x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fine, make me spend more money, but do it creatively

Big companies hire clever marketing consultants in a doomed attempt to figure out their customers.

I had a friend in high school who spent part of her summer working at McDonald's. And one of the reasons McDonald's makes so much money, she told me, is that they've mastered the art of upselling. If you've seen the movie SuperSize Me you know what I'm talking about. You go in an ask for a hamburger and fries and they try to sell you a bigger hamburger, a bigger envelope of fries, and an enormous drink. Or, maybe you tell yourself you're just popping in for a small Coke, but then get "upsold" into a burger or a box of chicken nuggets or even a cookie. The point of upselling is to get the customer to spend a little bit more than he originally intended.

They do this at fancy restaurants too, actually, with the surprisingly-priced "specials of the day" and the chef's Seasonal Nine Course Tasting Menus - fancy restaurants like to pretend there's a world of difference between them and the local fast food joint, but we're not fooled - yet at McDonald's they've turned it into a foolproof system. When you order at a McDonald's, the person on the other side of the counter wearing the paper hat (or on the other side of the headset, if you're just driving through) has been programmed to ask you a series of follow-up questions: do you want fries with that? Do you want a drink with that? Do you want apple pie with that? They've watched videos and read scripts and had hours of employee training to teach them this technique. At McDonald's, they don't like their employees to improvise.

Once, though, while my friend was working there, someone came in and ordered fries, an apple pie, and a Coke. Just that. So the three things you're supposed to up-sell had already been ordered. My friend told me that she just stood there for a moment, baffled and brain-locked, frozen like a slow web page. Her training had prepared her for every possible combination of upselling situations except this one. And because the McDonald's Corporation prefers it this way, the moment she arrived at work and put on her paper hat, she shut off her brain. So it took a moment for her to figure out how to upsell this customer.

"Um ..." she said, finally, "Do you want any ... meat with that?" Which made sense, but sounded weird, and apparently sounding weird is something they frown on in that industry, so my friend didn't last long in the job. In her defence, she had been programmed to ask a series of stupid questions and ask them she did. On the other hand, she had improvised a solution, which is worse, in some organisations, than neglecting to upsell.

Improvisation, though, is mostly what being an effective employee is all about. Big companies hire clever marketing consultants in a doomed attempt to figure out their customers. But customers - us, in other words - are all over the map. Some days we want a burger and fries, and some days we want an apple pie and a Coke. We rarely fit into the patterns that have been cut for us. (Actually, if we eat at McDonald's too often, we rarely fit into our clothes, either.)

I'm much more likely, when dining in a restaurant, to be persuaded by a waiter who tells me what his favourite dish on the menu is. It's rarely, I've noticed, the least expensive item on offer. And it's possible that I'm just a victim of a more subtle and effective upsell, but so what? If everyone I encounter is trying to get me to spend just a little bit more money, I'm going to reward the ones who do it with a little bit of personality.

It's easy to single out the fast food business, but it's not all that different from any other business. Most of us, if we're really being honest, will admit to having been on both sides of that transaction at some point in our lives. It's impossible to go to work every day in a state of total readiness - we all, like my friend, occasionally park our brains at the front door. "You need a villain," I told a young writer once, after he had pitched me his idea for a television series.

"Why?" he asked. "Because," I said. And then trailed off. Why do you need a villain, again? My brain, parked and locked since the guy started his pitch, suddenly creaked to life. Of course you don't need a villain to make an interesting television show. What you need is conflict, which isn't the same thing. "That's what I thought," said the young man, with such smug satisfaction that I made him pay for lunch. He thought he was only buying me a coffee. In other words, I upsold him.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood