Networked data services touch just about every critical element of the quick-service restaurant industry, from customer service to training to basic operational processes like inventory, reporting, and compliance.

The future winners in quick service will figure out how to do more than touch those areas; they’ll use networked data services to transform them. Their customer service will start long before the customer walks in the door and continue even after orders are placed, prepared, and served. Information will become part of the menu. Brands will form social networks around their customers’ interests and dining preferences. Their staffs will be better trained in food preparation, customer service, operations, and health and safety compliance.

Digital network communications are the enabling force behind these changes. In a sector where competition is fierce, turnover among staff is high, and consumer tastes are often fickle, enterprising restaurateurs are finding differentiation, employee retention, and customer loyalty through innovative uses of networking and application technologies. In fact, much of the future innovation in the quick-service business will be found in a store’s effective use of its network and the technologies that enable business applications—not in the kitchen.

Today’s fast-food customers are looking more like fast-food mavericks, forgoing the established norms of advertising, promotions, and impulse buying to bring them into stores and instead relying on online reviews (both by family/friends and complete strangers), word of mouth, social media, and amenities like free WiFi.

The training difference

A well-trained workforce is the biggest competitive advantage in any industry, and possibly the hardest to develop. It’s even harder for quick serves because so much rides on providing superior customer service, yet their labor pool’s composition makes cultivating employee skills difficult.

Much of the future innovation in the quick-service business will be found in a store's effective use of its network and the technologies that enable business applications.

Much of the quick-service workforce tends to be young and transient with high turnover rates. They need training more than mature workers, but because they’re likely to move along in weeks or months rather than years, investing too much in training them through traditional means is a risky investment.

Personal mobile devices give companies new ways to train their employees. Given the combination of mobile devices among young people and high turnover rates, brands have a big incentive to deliver high-quality digital training that employees can take with them.

Video content delivered over handhelds gives employees easier access to training content. Better training improves service on two fronts. First and most obviously, it gives employees stronger skills for preparing food and dealing with customers. Second, it makes employees’ jobs easier and less stressful; knowing what to do and when to do it is a lot less nerve-racking than making it up as you go along. When the job is easier and employees get better reactions from customers, it reduces turnover, which in turn improves customer service.

At more advanced quick serves of the future, training through handhelds will be a component in an integrated digital training platform that encompasses classroom, in-store, and mobile channels. Employees will receive information in the form they most easily retain. Many operations will have digital training rooms where employees can learn via text, video, and audio.

Engagement at all points

New applications for networked digital services will extend into every facet of quick-service operations that help brands build social networks. Among the technological items that will become standard fare in the new world of quick service are:

  • Digital menuboards for better demographic targeting. Menuboards can be used to track popular items as part of the effort to reach social network–minded customers. Menuboards will be digital and will change based on the time of the day and the targeted demographic.
  • Easy-to-use touch-screen ordering and transactions at the table. These can include information content on nutrition data and entertainment options (for a fee) to entertain kids and also collect demographic data on customers. They can also be used to supplement menuboards and add-on orders after the customer sits down to eat.
  • Intelligent drive-thru. Quick serves will link mobile devices to the drive-thru window. By establishing a link between the store and the customer’s mobile device, operators will communicate with customers about promotions, sales, featured menu options, and loyalty programs. At the actual drive-thru, customers will swipe loyalty cards or scan a bar code from their phones, allowing the restaurant to track customers, offer incentives, and incentivize and reward brand loyalty. Jay Ward, communications manager for Ford, says drive-thru lanes of the future will also move much faster as a result of automotive upgrades combined with mobile applications. Quick serves will need and eventually turn to technology that can process orders over this new, fast, and exciting channel.

The foundation of these services will be a multi-protocol data backbone that supports multiple data streams: payments, business data, entertainment content, and so on. All of the data running through multiple data streams and networks needs to be secure. Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance requires a high level of security for each transaction, and that operators guard against both wired and wireless threats. Information also needs to flow securely and efficiently with built-in redundancy. Self-configuring VPNs and firewalls using intelligent routers will make the whole process (and headache) of becoming and remaining PCI compliant easier.

There are only so many things that quick-serve operators can do to their burgers, salads, tacos, and sandwiches to set themselves apart from the competition. Food quality is only one element in an overall dining experience that includes service, entertainment, and information. But operations that use digital networking to improve service and build social networks around their brands will own the future.

Tim Tang is director in the vertical market group for Hughes Network Systems LLC, where he works with retail customers to develop their "store of the future" initiatives. Contact him at
Ordering, Outside Insights, Restaurant Operations, Story