Drive Through Etiquette, or What To Do When You Drive Through


One of the things I have noticed while working in the drive through is how customers who come through the drive through behave. It is a constant source of amazement, how people who go through drive throughs seem to completely forget their manners. No matter how nice and polite you are on the speaker, you can’t help but feeling like you are a worthless piece of clod on the drive through, rather than a person at the other end of the speaker, trying to help you. No matter how nice and polite you are at the drive through window, you sometimes feel that you are not a person at all. Why? Too many people who go through the drive through just don’t have any manners. They can sometimes be the rudest people on earth, and that really amazes me. It’s as if the fact that they’re in the drive through excuses them from daily niceties and politeness, not to mention consideration.

If you’re a regular drive through patron, I hope you don’t recognize some of these things as things you do or don’t do. And if you are one of those who forgets those daily niceties, politeness and consideration–because you are dealing with people after all–then you need a little lesson in drive through etiquette.

This little guide will take you through the drive through, step-by-step, so that your drive through experience will be a pleasant one–both for you and the people serving you in the drive through.

STAGE 1: When you decide to go through the drive through.

1. Take the drive through only if you really have to.

Deciding to go through the drive through is a very important stage. The drive through is the place to go when you are too much in a hurry to park your car and walk in to get your order. It’s when you don’t want to sit in the restaurant because you just want a quick item or two, or you want to take your order home or eat some place else, like your car.

2. Know what you want before you go into the drive through.

Once you have decided to go through the drive through, you should have a fairly good idea of what you want. Do you want donuts? Coffee? Tea? A cold drink? A sandwich? Something else? You should always KNOW WHAT YOU WANT before you even enter the drive through lane. Do not enter the drive through lane then start thinking of what you want to have. If you don’t know what’s on the menu at all, GO INSIDE THE RESTAURANT. This will save you, the cars behind you, and the people serving you in the drive through a lot of grief and a lot of time. It’s pointless to go through the drive through, which is supposed to be a very quick service option, if you will sit there trying to figure out what you want. If you need to ask everyone with you in the vehicle what they want, ask them before you enter the drive through, or as you wait in line, it there is a long waiting line. Remember, each car will probably take only a minute or less at the window, so it won’t take long before you get to the window yourself.

3. Prepare your payment.

Always make sure you have enough money to pay for your order before you even enter the drive through. Don’t tell yourself you’re pretty sure you have the coins or the bills to pay with, or even your credit or debit cards or a gift card or coupon. Make sure your form of payment is with you. If you’re paying in cash, have your coins counted out or your bill ready. Don’t wait until you’re at the drive through window to search for your purse or wallet, dig into your pockets, or, heaven forbid, count out your pennies and other loose change that’s lying around in your car.

4. Have the exact change.

As much as possible, have the exact change or as close to it as possible over the amount you need to pay. Remember, the person at the window can make change for you. But please, don’t short change the employees. Sure, sometimes you go through and you’re short a penny or more, and you just don’t want to break up your bills. That’s not really fair, is it? And it’s really a lie, if you give short change and say you don’t have enough, when you do have a bill in your wallet or purse that you can break. Pay what you’re supposed to. Be honest.

5. Pay with small bills.

The drive through is not a bank machine. And a restaurant is not a bank. If you need to break a large bill, like a hundred or a fifty, don’t go into the drive through and order a small drink or a single timbit or donut just to break your bill. It’s totally inconsiderate and an inconvenience. Sure, it may be convenient for you, but it’s inconvenient to the employees, the store and the people behind you. Oh, and get the bill out of your wallet so you can just pass it out and not waste time searching for your wallet and picking out the bill.

6. End that mobile call and drop your phone.

There is nothing so rude as to enter the drive through and continue speaking on your phone while people are waiting to take your order. And there is nothing so confusing as listening you to place an order while you are talking to someone else on your phone. If you need to finish your phone call first, don’t even enter the drive through. Finish your call then enter the drive through. That way, your attention is on your driving and delivering your order. Besides, it’s dangerous to talk or text and drive at the same time. In fact, it is illegal in Canada and other countries, so you might as well keep that phone in its case or in your pocket or purse or the seat beside you.

