Why Does Subway Have Terrible Customer Onboarding

I enjoy having a Subway; it’s delicious, light, and convinces me, although a bit superficially, that I had something healthy. But, my first experience there wasn’t a pleasing one.

I entered to order assuming that I only have to pick one of the option on the walled pictorial menu. I asked my “sandwich artist” for a “Veggie Delight Sub”. Soon enough I learned how having a Subway wasn’t exactly like picking a choice and grabbing your wallet. I tried anxiously not to appear foolish by picking random options in case of veggies and sauces, and turning down requests for cheese and condiments. For obvious reasons, the sandwich didn’t taste all that well and I didn’t consider going back again. Few months later, my friend suggested his selection, telling me how I need to avoid certain sauces. I subserviently followed his suggestions to eventually understand how you order in the chain.

The barrage of choices that I dreaded on my visit apparently turned out to be Subway’s appeal — selecting ingredients to land one of the two million possibilities. Subway doesn’t have any standard ready-to-serve offerings; every sandwich is prepared from six obligatory choices — bread, flavour, extras, veggies, sauce, and salt / pepper. It’s ostensible why my first visit wasn’t joyful — there were too many choices to be made, some of which, like sauces, being disproportionally hard.

Subway’s Terrible Customer Onboarding

Customer on-boarding describes a process of educating the user about the basic “how-tos” of a software. Users today are terribly short of patience and attention span, making it crucial that the user gets coached about benefits of the application with minimum friction. Take for example, Facebook, where the first time user is often encouraged to enter information about her school, college, and place of work. These short bits help Facebook make smart suggestions about friends. Once the network starts to get bigger, the news feed gets more intriguing, which in turn, spurs engagement from the new user. The result of missing on-boarding steps is often a non-returning user, or in a strict business sense, lost revenue.

I take the liberty to use the term in context of fast-food chains. When you enter for the first time, you may either be assured about what you want to have, or you may just be trying something new. In the latter case, people subconsciously expect minimum friction. If each option is followed by sub-options, and sub-sub-options, the experience gets disconcerting, especially, if the end-result isn’t great, which happened in my case.

Subway expects the customer to understand the range of sauces, and veggies, their taste before one can order the sub. For people who scarcely have any idea about the options, it’s a call for anxiety from choice overload and burden of not appearing foolish in a social setting. Apparently, I am not the only who feels this.

When Subway entered China and open its first outlet, partnering with serial-entrepreneur Jim Bryant, locals were flummoxed about ordering a sandwich. Eventually, Jim had to install how-to-order signs to help them.

On Reddit, an anonymous user complained about the anxiety-enticing process of ordering a Subway; how he often just wants the sandwich to made like the one in the picture. Evidently, Subway doesn’t do a great job at educating the ‘user’ about ordering a sandwich — you should just know the ropes beforehand.

The Fix

What could make first-time Subway-ers experience more pleasing?

When a first-time customer orders a sub, each question from the “sandwich artist” has a chance of aggravating the anxiety of the customer. “When is it going to end?”. What can aid here are visible cues — the steps and choice — about things Subway asks in an order. Seeing that, the customer will have a better idea about what he needs to have. Incidentally, Subway already has an online version that serves the same purpose.

Another part of the problem is the combination of sauces, many of which don’t have a familiar name. Subway thrives on creating many different tastes, because of which, it might not be trivial to help the customer make his choice. What can help here is using the power of suggested options. Some of the sauces tend to be more popular and marking them with distinct label can make it easier for the customer to make a selection.

Maybe it’s not a big enough problem

I spent five minutes talking about problems of first time customers but lacking data, it’s possible that it might not be a considerable issue at all. A couple of speculation could be made for that —

  • The first visits to Subway are mostly in a group where one of them usually knows how to create a good sandwich.
  • Most people already know the taste of sauces and veggies.
  • People understand that they would make couple of wrong choices before they learn how to make a good one.
  • The effort of picking up ingredients is an essential psychological component to make people appreciate their sandwiches more.

It’s difficult to hypothesize how many first-timers have a hard time coming back. Possibly, the number might be concerning in developing countries, but not so much in USA where the franchise has 26,761 stores. One exhilarating part of big data and data science is taking apart these questions and answering them with empirical numbers. We haven’t reached the stage yet in the lesser-digital world to full extent, but years later, we possibly will.

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