How not to respond to a consumer letter

Consumer advocacy letters are always fun. And, in case those of you felt that McDonald’s was not unique in its cordial response to my letter, here’s a follow up with a letter I wrote to Burger King (BKC). Forgive me, I wrote this letter last summer, but haven’t had a reason to share it on this blog for until today.

To whom it may concern:

I recently returned from a trip to China and had several terrific experiences at Burger King locations there. With the hype of the Olympics still in the air and increased interest by Americans in all things Chinese, I think it’s a great time for your Company to think about bringing one of your best menu items in the world to the US – the Spicy “Ma-La” Whopper.

To be honest, when here in the US, I typically spend more of my fast food dollars at competitors to Burger King mostly because I feel that Burger King lacks some pizzazz in their product offerings. In Asia, on the other hand, Burger King is one of the few western chains that I have actively sougt out ever since I first ate a Ma-La Whopper two years ago on a trip to Taiwan. When I went to China this summer, I was thrilled to see that it was also on the menu there. The sandwich is a tremendous culinary achievement and the fact that it hasn’t been brought to the United States surprises me especially given the interest in “spicy” style sandwiches that have been offered at other competing fast food restaurants – the Wendy’s Spicy Chicken and the Wendy’s Four Alarm Burger being the most famous of the bunch.

Admittedly, the Ma-La Whopper may not have a form factor that would play terrifically in the United States. The sauce offers a distinctly Asian spiciness which may be somewhat different from what most Americans expect having grown up on Tex-Mex style spices – chipotle, jalapenos, etc. But, I think you will find that Asian “spice” can go a long way even in the United States. Ask anyone who’s tried Sriracha and they’ll tell you that they think it can go well on anything. I believe this to be true of the Burger King “Ma-La” sauce. The sauce itself is a bit thin which I like, but may be messy for some people’s tastes. A simple change in the formula to add a thickening agent like tapioca starch or xantham gum would be easy or another solution would be to mix the sauce into the base mayonnaise which is used on the burger already. One might also consider incorporating the same spices into the burger patty, but I could see this as being less feasible since the Company would ave to source pattie which could only be used for one sandwich.

All-in-al, I belive it’s a terrific time to introduce a sandwich I believe will be highly successful here in the United States and which would make me an avid Burger King eater here at home as well as abroad.

Sincerely,

[The Curious Investor]

And, the response from Burger King? Click to read on…

Dear [Curious Investor],

Burger King Corporation receives many ideas and suggestions from persons outside our organization. However, we spend a great deal of time, money and effort towards the development and implementation of new services, products, techniques and equipment, which we have used or may use in the future. In view of htis, it is not surprising that many of the suggestions made to us from outside our company are already known or available to us through the efforts of our staff. While we appreciate your interest in presenting an idea or suggestion to us, it is Burger King Corporation’s policy not to accept or review any unsolicited idea or suggestion. We do this in order to avoid any possible confusion or misunderstanding regarding the ownership of an idea or submission.

Thank you for taking the time to contact Burger King Corporation.

Sincerely,

Yosha

Consumer Response Representative

Admittedly, the difference between my letter to Burger King and my letter to McDonald’s was that in one case I wrote to provide an unsolicited suggestion whereas in the other case I simply wrote to provide customer feedback. That being said, my letter to Burger King was significantly more positive than my letter to McDonald’s yet the most cordial and enthusiastic response came from McDonald’s. Second off, while portions of the McDonald’s letter seemed canned, the Burger King letter was clearly a template. While they couldn’t admit to having read my letter for legal reasons, it was clear they had read it enough to respond appropriately to an “unsolicited suggestion.” Yet, somehow, they hadn’t read the letter well enough to realize all I was asking for was for the importation of an already existent Burger King product which should lend no confusion over ownership.

Moreover, Burger King very clearly chose not to take advantage of a great opportunity to lock in someone who was a borderline superfan whereas McDonald’s still tried to sway my opinion of their new premium drinks despite my writing a letter expressing my displeasure with them. Burger King’s letter was terse, formulaic, rejection-like and signed by a “Consumer Response Representative” without a last name while McDonald’s provided a seemingly personal response from a “Vice President of the U.S. Customer Satisfaction Department.” Even if this was merely for show, McDonald’s clearly has a customer service focus and Burger King is seemingly more interested in improbable legalities than actually making their customers feel like they can actually “have it your way.”

It is interesting to note that the “Angry Whopper” was unveiled later in the year which may have been the source of Burger King’s skittishness. But, couldn’t they have responded with the same safe harbor language but added a heads up about a new product that I would be likely to enjoy? At the very least, could they show more appreciation while still reserving their rights over their own in-house development? Couldn’t they extend me a job to help them develop and market great new products!?

Whatever the case, it is clear that the “tone at the top” at Burger King is not a true customer service focus, but just the standard corporate ass-covering beaurocracy that we have come to expect from large companies. While this isn’t enough to sway a decision to invest in one business versus another, it is a worrisome sign especially for a consumer experience dependent business and I will admit it did factor at least marginally into my decision to invest in McDonald’s versus Burger King.

Full Disclosure: Author is long shares of MCD at the time of writing. No position in other stocks mentioned.

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