McDonald's harnessing technology to understand its customers

Engaging consumers and stimulating loyalty are key goals for all retailers and hospitality businesses, but with so many shoppers or diners visiting on a daily basis, the multinational chains face a stiff challenge to create that desired connection with individual customers.

At the 2013 Fujitsu Forum in Munich, Germany this week, McDonald's UK IT & digital director Mark Fabes explained how the restaurant group is using technology to tackle some of these challenges.

Systems recently used revolve around mobile commerce and smartphone apps, but trials are underway in the restaurants that may lead to wider usage of self-service machines in McDonald's outlets that fit in with the modern consumer's desire to shop using technology.

Fabes said that it is crucial for retailers and hospitality businesses, especially those that are operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week and on a global scale, to implement the correct IT infrastructure to support customer-facing technology.

"If a system doesn't work the first time a customer uses it, they won't use it again," he argued.

An example of new technology that Fabes said was particularly well received by McDonald's customers, is the smartphone app it recently launched to help promote smoothies in the UK.

Users were encouraged to 'break the ice' on screen – either by holding the app in sunlight or touching their screens to remove the ice. Some users would discover a digital voucher underneath to be redeemed in store, while the app also provided links to other McDonald's-themed games.

"It's a good example of what we've done around gamification," Fabes remarked.

"Once used in a restaurant, the app is swiped to fill up the virtual glass, which ends the offer. It had a very positive impact on the launch of that particular product."

It is also an example of a retail business being able to monitor who accessed the voucher, as well as when they redeemed it. In a world where the vast majority of coupons are not redeemed, the McDonald's app offered personal customer engagement and clever data capturing techniques, although the shopper had to opt in to share their information.

McDonald's UK recently started working with Fujitsu, with the vendor brought in on a break-fixing engineering contract, but the restaurant group is now exploring further ways in which the two companies can work together – particularly around infrastructure support and cloud services.

Fabes indicated that the global vendor could help the fast food chain capture customer data, but suggested that being able to use this information to personalise customer service is about finding the right value exchange with consumers.

"Millennials are more willing to share their data [than the older generations]," he explained, before adding that the older people get and the more they learn about data, the less willing they are to share it.

"I can see a point in time where people have a McDonald's account and a McDonald's ID."

Other tech systems currently being trialled in the fast food chain's UK operation include order kiosks, which have already been placed in 14 restaurants, and interactive table service tools which the company believes can help attract families to dine together.

All of these techniques highlight how McDonald's is using technology to provide a variety of services that cater for the different needs of its customers. In effect, that is a form of customer service personalisation.

Fabes admitted that there is still lots of work to do if the company is to fully understand what its customers require, and what will bring their loyalty, and part of that can be attributed to the fact consumers feel a lot more empowered in the shopping process than in the past, largely due to the advent of technology.

Sarah Kellett, associate director for consumer facing industries at Fujitsu, said: "Customers are now saying 'If I'm going to give you my opinion, then you have to reward me.' You only need a couple of bad case stories to put customers off."

For McDonald's and Fabes, who's job title has recently evolved from IT director to cover all things "digital", it appears there is significant work being placed into understanding the vast number of customers who pass through its doors every day.

"It's always exciting launching new technology – we test to learn and are not scared to fail," the IT boss noted. "It's all about knowing your customer."