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Balancing Efficiency Against Human Interaction in Restaurants

Self-Service, Automation, and Third-Party Partners Can Improve Service, But May Impact CX

Restaurant customer experience technologies

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in the use of several new technologies by restaurants, from quick response (QR) codes to allow guests to download electronic versions of menus, to tableside ordering kiosks, to third-party delivery services, all of which were designed to keep patrons safe and allow establishments to remain open. However, the full impact on customer experience over the long-term, particularly as the pandemic has receded, may be less than ideal.

Each of these technologies or process changes can deliver significant benefits to customers, as well as to the restaurants themselves, though the overall impact on CX must be considered.

QR menus:  During the pandemic, restaurants uploaded PDFs of menus, or embedded links to an online menus so that staffers and customers did not need to physically handle anything. This process also allowed—and continues to allow–restaurants to make changes to menus without incurring additional printing costs, and allows them to be more environmentally friendly.

Further, QR-based menus let customers quickly view menus at their convenience, instead of needing to wait for a server to deliver them. This also frees up waitstaff to focus on taking or delivering orders, instead of making a separate trip to deliver a menu, particularly if a customer wants to order something mid-meal.

However, QR menus may not work for every type of customer, especially those who do are less technology-savvy, including older customers. It also may require ensuring that there is a strong Wi-Fi and/or cellular signal available, so that customers can seamlessly access and download the menu, even during busy periods.

Adding QR code menus also requires an initial investment for the restaurant around setting up the link, converting paper menus to a PDF or online version, as well as ensuring that there is a process to make changes to that menu quickly and easily.

QR code menus also introduce more of a DIY, down-market feel. Requiring every customer to have their phone out can impact the “special” feel of some establishments.

Kiosks: Ordering kiosks, which have become increasingly popular in fast-food establishments, can drastically improve ordering speed and efficiency, as well as reducing the labor required to service fluctuating customer levels. Kiosks used in fast-casual or other more upmarket dining establishments can provide additional benefits, albeit with some service caveats.

As with QR menus, kiosks can improve CX by shortening wait times between placing and receiving orders. Kiosks also can provide consistent prompts for loyalty rewards, order upgrades and additions, and loyalty coupons that employees may forget to ask about. Additionally, staffing shortages can be buttressed using kiosks, allowing the employees that are working to focus on food preparation and delivery, rather than order taking. Some kiosks can also be configured to allow patrons to play games while waiting, a boon for parents of young, restless children and for awkward first dates.

However, kiosks can be too efficient, and do not allow the restaurant to time order inflows to the kitchen’s ability to pump out orders. Instead of telling wait staff to hold off on taking customer orders until the kitchen can catch up, customers can order at will, potentially leading to longer waits to receive food in some instances, frustrating customers. If a kiosk malfunctions, a restaurant needs to have a plan in place to identify the problem, fix it, and have a human server available to take the order.

Depending on how a kiosk is configured, it can improve personalization. Customers can more easily research food and dietary information, seamlessly log in to their loyalty accounts on a kiosk and instantly access deals based on their own preferences. This customer data can be leveraged for additional communications, resulting in a better guest experience in the future — and encouraging them to return.

That said, like with QR codes, kiosks can negatively impact personalization by removing the human element of interacting with a great server, and developing a connection with that server. Most great restaurant experiences involve not only food that meets or exceeds expectations, but via personalization delivered by everyone who interacts with a customer, from the maître d’ to the waitstaff and bussers, and, in some cases, to the chef, who can elevate guests’ experiences well above the ordinary.

Third-party delivery services: Third-party delivery services can be particularly helpful in providing customers with the ability to have their food delivered, without the restaurant needing to set up a full delivery service, which includes hiring and retaining drivers. This is particularly helpful for restaurants that typically may not see much order volume for deliveries, or for those that wish to expand customer options at a measured pace. Offering delivery options can improve CX, simply by offering more convenience to customers.

However, CX can experience frustration by using a third-party app, particularly if something is not correct with the order, as it takes time to verify whether the restaurant’s order-taking is the cause of the error, or if the driver is at fault. Similarly the added fees associated with delivery app services may impact the perceived value of the restaurant, especially if additional fees are “baked in” to the cost of items on the menu.

Perhaps most damaging to the CX process, third-party apps transfer the perceived responsibility for delighting the customer to an outside entity. If the delivery goes as planned, the delivery partner may reap the benefit of the customer goodwill, and, given that these services often work with a number of restaurants, customers may first think of the delivery service, as opposed to the restaurant providing the food.

Author Information

Keith has over 25 years of experience in research, marketing, and consulting-based fields.

He has authored in-depth reports and market forecast studies covering artificial intelligence, biometrics, data analytics, robotics, high performance computing, and quantum computing, with a specific focus on the use of these technologies within large enterprise organizations and SMBs. He has also established strong working relationships with the international technology vendor community and is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and events.

In his career as a financial and technology journalist he has written for national and trade publications, including BusinessWeek, CNBC.com, Investment Dealers’ Digest, The Red Herring, The Communications of the ACM, and Mobile Computing & Communications, among others.

He is a member of the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP).

Keith holds dual Bachelor of Arts degrees in Magazine Journalism and Sociology from Syracuse University.

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