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    How AI Can Solve Fast-Food Labor Problems

  • Artificial intelligence technologies are increasingly being employed to improve the restaurant experience for customers and employees alike.

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    Data is powerful, and AI allows restaurateurs to leverage unprecedented insights and predictions.

    Despite the buzz surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) growing louder by the minute, much of the hype focuses on the negative impacts of AI, implying robots will soon replace their human counterparts in the labor force. While a lot of the talk surrounds how AI-assisted technologies will completely replace the need for human employees, AI is nowhere near that sophisticated yet.

    So, no, futuristic visions of the Terminator are not set to eliminate the need for greeters, servers, managers, cooks or cashiers in the quick-serve restaurant industry. However, AI is well positioned to help solve the industry’s problems with employment. But how can AI solve employment problems in an industry where cheap labor is an essential component in providing inexpensive food?

    Labor Shortage

    With unemployment at a 17-year low, businesses everywhere are struggling to find workers, and fast food is feeling the strain with intensity. According to the New York Times, since 2010, fast-food jobs have grown nearly twice as fast as employment overall, but one important source of workers (teenagers) has dried up, and increased immigration enforcement is causing worries about another (foreign-born employees), ultimately creating supply and demand issues. The rapid growth has created too many quick-serves, but there are not enough workers to fill every available position.

    While restaurants are notorious for having a high churn rate and lots of turnover, employees are coming and going faster than they have in recent memory. According to data from TDn2K, 2017’s turnover rate reached 133 percent, meaning that positions often had to be filled more than once.

    This labor shortage is the biggest problem facing the fast-food industry, Dunkin' Donuts CEO Nigel Travis told Business Insider last year. And it is estimated that there are currently 800,000 unfilled positions within the quick-service restaurant industry.

    The Potential of AI

    Today, artificial intelligence is employed across the industry to provide an intelligent, convenient and informed customer service experience. And most of the excitement surrounding its enterprise application surrounds its machine learning capabilities.

    Machine learning is a method of data analysis involving algorithms and statistical models that computer systems use to effectively perform specific tasks, without using explicit instructions and instead relying on models and deduction. Machine learning is often attributed to powerful computing systems that pore over significant amounts of data in order to learn from it.

    With more restaurants seeking new ways to advance their operations and increase their performance, artificial intelligence has the opportunity to improve numerous features of a forward-thinking quick-service restaurant. From reducing operational costs to increasing efficiency, increasing revenue and improving customer service, we are on the cusp of fundamentally changing the way quick-serves operate.

    And more businesses are taking note. In fact, according to Gartner, “by 2020, 85 percent of customer interactions will be managed without a human.” Fast-food companies have heavily invested in automation, analytics and artificial intelligence technologies in recent years, and it’s fair to expect the trend to continue and expand as AI grows increasingly advanced and becomes more accessible.

    How AI Can Solve Employment Problems in Fast Food

    As previously noted, fast-food and quick-serve restaurants across the U.S. are having a difficult time keeping employees employed. Average turnover has reached the highest rate since 1995. At 150 percent, the turnover rate means a restaurant with a staff of 20 people would have to hire 30 workers in one year.

    And the biggest risk when you have a lot of employee turnover is the customer experience. If that starts to decline, then it’s not likely those customers will return. As a matter of fact, a recent customer experience survey revealed that 35 percent of disgruntled customers will stop doing business with a company altogether in light of a lousy customer experience.

    So, how can artificial intelligence help to ameliorate employment issues in the fast-food industry?

    Digital customer service representatives leverage machine learning to automate repetitive tasks, incorporate new information to improve experiences and personalize user interactions to drive engagement. AI ultimately provides an intelligent, convenient and informed customer service experience by way of improved order speed and accuracy. AI also helps address labor shortages, especially during key times of heavy traffic.

    Order Speed and Accuracy

    According to the 2018 QSR Drive-Thru Study, drive-thru chains are inaccurate more than 10 percent of the time, and the average speed-of-service times have slowed down significantly in the face of such high employee turnover. While humans struggle to remember orders, make mistakes when recording those orders and prolong wait times longer when dealing with mistakes made, digital employees improve order accuracy and decrease wait times.

    These digital customer service assistants can be trained using recordings of customers ordering, and because the assistants only need to know certain words to take meal orders, the quality of accuracy exceeds that of other popular voice assistants that have to listen to and know everything we’re trying to say. They know every menu item, have instant access to inventory and reviews and can even show customers how-to videos, photos, ingredients or nutritional information.

    Human Time Constraints

    One of the eye-opening benefits of using AI to augment human employees is its independence from time constraints and holidays off. Digital employees always show up on snow days, and, unlike their human counterparts, they never call in sick or quit in the middle of their shift. They are always polite, professional and ready to assist customers. Digital employees don’t have “bad days,” they don’t get stuck in traffic or inclement weather, they never get frustrated with customers and they are programmed to help out in a quick and enjoyable manner.

    How many times during an eight-hour shift (maybe their third of fourth such shift of the week) can an employee say, “Hi! Welcome to [their restaurant]! How can I help you?” with the same eagerness and passion at the end of the shift as they had at the beginning? Digital ordering systems never gets bored. Even better, they will eventually have the ability to speak to customers in more than 30 languages, including American Sign Language. It’s whatever language the customer is most comfortable with.

    AI takes the mindless, repetitive tasks from human employees, allowing them to focus more attention on customer interaction at the drive-thru window. With more time to focus on the customer at the window, human employees no longer simultaneously have to take a customer’s order, receive payment for a previous order, make change, ensure an order's accuracy and get it out the window to the customer quickly, which ultimately improves both employee and customer satisfaction.

    Digital customer service representatives can easily adapt to handle multiple drive-thru lanes, ensuring the highest throughput volume possible. Many franchisee master service agreements dictate that if a restaurant has two lanes, those lanes must be kept open during certain hours of the day. This presents issues for the franchisee from a staffing and operational standpoint. AI can handle multiple lanes simultaneously allowing franchisees to meet their obligations and greatly expanding throughput, thus reducing customer wait times. It’s the proverbial win-win situation.

    Power of Data

    Best of all, data is powerful, and AI allows restaurateurs to leverage unprecedented insights and predictions. Imagine being able to tweak an upsell message based on the weather or profile of the customer. Digital customer service employees can answer questions about specific menu items, nutritional information and even make detailed recommendations based on ambiguous requests such as, “what do you have that’s spicy or less than 500 calories?”

    From taking orders to increasing throughput and improving employee and customer lives, digital customer service representatives simplify work for restaurant owners at every level of the enterprise. Restaurant employees have a wide range of tasks to tackle, and AI can take the pressure off taking orders on a daily basis. While you aren’t likely to place an order with the Terminator or HAL on your next visit to McDonald’s or Taco Bell, artificial intelligence technologies are increasingly being employed to improve the fast-food experience for customers and employees alike.

    Rob Carpenter is the founder and CEO of Valyant AI, a Colorado-based artificial intelligence company focused on customer service in the quick-serve restaurant industry. Carpenter is a passionate technologist and serial entrepreneur driven to bring new and exciting products to market. Rob has an MBA with a specialization in Enterprise Technology Management, has spent two years on the board of a VC fund and was named one of the top 25 young professionals in Colorado and received the Colorado Trailblazer award.