Big Mac gets a mouthful of abuse

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'Loud, brash, American, successful, complacent, uncaring, insensitive, disciplinarian, insincere, suspicious and arrogant.' Paul Preston, president of the UK operation of McDonald's, the hamburger chain, yesterday admitted this was how customers saw his company in the early 1990s.

McDonald's, he said, was astonished at the sharpness of its customers' views in an exhaustive survey conducted in 1991. 'What they told us was horrifying,' he said.

The company, he explained to a meeting of personnel officers in Harrogate, had enjoyed such a rapid period of expansion in the 1980s that when it entered the 1990s it saw itself as 'big and successful'. Sales were soaring, income was rising and it felt recession-proof.

In reality, the company struggled for 18 months during the recession, prompting the survey. What customers wanted in the 1990s, the research showed, was warmth, helpfulness, time to think, friendliness and advice.

They did not want brusque, brash American service. Nor, he revealed, did they think much of the McDonald's innovation of the period, the McPloughman's, a Big Mac version of the traditional cheese and pickle sandwich. McDonald's had been trying to get a slice of the lucrative, supermarket cold sandwich market but had neglected to ask its customers or staff whether this was a good idea. 'Customers didn't want the product and our staff were embarrassed even to have to say 'McPloughman's' let alone to have to attempt to sell it to our customers,' Mr Preston said.

'If we had taken the time to put the concept of McPloughman's through the discovery stage and done some market research with our customers, I'm sure that we would have found out that this was not a highly desirable product.'

After its survey, the company realised 'what was revolutionary in the seventies was ghastly in the nineties'. McDonald's, with more than 14,000 outlets in 72 countries, now has regular customer opinion surveys. 'Asking customers what they want,' said Mr Preston, 'is a simple and effective idea and saves a hell of a lot of wasted time in the boardroom by executives trying to second-guess what customers may, or may not, like.'

Mr Preston's speech came during the case in which his organisation is suing for libel two environmentalists for allegedly writing, printing and distributing a leaflet accusing the burger chain of producing food which is unhealthy and damages the environment. The company has vigorously contested the allegations.