If we want to create standout customer experiences and drive loyalty in quick service we must stop designing out opportunities to differentiate through service. In a digitally enabled world, frictionless experiences are accepted to be the primary objective. But faster does not equal better.

Quick service is over indexing on “Quick”—speed is king because it drives short-term revenue, but what about the “S,” the “serve” in quick service? In a commoditized market, “how” you do something is as important as “what” you do. Often brand experience is ditched in the interest of creating an optimized flow. However, focusing on operational speed and convenience alone can mean significant missed opportunities for brand building and long-term value creation.

The more seamless the experience, the less opportunities there are to differentiate from competitors. There’s less scope to build customer relationships or encourage higher basket value by increasing dwell time and enabling slower “discovery” mode purchasing.

Overly optimized customer flows can unknowingly cause negative visceral human responses that can result in a significant amount of lost revenue.

A few years ago, for example, McDonald’s was going through a “digital transformation.” Famously focused on operational speed, it was predictably reluctant to roll out the now lauded self-serve kiosks (slower than the counters). Research revealed that being second in a busy line causes a stress response. Peer pressure from behind and the paralysis of choice from the dazzling menu in front led to “blurt ordering.” A “get me out of here quickly” response. An unprecedented visceral human response derailed millions of dollars’ worth of investment in R&D and digital infrastructure. A deeper commitment to understanding the customer helped to improve the experience by bringing in the slower, but less stressful kiosks, resulting in a year on year 7-10 percent increase in ticket value. Many also cite a 30 percent increase in spend through kiosks.

When every quick service outlet is using self-ordering technology (either remote or in store) how do you differentiate?

In quick service, convenience enabled by technology is now table stakes and no longer a competitive advantage. To win, quick serves must purposefully design in punctuating ‘moments of truth’ in the experience that deliver on the unique brand promise.

For example, when global coffee chain Costa launched a new store concept targeting the commuter market. Its point of difference was the crafted coffee, hand-made by a barista rather than someone pressing a button on a machine. However, for consumers this often went unnoticed in its other store formats because Costa had not designed the ordering experience to highlight this crucial differentiator.

Building from this insight, the mission was to design an experience that felt fast, but also emphasized the differentiating elements of the brand experience. A store environment was mocked up for testing different flows with customers. Testing showed, if you get people through in the most operationally efficient way, they feel rushed and undervalued and won’t come back, but too slow and it has the same effect! It was clear a more orchestrated experience was needed, using technology to accelerate vital but “low-value” moments and intentionally slow the experience down to spotlight high-value moments, where the unique brand experience could come to the fore. For example, creating friction at the end of the experience, putting emphasis on the barista personally handing you your handmade, “crafted” coffee, rather than leaving it sitting on a counter with other people’s drinks, neglected.

The takeaway?

Modulate and control experience flow

Find opportunities to create unique moments of truth in the experience that support your brand. Consider how changing the friction and flow at key moments might change the ultimate overall experience of the customer. Herein also lies caution. If we intentionally cause friction in the flow, it must be for a specific and good reason, rooted in improving the customer experience.

Design for emotional not just practical needs

When designing the key points in the journey, it is important to solve for practical customer needs, but also consider the emotional requirements and reactions of your customers and the powerful, cumulative effect an unintended emotional response can have on your business.

Connected systems, not individual innovations

High quality consumer experiences are the result of systems, not individual innovations. The unboxing experience is nested in the delivery experience, which is nested in expectations set in the ordering experience and so on.

A systems-thinking approach can help navigate complexity. When Pret A Manger’s business model was severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it partnered with a consulting firm to accelerate the launch of new digital and physical customer experiences. The systems-thinking and service design led approach allowed the firm to consider the planned and unplanned impact of new digital experiences and propositions, both on customers and Pret team members.

Creating a stand-out experience in a crowded market, requires an integrated approach balancing human centricity with operational excellence, technology human insight, all coming together to design truly engaging customer experiences that drive loyalty and advocacy.

Matt Millington is a Customer Experience Design Expert at PA Consulting.

Outside Insights, Story, Technology