Turning a mistake into good marketing

In n Out Burger serves a lot of burgers, A LOT, with a large number of them going out the drive-through window. They also have a pretty good system in place to make sure the order is correct before it leaves their kitchen:

  • They repeat the order back to you when you order it, based on what they keyed into the computer.
  • Another person then confirms your order before you pay for it, based on what's showing in the computer.
  • Finally a third person reads back your order as it appears on the printed receipt attached to your bag, as they hand the bag of food to you.

It's a triple-confirmation system which has led to a great quality control record - judging from my own personal experience they rarely (if ever) make mistakes. However, they aren't perfect.

The other night I stopped at In n Out Burger to pick up a family dinner on the way home from work. (don't judge - it was the end of a long, busy week..!) Anyway, they went through the 3-step confirmation process; I paid for my food and drove away happy. When I got home we realized they made a mistake - I had received part of my order along with part of somebody else's order.

I got back in the car and drove to the closest In n Out, which was NOT the same location who had goofed my order. I was hoping they would give me the missing parts of my order, but worst case I was willing to re-purchase my food - at this point I just wanted to eat dinner. Their response topped all my expectations.

  • I pulled into the drive-through line and explained what had happened to the girl taking orders. I also gave her my receipt and the extra receipt I had received from the wrong bag. She apologized sincerely and said she would have my order re-prepared (in total, not just the missing food), and would have it ready at no charge.
  • Next the store manager came outside to apologize, empathizing with our frustration at having to make an extra trip.
  • The girl at the cash register had a big smile on her face, apologized for our inconvenience, and was happy to give us a free meal. (technically not free since I had already paid, but it was free to her register..) She was jovial and playful, and accepted responsibility for her restaurant without pointing any fingers at anybody else.
  • The guy who gave us our food matched the first three, with sincere apologies and a happy, smiling face.
  • And finally, the manager came over again to apologize, say goodbye, and wish us a happy evening.

You could make the argument this wasn't a really big deal, and you'd be right. It was a $15 fast food error in the drive-through window, where things get messed up so often it's a punchline. And what did they really do - replaced $15 worth of food that probably cost them $7 to make. It cost me more in time than it did them to re-make my dinner, right?

But it was the way they approached it that made it a big deal. No blame. No arguments. No cheap-skating. No muttering under breath. Just sincere well wishes, and a desire to make things right.

I had the opportunity to be angry with In n Out. After all, they cost me extra time and aggravation on a night when I was already tired and drained. Instead, I left the experience feeling better about In n Out than I used to. Today I look at them as a good company, full of good people who do things the right way. I'm more of a loyal customer now than I was before they goofed up!

That's marketing. One customer at a time; one interaction at a time.

- Chris Butterworth