. 
  1. Customer Frustration Can Go Viral: In today’s hyper-connected world, a single negative experience can explode online. McDonald’s underestimated the social media prowess of its younger customers, who turned their AI ordeals into viral content. CX leaders must understand that poor service, especially if delivered by a supposedly advanced system, can quickly become a PR nightmare. The backlash from botched interactions can erode brand trust faster than you can say “super-size.” 
  1. Continuous Improvement is Non-Negotiable: One of the AI system’s biggest failings was its inability to adapt and learn from its mistakes quickly enough. In customer service, constant monitoring and feedback loops are essential. AI tools should be refined and updated regularly to improve their performance and keep up with evolving customer expectations. 
  1. Set Realistic Expectations: The promise of a 95% accuracy rate set the bar high, only for the reality to fall short. In customer service, it’s vital to set achievable goals and communicate these transparently to customers. Overpromising and underdelivering can lead to disappointment and dissatisfaction. 

The CX Parallel: Avoiding the Same Pitfalls 

In the world of CX and contact centres, AI and automation have also been touted as the next big thing. From chatbots that handle simple queries to sophisticated systems that predict customer needs, the potential is vast. But as McDonald’s experience shows, the road to automation is fraught with challenges. 

Let’s delve into some more parallels: 

  • Automation with Empathy: AI in contact centres can handle repetitive tasks, but it often lacks the empathy needed for more complex interactions. McDonald’s AI could not understand the frustration of a customer trying to correct an order. Similarly, in a contact centre, while AI can initiate a conversation or provide basic information, complex issues still require a human agent who can empathise and respond appropriately. 
  • Integration Challenges: McDonald’s AI seemed out of sync with the real-world expectations of its users. In contact centres, seamless integration of AI with existing systems is crucial. AI tools should enhance the customer journey, not disrupt it. For example, a chatbot should be able to transfer to a live agent smoothly if it can’t resolve an issue. 
  • Data Privacy Concerns: One lesser-known aspect of McDonald’s AI trial was the collection of voice prints and other personal data without explicit consent, leading to legal challenges​ (Mashed)​. Contact centres must navigate similar waters carefully, ensuring that any data collected through AI interactions is handled in compliance with privacy laws and with full transparency to the customers. 
  • Managing the Human Element: In their rush to deploy AI, McDonald’s seemed to overlook the impact on their human employees and customers. In contact centres, the transition to AI should involve upskilling staff to work alongside technology, rather than viewing it as a replacement. Employees should be seen as integral to the customer service process, not as cogs to be replaced by machines. 

Humour in the Chaos: McDonald’s AI Fails 

Humour can be found even in the most frustrating situations, and McDonald’s AI drive-thru was no exception. Social media was ablaze with stories of orders gone hilariously wrong. One customer ended up with over $250 worth of chicken nuggets after the AI went rogue, while another couldn’t get their caramel ice cream removed from the order despite numerous attempts​ (Futurism)​. These tales of woe were shared widely, turning McDonald’s tech trial into an unintended comedy show. 

Imagine a scenario in a contact centre where an AI system, designed to simplify interactions, starts recommending products that customers don’t need or want. Instead of resolving issues, it could turn every conversation into a surreal exchange. The lesson here? Ensure that your AI is tuned to serve, not to baffle or bemuse your customers. 

Wrapping It Up: McDonald’s AI Saga as a Cautionary Tale 

McDonald’s AI drive-thru experiment is a perfect storm of overhyped promises meeting underwhelming delivery. For the contact centre industry, it’s a vivid reminder that while AI and automation offer incredible potential, they must be implemented thoughtfully and managed diligently. 

To avoid the pitfalls McDonald’s faced: 

  • Prioritise Robust Testing: Ensure your AI systems are thoroughly tested and refined before going live. 
  • Maintain Human Oversight: Use AI to assist, not replace, your human agents. Empathy and understanding still require a human touch. 
  • Communicate Transparently: Set realistic expectations and be transparent with customers about what your AI can and cannot do. 
  • Focus on Continuous Improvement: Regularly update and improve your AI systems based on customer feedback and performance metrics. 
  • Respect Data Privacy: Handle all customer data responsibly and in compliance with legal requirements. 

In the end, McDonald’s AI drive-thru might have been an attempt to push the boundaries of what’s possible with technology, but it also serves as a stark reminder that in the realm of customer service, there’s no substitute for getting it right — and sometimes, getting it right means keeping a human in the loop. 

So, next time you think about replacing your contact centre agents with AI, remember McDonald’s and their nugget apocalypse. 


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