McDonald's Messes Up: How Not to Handle Service Mistakes

Last Updated Aug 16, 2011 4:34 PM EDT

Penny Sheldon, a travel agent from Boise, Id., contacted me after an unpleasant rendezvous at a McDonald's restaurant in Paris. When she tried to take a picture of the menu board, an employee, apparently upset that she'd been photographed, demanded Sheldon delete the image from her camera.

McDonald's insists Sheldon wasn't touched during the confrontation. But Sheldon remembers it differently.

"She grabbed me by my arm and jacket and threw my back against the open door, all the while grabbing at different parts of my coat with one hand and pinning me there with another," Sheldon told me.

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When I asked McDonald's about the incident, a representative described it as an "unfortunate misunderstanding" that had been compounded by language barriers. She said McDonald's regretted the incident and had counseled the employee.

Details are on my consumer advocacy site. You can read the angry back-and-forth between Sheldon and her supporters, who say she was the victim of anti-American sentiment and an insensitive corporation, and the Francophiles who believe the naïve American tourist had it coming.

What really happened?
I have no idea. But one thing I do know: This doesn't look good for McDonald's.

All of which brings me to today's topic, which is what you can learn from your customer service mistakes. Errors are excellent learning opportunities, not just for customers, but also for the companies serving them.

This was, even by McDonald's own admission, an error. It doesn't train crew members »" that's what they call employees in McDonaldland - to confront customers, to force them to delete their photos, or, as Sheldon alleges, to assault them.

Oui, even in France, where the rules are different.

1. Even when you're right, you can be wrong. McDonald's launched its own investigation, which (no surprise) vindicated the restaurant and its employees. This kind of thing happens a lot when I inquire about an incident as a consumer advocate. A company will technically be right about something »" in other words, they followed a government rule or law to the letter, but still be "wrong" in the eyes of its own consumers.

McDonald's may have been right about what happened to Sheldon, but right doesn't matter to the customers who read her account. They see a guest being confronted by an employee. And it makes them want to make a beeline for Burger King.

2. The faster you admit to the mistake, the better. Not coming clean quickly can be an expensive mistake. And it doesn't just cost customers (and money) but also valuable reputation points that can never be regained. Some of my favorites are the airline ticket refunds that I feature in my weekly travel columns. Here's a woman who had to wait a year for her money back. And here's someone who had to wait two years.

Mostly, though, businesses drag their feet when they've been accused of wrongdoing. That gives the social-mediasphere time to get started with its hateful comments, single-topic blogs and Twitter rants. Better to cut 'em off at the pass and fess up to the problem.

3. If you think this mistake is painful, it's not nearly as bad as failing to learn from it. I encounter companies like that every single day, and chances are, so do you. They range from the obstinate wireless carriers that embrace worst-practices, to the banks that come up with ever-more creative fees »" over the loud objections of their own customers.

Getting dinged for bad service, as Chase did a few weeks ago, is one thing. But did the bank learn anything from the meltdown? As far as I can tell, the answer is no. I haven't seen any sweeping new customer-service initiatives or policy changes announced as a result of the incident. It just wants to put the whole thing behind it »" a perfectly understandable sentiment.

Too bad. It could learn a lot more from the event with a thorough review and a specific public confession, as opposed to the vague apology it issued.

Service mistakes, and actually, mistakes in general, are wonderful learning opportunities for businesses. That's one of the tenets of Kathryn Schulz's book, "Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error." (Even if you don't read the book, see her fascinating speech at a recent TED conference.)

Being wrong, in other words, isn't so terrible. Not learning from your mistakes is.

Related: Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He's the author of the upcoming book Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, which critics have called it "eye-opening" and "inspiring." You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
Photo: lsc21/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.

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