Call the order line for your neighborhood Big Box store or your favorite technology provider and you’re less likely to be speaking with someone across town than you are with a helpful voice eight time zones away. Now, idle in line alongside McDonald’s and you may be placing your order with a call-center specialist miles away.

If you ever thought no one was home when you leaned out your window, now you may be right. An entrepreneurial communications company called Bronco is bucking the fast-food trend toward a miserable order experience by putting well-trained, customer-friendly order takers at a remote 50-seat call center for half a dozen McDonald’s drive-through lines around Santa Maria, California.

Apparently, this system has trimmed five seconds off the time required to take each order and cut about eight man-hours from the daily schedule. It’s supposed to improve accuracy, too.

If eventually we need to order via Oregon to get our Filet-O-Fish with onion rings instead of fries, that’s fine by me; but I wonder how farming out the customer-service part of a hospitality business impacts the people who really are employees of the company. Is the highly professional call center valued by top management more dearly than their own employees are?

Maybe one day, the really efficient companies won’t need to interface with customers at all. An anonymous voice—or face—will handle order-taking and fulfillment. But at that point, what is the “face” of the company? How long will consumers sacrifice a relationship with a store’s staff in the name of efficiency, and how long will such a store survive? When customers are loyal only to a technology and a competitor moves in with a better protocol, how can everyone else stay in business?

With a gallon of gas approaching the cost of a Big Mac, hurray for shorter drive-through times. But what happens if I decide I do want pickles on that sandwich after all and I try to get my order-taker back? Have you ever re-contacted a call center and tried to connect with the person you spoke to the first time? There’s about as much chance of that as finding the winning game piece in your Happy Meal.

Don’t leave “people” out of the people-process-technology equation. Communication, after all, is conveying information that people use to live and work better, not just to make their machines run faster. As Microsoft declares, the value of technology is to empower people. Call centers, with their friendly reps, are fine if you’re passing out hamburgers; but don’t forget that the true face of a company expresses the values, commitment and relationships that are passed between its people and its customers.

− Steve Friedman