3 Ways Restaurants Can Weather COVID-19 with Conversational AI

    The key to persevering is adapting to monumental consumer habit shifts as fast as they happen.

    A person holds a black phone.
    Unsplash/ROBIN WORRALL
    While dining onsite is currently restricted in much of the world, restaurants are getting the food to customers via tried and true means like delivery or takeout, as well as creative new digital modalities like buy-online-pickup-onsite.

    According to Brookings, the vast majority of retail businesses and workers are facing existential calamity, and restaurants are the first to be hit.

    However gloomy the outlook at this moment, the value proposition of restaurants persists. According to one fast casual CEO in QSR, “We’re seeing consumer habits change at a pace that, frankly, has never been observed,” he says. “There's no precedent for this. There's no playbook. And so we're just trying to adapt to it. We keep telling our teams we're an essential service. People need to be fed throughout all of this, and you can't just do it with the grocery stores.”

    The key to persevering through these times and coming out of the crisis whole is adapting to these monumental consumer habit shifts as fast as they happen. The pandemic has been forcing restaurants to close dining areas, lay off workers en masse, and shift some labor to an at-home workforce, but it hasn't stopped many restaurants from fulfilling their core mission: feeding people.

    Many establishments are well prepared to support this rapidly changing environment with automated digital ordering and capabilities for servicing customers from home, reducing burden for limited onsite staff. While dining onsite is currently restricted in much of the world, restaurants are getting the food to customers via tried and true means like delivery or takeout, as well as creative new digital modalities like buy-online-pickup-onsite.

    Conversational AI, which automates simple customer interactions and runs on their favorite mobile messaging channels, has been instrumental in helping brands adapt to our rapidly changing business environment. Here are three key strategies for restaurants to immediately retain workforce and revenue in these challenging times through conversational AI:

    Leveraging staff in new ways: Many restaurants are operating in a limited capacity, with reduced in-person staff. Restaurants are wondering: how do I maintain short-term revenue and long-term customer relationships during this crisis without personal interactions between staff and guests?

    Conversational AI allows branded bots to team up with remote staff to continue delivering personalized guest interactions, now over messaging or video chat conversations instead of face-to-face. Your staff are your greatest asset, and bots scale their ability to please all of your customers by automating the "first layer" of contact and handling simple inquiries and orders. They work together to share the menu, answer questions, offer support, upsell, create memorable experiences, and maybe even lighten the mood with a joke. 

    By rethinking staff deployment, you can:

    • Keep staff productive, safe, and satisfied while they deliver digital guest experiences from home, or onsite with a safe distance from customers.  
    • Enable flexible, safe buy-online-pickup modalities. Whether at a counter, drive-through, or curbside, guests can place an order through an AI-powered conversation as staff coordinate pickup or delivery.
    • For restaurants with a big footprint, leverage your geographic strength through peak times. For example, east coast workers could support guests during peak times on the west coast and vice versa. This creates a unique way to bring remote and onsite staff together to enhance the guest experience and drive efficiency.

    Starting conversations in new (digital) places: Conversational AI means you aren't limited to in-person interactions. In fact, Conversational AI lets you take advantage of how most people converse in their personal lives today: on messaging apps. Beyond simple SMS, messaging apps let you serve rich multimedia content to put your menu items in the best light and drive app-like experiences, with no download necessary.

    Apple Business Chat and Google Business Messaging let you easily start messaging conversations on native apps directly from search listings, contact us info, Google Maps, and more. Guests now have a way to get in touch with you that saves them from navigating an IVR without requiring onsite labor manning a phone. Guests just send in a text message with their usual order, pay via messaging, and schedule a pickup for a low-contact, frictionless experience.

    With a focus on conversational (instead of one-way) digital, you can also:

    • Meet your guests where they already are: on Facebook and Instagram. Facebook Messenger is another quick way to create an easy way for guests to place orders and get support. Start the conversation from your brand page or your social ads and posts.
    • Proactively keep your guests informed. Rather than one-way communications campaigns that drive calls or clicks, open conversations allow guests to receive consistent updates and respond back with questions or concerns. A simple QR code on a print ad or packaging, or link on a digital campaign, can make you a long-term messaging contact in your guest's phone. Then you can proactively text two-way alerts and updates.

    Adding AI to your team: While restaurants are almost universally seeing foot traffic decline, some are hitting record digital orders via the web or mobile app. Their model supports drive-thru windows, mobile pick-up lines, curb-side pickup, and/or delivery.  While this is a good problem to have, it introduces a set of new challenges: long wait times, overworked staff, supply challenges, escalated volume of customer complaints, and potential loss of sales if guests run into friction when ordering online or via the app.  AI-powered messaging can smooth out digital processes, adding a (virtual) team member to conduct each interaction.
     

    By putting conversational AI to work for your restaurant, you can:

    • Start getting relief now. Messaging can be enabled in a wide range of entry points including your website and mobile app, so if you enable some basic AI to handle simpler interactions, you can make staff workloads manageable and expedite customer service. For example, guests could message with a bot that provides updated hours, schedules order, or provides loyalty program info. 
    • Expand to more sophisticated uses later: you can identify the most pressing guest "intents" (or reasons for contact) and automate responses accordingly. In a time where conditions change daily, you may be surprised as to why customers reach out to you—unless you have a way to analyze their conversations. With Conversational AI, which can parse text, sentiment, and survey results, you get unprecedented insight into the minds of your guests.

    As challenges continue to mount for the industry, restaurants should think about both weathering the storm and coming out of it more resilient than ever. It's unclear how the pandemic will permanently alter guest behavior, but one thing is clear: the world was becoming increasingly digital, and this event is accelerating that evolution. In a world where mobile interactions are increasingly replacing face-to-face, AI-powered messaging is critical to transforming your experience to meet your guests’ needs.

    Travis Mahn is a Client Partner at LivePerson (NASDAQ: LPSN), a global leader in conversational solutions. He and his team help brands "go conversational" and connect with customers through AI-powered messaging. LivePerson was named to Fast Company’s World's Most Innovative Companies list in 2020. Reach Travis at tmahn@liveperson.com.