The Customer Vanishes

I rarely go to McDonalds. Firstly because I don’t approve of its market dominance, preferring small-to-medium-sized businesses, particularly in the restaurant area. Secondly, I don’t like their burgers – they’re too bland and something (possibly in the bread), gives me indigestion. This is partly because I grew up on Greek-Australian hamburgers, which are much spicier, and in fairness I must add that the chips at Maccas are usually good. But I’ve always made an exception for breakfast, because their US-style hotcakes and their coffee ain’t half bad. They are the closest I can get in Australia to my dream breakfast at The Original Pancake House in Bethesda, where I used to go when I lived in Washington. Besides, beach-side cafes have to charge so much in order to cover their swingeing rents that I can’t afford them.
Waiting in the queue, I was impressed with the self-service kiosks and the brilliant digital menu displays. The self-service kiosks, like supermarket self-checkouts, are a clear example of the current wave of replacement of human workers by machines. This is the future, no doubt about it, despite what McDonalds says.


I ordered hotcakes, hash browns and a flat white and was served with a perfect McDonalds smile.

When my order number flashed up on the screen, I picked it up and headed to a table. After having buttered my hotcakes and nibbled at a hash brown, I realised that I hadn’t got any milk for my coffee, so I went back to the counter and picked some up. To my utter consternation, on my return I discovered that during my 60 second absence, a server had cleared my table and tossed out 3 untouched hotcakes, a full cup of coffee and one and a half hash browns! After I had berated the very young lad responsible (keeping my protestations within civilised bounds), the staff were very apologetic and I was directed to the counter to get a replacement meal. Unfortunately their coffee machine had just that moment been put on the cleaning cycle, so I had to get a refund for that. The replacement meal and my refund came quickly and the manager tossed in a couple of free coffee coupons to make up for the inconvenience.

McDonalds is famous for having pioneered the use of comprehensively-designed work-practices and for their excellent staff training. What could possibly have gone wrong?

The main cause of the problem is probably just personnel – the insouciant clod who did the deed was probably running on autopilot while he planned his school holiday activities. I know all about that, having been a bit of an airhead myself at that age, so I can’t really hold it against him. But does it say anything about the business too? I rather think it does.

One of the effects of comprehensive work-practice design is ironically to break down the integrity of the various tasks in the business. One person is fully concentrated on efficiently doing the frying, another the checkout and yet another the tidying and cleaning. While this certainly gives rise to a well-oiled machine (to use a pre-digital metaphor), the focus on the customer becomes fragmented. The guy clearing the tables doesn’t know that I just ordered my meal and have gone to pick up some milk. Metaphorically, and in this case literally, the customer is absent.

I also suspect that one effect of minutely-regulated work-practices and corporate-speak staff training is to give rise to cynicism and disengagement on the part of at least some staff. Work becomes like a video game, a sequence of moves, with the customers having the status of digital extras.

This, my friends, is the kind of future we are already living in. We are no longer customers, in the sense of human participants in real business activities, we are [CUSTOMERS], a vanishing locus of digitalised transactional flows. Michel Foucault famously wanted to eradicate ‘man’ from history, announcing ‘the death of man‘, so we can see behind the humanist veil. In order to understand the modern corporation, we need to eradicate the concept of ‘customer’ so we can get a clear view of the atomised exploitative reality in which we really live.