STAGE 2: At the drive through speaker.

Once you get to the speaker, a tone will notify the person who is taking orders that there is a car at the speaker. You don’t need to yell or call for the person, because someone can definitely hear you and knows you are there. If it takes a little more than a second for the person to answer, it probably means that everyone is busy in the store and cannot answer you immediately. Don’t worry, they’re supposed to answer in 1 second, or as soon as they hear the tone signalling your presence. The first thing you will hear is a greeting from the person taking orders, who will tell you that they are ready to take your order. When that happens:

1. Roll your window down.

There is nothing harder for the person taking your order than try to hear what your are saying if you only open your window a crack. The easier it is for the person taking the order, the more quickly you’ll get through and receive the correct order when you drive up to the window.

2. Turn off your engine if it is particularly loud.

Really, how can anyone hear your order over a loud engine rumbling right into the speaker box while you are taking your order? Besides drowning out your voice and the voice of the order taker, you are pumping hundreds of decibels of noise into the ears of anywhere from 4 to 6 people, causing subtle but sure damage to their ears. It’s the common sense thing to do, as well as showing consideration for the people who are wearing the headsets.

3. Turn your radio volume down or turn it off.

As with your engine, this is just noise over the speaker that makes it more difficult for you and the order taker to hear each other. Some people even turn their music up when they are at the speaker. The drive through team is not interested in listening to your music. Moreover, loud music hurts their ears in a major way. Finally, the drive through team might not even like your choice in music. Save your music for when you are out of the drive through.

4. Greet the person back.

Even if you’re having a bad day, it’s but polite to greet someone you meet. Sure, the person is at the other end of the speaker and can’t see you, but you can certainly be heard. Believe me, there’s nothing nicer than a pleasant greeting to make the people in the drive through feel better about serving you. As well, if you’re having a bad day, saying a greeting will help you calm down a bit and set your mind to being pleasant, or, at the very least, civil.

5. Face the speaker box when you speak.

This will make it easier for your voice to be heard. If you are looking at someone else in the car or speaking while facing the front of your vehicle or even just leaning to the side a bit, your voice is not carried directly to the speaker.

6. Speak clearly, not rushed, and at a slightly louder volume than normal.

If you have gum or are chewing something while you’re speaking, you won’t be understood too well. If you speak hurriedly, your voice will come out garbled and you won’t be understood. If you murmur, whisper, or speak as though you were right next to the person you were speaking with, you probably won’t be heard either.

7. Say your orders separately and one at a time.

If you rattle off your orders quickly without pausing in between, or lumping them all together as “3 coffees, one large, one medium, one extra large, the large one black, the medium one double double, the extra large double triple” your order will most likely come out wrong.  If you are not sure how to order so it is clear to the order taker and the person making your coffees, refer to previous blog entries on “Surviving Coffee Shop Drive Throughs,” which give you invaluable tips on how to order coffee in a drive through. Remember, your order is being taken by a person, not a machine. Furthermore, that person has to ring in your order, and the more complicated it is, the longer it might take to ring it in.

8. Give your whole order at the speaker box.

Don’t wait at the window to order additional things, including a cup or glass of water. Include extra cups, double cups, cups of water, larger cups, refill mugs, and other miscellaneous information when you are ordering at the speaker box. That way, everything will be ready for you when you drive up to the window to pay and collect your order.

9. Say please and thank you.

You were most likely taught good manners when you were little. Just because you are ordering at a drive through doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mind your manners. Say please when you place your order and thank you when the person at the other end gives you the price of your order. It’s simply being polite and remembering that you are speaking to a person, not to a machine.

