We’ve Got the Hamburgers: a Customer Service Classic

I had a delightful dinner the other night at the home of a client in the Netherlands. It was his birthday, and at the dinner table was a mix of family friends and co-workers—all interesting, in part because all were very well-world-travelled.

One told me the following (possibly apocryphal) story.

When McDonald’s was first entering the market in Moscow, it placed a great deal of training emphasis on the elements of customer service. Fast, friendly, courteous, prompt—these were the principles McDonalds wanted its employees to embody in their relations with patrons.

An employee approached the trainer one day early in the process, with an offer to help. “Listen,” he said, “you seem like a nice person and I’d hate for you to appear foolish in front of the group, so let me explain something to you.”

The trainer was all ears, concerned that he had nearly made a faux pas, and grateful for the help.

“You see,” explained the employee, “we’ve got the hamburgers. The customers don’t. They want them—we’ve got them. They have no choice. They’ve got to go through us. And you don’t want them getting ideas about who holds the power here. Just remember—we’ve got the hamburgers. Now do you understand?”

Of course, it’s tempting to chuckle and say, how quaint, or can you believe the culture in Russia, or how dumb was that guy. Tempting, but wrong.

Because “we’ve got the burgers” syndrome lives on elsewhere.

• While looking at a car at a Saab dealership a few years ago, I asked to test-drive a model. “I really can’t do that now, I’m on break in 10 minutes and tomorrow’s my day off. Could you come back Friday?” Our burgers, our timetable.

• A customer at a discount clothing store was annoyed that the clerk kept talking with a co-worker while checking out—and making a few mistakes in the process. Transaction finished, the employee turned full attention to her conversation. The customer turned to leave, she said, “You know, a simple ‘thank you’ might have been nice.” Not turning to look, the clerk said, “It’s printed on the receipt.” You got your burger, you should be grateful.

• More subliminal, but no less real, is the implicit belief among consulting types that the client is buying knowledge and advice—and therefore is under a moral obligation to pay for any advice given, and to take it willingly. A client looking for the comfort of advance discussions is therefore trying to “get it for free,” and is ethically challenged if they don’t take the advice. How dare you challenge our burgers.

• When a corporate IT department is asked by a user for a capability like Skype, or instant messaging, they may get a lecture on why they don’t need Skype, or IM, but something else instead, and the real solution will take a while, cost more, and not do exactly what Skype or IM would do—but it’ll be great. You can’t handle the truth about our burgers.

“We’ve got the burgers” is not just a metaphor. It’s one symptom of a common disease—the disease of “it’s all about me.”

How about you? What’s your favorite "we’ve got the burgers" moment?

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