The quick-service restaurant industry has traditionally lagged behind other industries when it comes to digital technologies. The COVID-19 pandemic changed all that. Suddenly customers were in quarantine, and guest visits took a sharp plunge. At the same time, consumer dining habits were changing. Many quick-serves scrambled to implement or improve their digital channels, and that’s creating a real opportunity—a new stream of customer data that will shape the future of service.
The pandemic changed how consumers “dine out,” with more guests ordering takeout meals and taking advantage of remote ordering initially to protect themselves from COVID. Restaurants quickly adapted to new guest expectations, accelerating their digital initiatives to provide a better, safer customer experience. Quick-service brands are also working with restaurant managers and franchisees to expand digital ordering and payment systems to provide a frictionless customer dining experience.
The good news for restaurants is that upleveling digital guest interaction provides a rich source of customer data for analysis. More data will enable better personalized service, increasing guest engagement and loyalty. Lessons learned from the pandemic also will reveal new business opportunities for quick-serves.
Lessons Learned from the Pandemic
The COVID-19 lockdowns changed the way restaurants serve their guests—and many of those changes will be permanent.
The move to home delivery and takeout orders created an immediate need for better mobile applications to handle remote ordering. It also created a need for interactive kiosks that allow guests to place their orders while minimizing interaction with staff. As a result, quick-service restaurants and franchisees needed to upgrade in-store technology and adapt the customer experience to minimize contact.
The pandemic also created a shift to curbside service, as well as a dramatic change in customer experience. Drive-up customers now preorder and pick up their food without leaving their cars. Some restaurants have been branching out with prepackaged foods for sale in the restaurant and grocery stores. There are new sales channels and new channels of customer interaction.
Quick-service guests are relying more on digital ordering. In addition to remote orders via mobile app, many restaurants have also started using QR codes for on-site ordering. Using smartphones to scan a code at the table reveals a menu, and patrons can either place an order directly from their phone or use the QR menu at the restaurant to place their order with a server. It’s more efficient for the restaurant and limits COVID exposure for patrons and staff.
What’s clear is that brands are applying technology to promote a contactless customer experience. Digital ordering is also being used to create a unified brand experience, bringing together mobile, web, and kiosk interfaces. It all comes down to delivering a better, more customized guest experience.
Expanding the Guest Experience
Thanks to the pandemic, many quick-serves have had to improve digital interaction with regional locations and franchisees. For example, some local restaurants need to accommodate different menu items in mobile apps and kiosk ordering. Restaurant layouts may also differ, so quick-service brands need to adjust for variations such as drive-through or no drive-through. And during the pandemic, locations have had to adhere to regional regulations regarding masks, which means some outlets will require masks while others will not. The challenge has been communicating with location managers, franchisees, and customers while maintaining a consistent guest experience.
Shake Shack, for example, strives to deliver a community experience, which becomes more challenging with contactless ordering and curbside pickup. Since every location is different, Shake Shack took steps to accommodate contactless ordering and maintain the brand experience by porting its in-store kiosk to handheld devices so staff could take orders curbside. The result is better guest service in keeping with Shake Shack’s signature experience.
Some chains are using GPS and geofencing technology to serve guests better. For example, when a guest places a pickup order from their car, the order can be prioritized based on the estimated arrival time, ensuring a hot order is waiting for them when they arrive.
The same technology can be used to sense when you may be near a favorite food stop, suggesting a favorite order or a new menu item when the guest is in proximity. For example, the Whopper Detour campaign used the Burger King mobile app to send customers a one-cent coupon for a Whopper every time they came near a McDonald’s.
Digital technology not only powers a frictionless guest experience but tells you more about the customer. Quick-service restaurants are using customer data and machine learning (ML) to make the most of stored customer data and build new marketing models using artificial intelligence (AI).
You can learn a lot by tracking guest activity, including what guests order regularly, how they order, when they order, whether they order for takeout or on-site dining, etc. Using ML can reveal behavior patterns, making it easier to deliver custom offers.
Capturing more customer data improves analytics and the potential offered by AI. Rather than relying solely on historical data, AI now enables guest personalization based on predicted behavior. Drawing from different data sources, AI-generated predictive models can determine future behavior, testing outcomes for menu offerings, new product offerings, new markets, and more. AI can also reveal the reasons for customer churn and identify issues affecting customer experience and revenue.
One of the pluses to emerge from the pandemic has been the applications of new technologies to address customers’ changing needs. As quick-serves continue to customize the guest experience, they will learn more about customers and what they want and expect. The more data available, the deeper the insight, the more accurate the predictive analytics, and the better the guest dining experience.
Jason Seeba is Chief Marketing Officer at mParticle. Prior to mParticle, he led Marketing at five Silicon Valley startups, including BloomReach, Eightfold.ai and Dynamic Signal. He's also been an advisor to fast-growing startups like Clari, Leadspace and SafeGraph. Jason holds a bachelor's degree and an MBA from Azusa Pacific University.