What a difference a year makes. Coming out of the pandemic, consumers were ready to resume real-world experiences such as shopping, events, travel and dining. But what happened during that time away has forever shifted what customers have come to expect from those experiences. Fast-forward to today, and it’s clear that the pandemic advanced our desire to better connect our digital and physical experiences, as we’ve become savvier with the role technology plays in our lives.

Fortunately, quick-service restaurant brands are incorporating technology to meet today’s need to better serve customers and provide employees with tools that empower and enhance their own experience. Here are a few insights into how the customer experience has shifted and where these new consumer behaviors will lead.

A Shift in the Dining Experience

The size of the dining room has been shrinking for a while now, and that trend continues to grow. Just a few years ago, quick-service brands were broadcasting public commercial television in the dining room to try to keep customers on premise. Today, that’s all changed as they are taking steps to reduce dwell times and minimize the dining room.

This shift in the dining experience is the result of the drive-thru, which is now capturing roughly 80 percent of all quick-service revenue as customers are more likely to want to pull into the drive-thru or pick up an order. So, in essence, many brands are putting more effort into employee retention, reducing or removing the dining room experience, and servicing customers where they want to be, which is primarily in the drive-thru.

Innovation Through Technology

To meet the growing demand for the drive-thru, where you don’t always have that face-to-face experience, brands have to implement new tools and solutions to stay connected. But being at the cutting edge means that there are going to be bumps along the way. When you get into the specifics, all the brands are racing one another to implement new technology to better serve their customers.

For example, when you start to incorporate AI, you run up against some kinks in the system, such as language barriers or even regional accents, and not everyone speaks with proper dictation or uses the same common words. As a result, AI doesn’t always pick up the order accurately. The systems exist, but some owner operators are finding that they may need further refinement. So rather than a sprint, quick-serves may see a longer race to implement technologies that can be cost-effective and provide intelligence, accuracy and clarity.

Possibly even more crucial than the AI technology itself are the analytics around it. Restaurants are figuring out how to address efficiencies, adding timer technology and in some cases tying everything into the order confirmation board. In essence, they’re looking for answers to questions such as, what are we going to do about our drive offs, and what are we going to do about getting five more cars through that lane at lunchtime?

Satisfying Today’s Customer Expectations

It used to be that the customer’s experience began when the customer walked into the quick-service restaurant dining room. Today, that experience begins when they pull into the entranceway of the property and they get that first impression. During the pandemic, technology advanced dramatically, but it hasn’t necessarily been deployed yet. Along with these advancements, customer expectations also began to evolve—if I can get this experience online, why can’t I get it in the real world?

Over the next 24 months, quick-serves will be determining how to implement, deploy, and support new technology that bring these two worlds closer together and address recent shifts in customer behavior. As a result, older-generation technology will need to be replaced by newer technology.

Providing a Consistent Customer Experience

The next evolution of quick-service restaurant is to somehow engage the customer through social media so that the brands can capture the analytics on their customers’ buying prowess and trends. That may involve routinely using QR codes, where stores can capture the attention of the 15- to 25-year-old crowd and use the information gathered to build a personal relationship with them.

In just one example of using an experience to create a more personalized messaging approach, McDonald’s recently posted a phone number to its social media channels encouraging consumers to text the number and add it to their contacts. In doing so, McDonald’s can share better personalized promotional offers and ultimately receive insights that can lead to more conversions.

As quick-serves adapt to a shifting landscape, they will find new ways to engage and connect with customers, meet their needs, and provide a more advanced experience. Tapping into technology that bridges the digital with the physical, incorporating newer digital displays, improving audio response and communications, and integrating scents that drive product interest will all help satisfy customers today and tomorrow.

David Vance is the VP of QSR, Mood Media. Vance has extensive experience beginning his career in 1996 at Muzak as both an AE then as a regional Sales Manager and then at DMX as Eastern VP of Sales. Combined with his past 15 years as Vice President of Sales and most recently Vice President of QSR with Mood, David brings a broad knowledge and a unique skill set in building high-performing sales teams. David is based out of West Palm Beach, Florida where he has lived for the past 13 years with his family.

Consumer Trends, Fast Food, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story, Technology