Technology develops at a rapid pace — and the evolution of technology is always getting faster because the goal is a moving target: to further simplify, to further expedite, and to futher improve the experience, with the bar getting higher and higher with each competitor’s new innovation.
For quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, for example, the goal is to provide a quick, convenient dining experience. Competition in these sectors of the restaurant industry, however, is not just about the fastest or most convenient experience — getting ahead of competitors requires that you can proactively identify pain points in your business and find ways to improve the experience.
Fast food restaurants have been using the idea of the drive-thru since 1947, and in the past decades drive thrus have been integrated into many restaurants business models. The drive-thru is a unique concept because the design of the display board is made to heavily influence what the customer orders. It creates a sense of urgency, all while making ordering effortless through the strategy of placing combination meals in the center of the screen. By grouping together items to create a pre-made meal, restaurants generate more revenue while making the process easier for the customers and maintaining a quick time-to-order. But due to lack of innovation, the average drive-thru wait time has been steadily increasing.
In 2013, the average time it would take for an individual to order through the drive-thru was 181 seconds, and this past year it was recorded at 234 seconds. Companies are viewing this as one of the many obstacles they need to overcome to maximize their sales, drive traffic to their restaurants, and tailor a unique experience for their customers, all while maintaining ease when ordering. One solution that many companies have chosen to cut down time-to-order and use data to enhance the customer experience is artificial intelligence (AI).
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, especially computer systems to work and react like humans. These processes include learning, reasoning, and self-correction.
AI can be a valuable tool for any company looking to gather and use customer data to benefit the business. In the restaurant industry, for example, high levels of digital maturity and innovation have transformed companies like Domino’s and Chipotle.
Digital maturity is defined by the level at which a company can respond to the environment in which it exists by adjusting its people, process, technology, and measurements to provide the digital experience that customers expect. As companies invest in technology and progress in digital maturity, they can connect with their customers in new ways and provide them with additional value. AI collects information and aids the restaurant industry in various ways:
- Gives recommendations based on information your customers have provided through their loyalty programs or apps
- Assesses food quality through video intelligence and determining the quality of food to make sure products are fresh
- Offers the option of using kiosks that can help cut down on errors
In order to maximize the value of newer technologies such as AI that customers are less familiar with than an online ordering portal, for example, restaurants must build trust between themselves and the customer. AI is powered by customer data that restaurants must receive consistently in order to make actionable, and customers will only provide this data if they trust the company.
Building trust requires keeping these 3 factors in balance:
- Privacy: The ability to ensure that user information will be protected and safe
- Transparency: Insight into how information is used by the company once it’s obtained
- Value: What the user gets in return for providing their information
Building trust by maintaining a balance between privacy, transparency, and value transcends industry or technology — it’s table stakes for any organization that captures user data. At CES 2020, CNET’s Ben Rubin explains how trust is critical with the implementation and use of emerging technology, such as voice and AI. In these cases, lapses and trust have significant business and even personal consequences.
Keeping Privacy, Transparency, and Value in Balance: The Restaurant Industry
When customers trust brands, companies like Starbucks are able to use customer data to correct inaccurate information, enhance security of transactions, and give product recommendations and special offers that are more likely to interest you or people who have similar interests as you. According to Eater, “it’s no longer enough to collect demographic information — these days, using apps, location tracking, and free wifi sign-ins, restaurants from Starbucks to Sweetgreen are creating individual customer profiles tracking everything from frappuccino flavor preferences to what time of day someone typically comes into a store to their behavior, tracked as a pattern over time, once inside a business.”
However, it is crucial to keep privacy, transparency, and value in balance when using any technology that captures customer data. For example, on the week of October 14, 2019, Outback Steakhouse decided to implement AI into their restaurant so they could use surveillance cameras to follow, analyze, and provide alerts on common trends like how often a tables server checks on their guests, how quickly food arrives at the table, or the number of how many potential customers leave due to not being seated or greeted in time. The goal was to use this data to improve the overall experience and increase customer satisfaction. However, this initiative backfired within a week of implementation, as customers raised concerns about being recorded and feared that their personal information could be shared and misused by either parent companies or third parties.
Although Outback’s leadership indicated that the AI-powered surveillance would not capture personally-identifiable information and that all data would be stored securely, there was little-to-no immediate value that this technology would provide to the customer. Without additional transparency into how the lobby surveillance would benefit customers, it was unlikely that they would trust the innovation enough to relinquish their privacy when dining at Outback.
On the other hand, Chick-fil-A is successfully using AI and machine learning to scan social media for food safety issues at their restaurants across the U.S. The goal for this new system is to identify any food safety risks by filtering through words on social media such as “illness,” “food poisoning,” and “vomit.” Managers will be able to see this data and contact customers directly to assess the situation, as well as keep an eye on trends. Their custom system has been able to achieve nearly 80% accuracy. The reason why this use of AI has been effective for them is because they were able to balance privacy, trust, and value when implementing AI. When Chick-fil-a collects their data via social media platforms, it’s less of a breach of privacy due to the fact that social media users have already decided to give up their privacy by sharing their opinions and experiences on those social platforms. Additionally, Chick-fil-a is transparent and has clear goals set for the initiative that provide significant value to the customer: to protect them from foodborne illnesses.
“For us in this journey with analytics and food safety, we’re going from a place of hindsight to insight … and eventually foresight so we can be more proactive in helping our restaurants better identify and address food safety risks” - Davis Addy, Senior Principal IT leader of Food Safety and Product Quality , Chick-Fil-A
When implemented after a foundation of trust has been built, AI can provide organizations access to information that you wouldn’t normally be able to access and could give you an advantage over competitors. Implementing artificial intelligence is a highly mature initiative from a digital perspective that requires high amounts of customer trust to action upon. Customer data is the backbone of AI, and must be something that is continuously exchanged between the customer and the organization. In order to keep this exchange viable, companies must maintain customer trust by providing enough value and transparency to motivate customers to give up some of their privacy, and doing so consistently at each touchpoint.