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Mr. Big

Welcome to McDonald's, where Steve Bigari is lovin' it.

Exit41 started by developing high-end cashier software for the front counters, but it wasn't until Tengler met with Bigari a little over three years ago that the company discovered its full potential. They realized that what Bigari needed to improve the quality, accuracy and speed of his drive-thru business was a call center.

Today, none of the drive-thru orders at a Bigari McDonald's are taken by workers inside that store. The responsibility has been shifted to a fleet of employees located in the call center at Bigari Food Enterprises headquarters. Inside one big room are twelve cubicles, each containing a telephone, headset and computer. When a car pulls up to a speaker box, a magnetic detector buried in the drive-thru lane goes off, prompting an employee in one of the call-center cubicles to say into her headset, "Welcome to McDonald's, what can I get for you?" -- which is instantaneously piped out of the speaker box. As the customer relays his order, the employee enters it into her computer. Before she has a chance to say the cost of the meal, the order is displayed on a color-coded screen in the restaurant's kitchen just a few yards from the drive-thru customer, and the order is assembled and ready to go by the time the customer arrives at the drive-thru window. To avoid sequencing problems and ensure that the right meal goes to the right car, another computer screen inside the store shows a breakdown of the order along with a digital snapshot of the customer and his car. As the customer pays and drives away with his meal, the snapshot is erased.

The benefits of the drive-thru call center have been incalculable, Bigari says. Fast-food speed has always been dependent on a division of labor: One person grills the meat, another assembles the burger, another hands it to the customer. With the help of Exit41, Bigari took the principle one step further, isolating the pivotal task of order-taking from the restaurant's hustle and bustle. The result has been drastically increased drive-thru speeds, typically well under ninety seconds per order compared to a McDonald's national average of about two and a half minutes. Less time equals more sales; capacity begets volume. The specially trained, single-focus call-center employees are also more accurate. Bigari reports that mistakes have been cut in half, down to 1 percent of all orders.

The 35 or so call-center employees -- who keep the center staffed 24 hours a day and are paid an average of 25 to 50 cents more an hour than those preparing the food -- are taught the subtle arts of up-sell and suggestive sell. "Would you like a large soda with that?" they'll offer, or "Would you like a dessert today?" And Bigari has installed phones all over his restaurants that also lead to the call center. A customer can sit in one of his PlayPlaces, pick up a phone, place his order, swipe his credit card, and within minutes, his meal arrives on a shiny plastic tray. All told, Bigari says, the call center has saved his restaurants hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The call-center concept was bound to spread beyond Colorado Springs. A couple of years ago, Glen Cook, a McDonald's franchisee based in Brainerd, Minnesota, took a look at Bigari's operation. A few months later, Bigari was in Brainerd, listening to the voices of his Colorado Springs call-center employees coming out of Cook's speaker boxes. Soon the call center was also handling drive-thru traffic at stores in Missouri and Massachusetts.

"This country has put in a telecommunications infrastructure that we can take advantage of," says Tengler. "The connections across the country are such that someone in Brainerd, Minnesota, can benefit from this just as much as someone from Boston or Colorado Springs. You can imagine the impact this is going to have on the coasts, where labor is more expensive."

Some bloggers are imagining just that, and they don't like what they see. Under banners decrying "Outsizing at McDonald's!" they're making online predictions that drive-thru call centers will lead to layoffs at fast-food restaurants as a portion of the workload is shipped to parts of the country -- or the world -- where labor costs are the big-business equivalent of an extra-value meal.

Such doomsayers miss the point, according to Bigari. "More dollars means more jobs," he says. "I'm doing so many more transactions, I need that many more people."

He estimates the call center has resulted in about sixty new jobs in his company, including four to five more employees at each restaurant to handle the higher customer volume. In Brainerd, Cook reports similar staff supersizing.

And more jobs could be on the way. Bigari and fellow fast-food visionaries keep cooking up new ways to improve the drive-thru ballet. How about paying for your orders on the go via a speedpass like those used in highway toll booths? How about pre-selected orders on your BlackBerry that can be sent to the restaurant? How about calling the call center on your cell phone before you even get to the store?

"When we figure out cell-phone orders? Ho, ho, ho! You could order across the street!" says Bigari. Still standing outside his restaurant, he convulses with laughter over the possibilities. In the drive-thru lane nearby, drivers turn to watch, momentarily distracted from their flow toward the window.

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