When Poor Leadership Strikes: A QSR Story

When Poor Leadership Strikes


By Kenny Hyman

Customer loyalty is the life-blood of QSRs and Fast Casuals; it keeps patrons coming back, and it keeps demand high, which keeps the revenue up–always a positive thing in business…except when profit is unmoored from customer loyalty and the managers focus on going through the motions to hit the numbers. And look, I’m just going to call a spade a spade: if the managers focus solely on going through the motions to hit the numbers, it’s because the executive managers and decision-makers are focused solely on the numbers. What makes it unfortunate is that it’s at the expense of their customers…and not just monetarily.

Don’t let me mislead you; this entry isn’t about customer loyalty. It’s about leadership (or lack thereof) and its effect on customer loyalty, which impacts revenue.

So, spot-on numbers are great and all, but if your stores, or the managers in your stores, alienate your customers to meet the goal, then you’re missing the mark. I don’t know too many franchises and businesses that use alienation as a business strategy nor do I know many that intentionally use poor leadership. But, as my anecdote will illustrate, inaction is just as bad as having a business plan that eschews loyalty with poor leadership.

Additionally, I encourage you not to solely focus on the efforts of the manager in the discussion, but also to consider the efforts of the franchise leaders that oversee and train the manager. I encourage to consider how they contribute to the narrative.

With all that said, let’s take a look at a time a lack of leadership turned customer loyalty into a dumpster-fire

The Situation:

A very close friend of mine–who we’ll refer to as Sasha for the ease of storytelling – stopped into the drive-thru to grab a quick bite to eat on a busy Thursday before we went to the late showing of Solo: A Star Wars Story (my expectations were pretty low after the Last Jedi, so I enjoyed the movie). Wouldn’t you know it, the drive-thru operator had a draconian disposition and expressed it through a tense, agitated voice on the speaker. The harshness of her responses made Sasha uneasy. She immediately felt unwelcome and as though her presence was a burden on the employees. Despite the tension, Sasha ordered and pulled around to the window. The situation worsened upon arrival.

The drive-thru operator didn’t acknowledge Sasha’s presence for at least thirty seconds, with the exception of a sidelong glance, while she checked her phone and chatted with another employee. When the drive-thru operator did engage Sasha, the interaction was cold and dismissive as she took payment and spoke harshly about a personal topic over her shoulder to a nearby employee. Sasha’s uneasiness grew but did her best to ignore the behavior as she awaited her food.

Finally, drive-thru operator passed Sasha’s order through the window and, without saying, “Have a nice day” or “Thank you,” slammed the window shut. Relieved that the interaction had concluded, Sasha checked her order and found an error. Disappointed that she had to re-engage under the conditions, Sasha waived at the drive-thru operator. The window opened, and Sasha noted the discrepancy to the employee who erupted into curses and insults. Sasha tried to calm the agitated drive-thru operator, but she would have none of it and continued to be hostile and abusive. Realizing that leveling with the employee was futile, Sasha left the drive-thru, parked, and entered the restaurant to speak to the manager. Much to Sasha’s chagrin, the drive-thru operator was waiting for her at the counter and, despite patrons in the dining area, cursed and insulted as Sasha came through the door.

The drive-thru operator yelled and caused a scene as Sasha asked for the manager. The drive-thru operator indignantly asserted that she was the manager and threatened violence against Sasha.

The actual manager on duty approached about a minute later, marginally interested. Sasha tried to explain the situation over the drive-thru operator’s ongoing tirade. The manager stood there at the counter watching the drive-thru operator and Sasha, seemingly unaware of the patrons in the dining room watching. Sasha stated that the drive-thru operator should be fired which increased her vitriol.

Finally having enough, through the goading and threats of physical violence, Sasha decided to leave without her complaint addressed. She left the establishment insulted, embarrassed, and with an incorrect order.

Initial questions:

  1. Why was the employee so upset?
  2. What did the lobby patrons do?
  3. Why didn’t anyone step in?
  4. Why did the manager allow this to happen?
  5. Was this store in a bad area?

Business questions:

  1. Was the employee fired?
  2. Was there a channel for Sasha to enter her complaint when it went unheard in the store? If so, did franchise leaders respond?
  3. Did the behavior affect the numbers (i.e., were delivery times delayed in the drive-thru)?

Critical leadership questions:

  1. Was the manager trained and prepared to manage conflict?
  2. Did the manager know that the employee was in a foul mood?
  3. Was the manager paying attention to the state of his or her employees?
  4. Did the manager understand the emotions of all parties: the employee, Sasha, the other patrons, etc.?
  5. What message does this send to other employees about the standards of behavior?
  6. What impact would the event have on a potential employee filling out an application in the lobby?
  7. How does the inaction of the manager inform the future actions and behaviors of employees in future management positions?
  8. How will this fifteen minutes of poor leadership affect the overall mission of the store?
  9. Are the franchise leaders too sucked-in to their excel sheets that they’re completely oblivious to how their managers lead?


Sasha hasn’t returned to the store nor does she intend to. The behavior of the drive-thru operator clearly influenced her opinion of the service, but it was the manager’s lack of resolution that truly made her decide never to return. Because of the manager, the lack of leadership, and the environment it fostered, the store has lost the loyalty of a patron. And, who knows if the patrons in the lobby will ever come back. Public sentiment suggests that the store needn’t care about one, two, or even fifteen customers because its profit margin allows it to alienate customers without feeling any great penalty.

Not sure what the science is there, but I’m pretty sure its textbook crappy management.

It’s unclear why the franchise permits these situations (I use these because we know that this isn’t the first time), especially considering that same drive-thru operator is still in the window serving customers–albeit poorly.

What is clear, though, from a purely unapologetic, draconian business perspective, is the franchise lost money. And, if money (and money alone) is the motivation,  whether the loss was just a little bit or a great deal, the objective of making the highest possible profit was not met. If the manager had exercised leadership (more specifically conflict management and emotional intelligence skills), the whole circumstance could have been diffused–if not prevented altogether. The greatest impact was not on the store’s or franchise’s profit, but rather on the customer…who makes the entire profit thing possible. It’s math.

The most unfortunate part of this discussion is that this occurrence was not an isolated incident. It happens way too often. Everyone has either experienced it or knows someone who has. It’s part of the reason that fast food in any form gets a bad rap.

You probably just sat back and said to yourself, “That isn’t one of my stores.” Then, you got sucked right back into the imaginary world of excel.

How do you know it wasn’t your store? When was the last time your managers received training on…well…conflict management protocols for starters?

Franchise leaders need to regularly train managers in the appropriate skills to make sure this is, in fact, never one of their stores.

Think about it.

Keep leading!


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