10. Drive away from the speaker box as soon as you know the price of your order, not sooner, not later.

Driving away from the speaker box while the person on the other end is still speaking is downright rude. It’s just like turning your back and walking away from a person speaking to you. Be considerate enough to let them finish speaking before you drive away, since they are taking the trouble to provide you with complete and friendly information. On the other hand, if you sit at the speaker box long after you have finished your order, you keep other vehicles waiting for their turn longer, and the person taking your order might think you need to order something else. It also takes precious seconds and prolongs the time you are in the drive through.

11. Leave your phone shut.

It is absolutely rude to answer your phone while someone else is speaking with you. Focus on speaking to whoever is taking your order and ignore your phone. If it is an emergency or extremely urgent call, on the other hand, and you should have the courtesy to tell the person taking your order that you need a couple of seconds to take the call. Then tell the person who is calling you that you can’t speak at the moment and that you will call back as soon as you are out of the drive through. Remember to apologize to the order taker for interrupting.

12. An additional note, in case it is raining: stop your windshield wipers!

When you are stopped at the drive through window and ready to pay or take your order, your vehicle is in the perfect position so that every time the wipers swing to your left, any water from your windshield is flung toward the window and directly at the person standing there. I know I have been rudely soaked by several vehicles whose drivers were oblivious to the fact that the water was flying at me. It’s bad enough we have to reach out of the window and get wet when you don’t even want to stretch your hands out of your little dry space, but to be soaked by your wet and wild wipers is adding insult to injury. Again, it’s all a matter of consideration for others.

STAGE 3: At the drive through window.

Most of the time, the drive through window is where you both pay and pick up your order. Sometimes, you pay at one window and pick up your order at another window. Regardless of the set-up, the rules of etiquette do not change.

1. Greet the person at the window.

The person at the window is not always the person who took your order. In fact, in most cases, these are two different people, so don’t assume that you were speaking to this person before. In all likelihood, you probably won’t even see the person who took your order. There is never anything wrong with being polite and greeting the person at the window with a simple “hello” or “hi”, or saying “good day”. In fact, you just might be giving that person a good day with your greeting.

2. Smile.

The person at the window makes an effort to smile at every customer that drives up to the window. This can be as many as 100 cars in an hour or as few as one. Regardless, this person does his or her best to be pleasant, courteous, and smile. It won’t hurt you to smile back. As they always like to point out, it only takes 7 muscles to smile and over 200 to frown. Even if that person’s smile doesn’t make your day, your smile might cheer you up.

3. Listen.

The person at the window will remind you how much your order is. Pay attention, so you know your order is correct. If the amount doesn’t sound right, check what is in the order you are paying for. It’s possible that orders might have gotten mixed up or your order was not rung in correctly. This gives the drive through team a chance to correct any mistakes.

4. Pay promptly.

Pass your payment into the hand of the person at the window. Please do not toss it onto the counter or just put a bill down without the person taking it. On a windy day, bills can be caught up very quickly, and unless you’re sure the person at the window is holding it, you could be losing a bill to the wind and making someone else lucky. On the other hand, coins can roll or bounce off the counter, and throwing the money down is really a bit rude.

5. Take your change and check it.

If you really care to get the exact change, down to the last penny, check what is given to you. The window person is not a change machine and can make mistakes. Because this person is expected to deal with you in about 20 seconds or less, he or she is more likely to make a mistake. These people are not trying to deliberately cheat you out of your last penny, so if your change is wrong, mention it nicely. On the other hand, it will make the drive through team happy if you left a little bit of a tip, as this is an important supplement to their low salaries. If you completely forget to take your change, whatever you leave usually gets tossed into a common tip jar unless it is a substantial amount, such as change for a ten or twenty dollar bill used to pay for a drink or two. In such cases, the window person sets that aside. Normally, they should be able to add that to the tip jar if you don’t return within an hour, since shifts could change or, because of the volume of customers going through the drive through, they won’t remember who left that change. On the other hand, if you are over-changed, you should have the courtesy to return what isn’t yours. It is a sad fact that there are customers who drive through and take whatever change is given to them, know that they are receiving too much change, and don’t say a thing. A few other customers might even claim to have given a larger bill than they actually gave and demand change for the larger bill. Many times, the person at the window will not even remember what bill you gave after change has been made, because your bill will have been slipped into the cash register into a pile of bills. You might be getting the better end of the deal, but the person whose till is affected could lose a job if it happens too often.

