Customers Confused by Drive-thru's One Way Speaker System

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By Jason Schreiber

Hampton Union, Friday, September 7, 2007

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

HAMPTON -- "Hello?" "Hellooo?" "Hellooooooooo?" That's the annoying greeting McDonald's drive-thru workers often hear from customers irritated by the silent speaker system at the Route 1 restaurant.

The speaker was muted a few years ago to keep a neighbor behind the restaurant happy, but the company that owns the Hampton McDonald's has had enough.

Officials from The Napoli Group, LLC, which owns the fast-food restaurant and several others in the region, convinced the Planning Board Wednesday night to allow the McDonald's to install a new speaker system.

To the relief of customers and workers, the new system will be like those at other McDonald's. The worker taking the drive-thru order will finally be able to talk to the customer through a speaker. The silent one-way speaker system that led to so many frustrated customers and messed up orders is expected to be replaced within 45 to 60 days. The change can't come soon enough for McDonald's workers like Dale Baltzer.

"It's just been a major inconvenience. I think this will be a new beginning," Baltzer said.

Sparks began flying over McDonald's speaker when a neighbor voiced concern about noise a few years ago. To appease the neighbor, McDonald's tried a new "face to face" concept where customers placed orders directly with the worker at the window. The concept led to long lines and was phased out. McDonald's then decided to go with the one-way speaker system.

"It doesn't work that well. People don't understand it," said Tim Doyle, operations manager for The Napoli Group. The only other McDonald's in the country with a silent speaker is in Freeport, Maine, Doyle said.

Peter Saari, lawyer for The Napoli Group, called the current speaker system a "pain in the neck" as he proposed the new system to planners.

The plan to allow a new two-way communication speaker was met with no public opposition Wednesday night. The neighbor who complained about the speaker has since moved, Doyle said.

With little discussion, the Planning Board approved a change to McDonald's site plan allowing the system.

Board Chairman Tracy Emerick wished McDonald's well.

"We look forward to talking and someone talking back to us," he said.

Being unable to speak to customers was confusing for both employees and customers.

Baltzer, who has worked the drive-thru, said customers often pull up and order "a fry" without specifying which size, creating headaches for workers who have no idea what to ring in.

And meeting McDonald's rule that customers are to receive their order within 90 seconds of placing it at the speaker is often next to impossible, Baltzer said. Cars easily back up as drivers wait, hoping a worker will greet them through the speaker.

Baltzer said drive-thru workers usually hear customers reading a sign posted next to the speaker explaining that while they're unable to speak to customers, the customers can be heard. "That takes time," he said.

McDonald's manager Irina Temirkano welcomed the speaker change. She said she's tired of customers assuming the speaker is broken, or sitting in their vehicles and screaming at it.

For regular customers like Hampton's Ryan Brackett, 18, the silent speaker wasn't so bad. Brackett got used to it after a while. But he still said it was a strange system.

"It's confusing because you don't know if they heard you," he said as he pulled out from the drive-thru after getting his order Wednesday night.

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