6. Check your order to make sure you have everything.

Too often, people drive right off after taking their change and completely forget to take their order, or leave an item or two by rushing off after getting their drinks. If you have to return to the store and are angry because you didn’t get your complete order, you really can only blame yourself. You probably drove off in such a hurry you forgot your donut or timbits or something else besides your coffee. Some people even forget to get their coffee!

7. If you have a complaint, put it nicely.

A request to replace a wrong order will be handled more quickly and gladly if it is made nicely. It’s not like the drive through team is trying to sabotage your order on purpose. Mistakes occasionally happen, and the drive through team will be happy to correct the mistakes as long as you request a correction politely and pleasantly. Remember, the more rude you are, the more likely the person you are being rude to will respond in kind. If the mistake was made at another store location, there is less reason for you to be rude to the team in the store you are getting a replacement from, since they didn’t make the mistake in the first place. It is gallant enough of them to apologize for a mistake they didn’t make, but for you to berate them for the mistake is completely misplaced and unproductive.

8. Pay full attention to your business at the window.

Do not use this time to converse with other people in the car, answer a phone call, clean up your glove compartment, pick up coins from the floor of your car, or anything else you might want to do or feel like doing. It’s plain and simply rude. If you were talking to someone, you’d want that person to pay full attention to you, so do the same to others, in this case, the person at the window. And for goodness’ sake, keep your music volume down.

9. Say please and thank you.

If you need something more, say “please” when you ask for it. It’s the polite thing to do. You are asking for something, not demanding it, so you should sound like you’re asking for it. Avoid demanding and demeaning language or tones. You are speaking with a person who has to be polite and pleasant to hundreds of people who go through the drive through within the duration of a few hours. Believe me, that is no mean feat. It is extremely challenging to remain pleasant, smile, and be polite to everyone, no matter how rude or ignorant they can be. You are speaking with a person who is probably tired of smiling hour after hour, giving the same greeting, taking money, making change, passing out your order and making sure you have a pleasant experience in the 15 seconds or more that you are sitting at the drive through window. The least you can do is remember that there is a person there who has to deal with hundreds of people everyday and it will take much less for you to make sure that person has a pleasant experience meeting and serving you than it will for him or her. Finally, remember to thank that person for the service. It is, at the very least, polite; at the very best, a sign of appreciation for the attention you received as well as for the effort put into making your drive through experience a pleasant one. It’s good to remember, as well, that these are persons you are dealing with, who are working hard to earn a living. They are not slaves and, while you might be better off than they are, it doesn’t make you any better than they are. They deserve to be treated as well or as nicely as you would treat your friends, so be nice.

10. As soon as your business is done, drive off.

Don’t take time at the window to attend to other things, such as organize your purse, clear the seat or floor next to you, sort your change, check your phone for calls or messages, finish a call, or even start eating or drinking your order. If you want to start eating or drinking, get out of the drive through and pull into the parking lot. If you need to do anything else, do it out of the drive through. Not only will there be another car waiting, you will make the drive through team think that something was missed or wrong with your order, or that you want something else. If you want to check inside your cups or food bags to make sure your order is absolutely correct, do it in the parking lot, where you have the chance to drive around again or walk into the store for a correction. As in most situations, the best exit is a graceful exit.

In keeping with graceful exits, I have said my piece and can only hope that people who read this are reminded that etiquette or good manners are not obsolete. They will never be obsolete for as long as people have to deal with other people in whatever shape or form they come. Etiquette has always been and will always be a sign of consideration for others and a requirement for civility. There is just no excuse for treating others as though they were beneath you, because we are all human and civilized after all.