Do You Need a Restaurant Chatbot?
by David Klemt
The labor shortage, increasing demand for convenience, and artificial intelligence are converging to make a strong case for restaurant chatbots.
Specifically, bots that can take orders accurately. As consumers increasingly live their lives on demand, any perception of even minor inconvenience can turn someone against a brand or venue.
In addition to convenience, today’s consumer, generally speaking, also expects to find more technology when engaging with a business. Likewise, workers expect employers to implement more tech, whether it’s welcome or not.
Looking at generative AI and guest-facing tech, it won’t be long before guests expect to place their orders via chatbot.
In fact, some consumers are placing orders with restaurant bots now. There are already text- and voice-based restaurant bots out in the world. So far, it appears that many QSRs are implementing generative AI bots to handle orders.
As some of the companies developing restaurant bots point out, they never tire. The bots never feel overwhelmed. They can field a limitless amount of calls, working around the clock without breaks, every day of the year. Obviously, restaurant bots don’t get sick, ask for time off, or no-call, no-show.
So, for high-volume restaurants, particularly those with drive-thrus, restaurant bots are probably incredibly attractive. Clearly, labor is still an issue. And these restaurant bots promise to take the ordering process out of workers’ hands, allowing them to focus on “more important” tasks.
Now, couple that with guests seeming less patient, less forgiving, and more obsessive about convenience. On-demand solutions certainly appear great on paper.
We know that guests are already interacting with restaurant bots. When they visit a restaurant’s website or download its app if they have one, they’re encountering bots.
Some provide information, some can make reservations, and an increasing number can take orders. There are bots that imitate a text exchange, and those that streamline the ordering process by using canned replies.
One of the better known of these is Dom, Domino’s chatbot. Whether via app or website, Dom walks people through the ordering process easily and, in my experience playing with this tool, quite simply.
Further, Dom can “remember” previous orders (when a customer is logged into their account) and reorder them. The bot can make recommendations, and it will search for and apply coupons or promotions.
These functions are, of course, the pros of restaurant bots. As their ability to handle more complex tasks increases, the promise is that they’ll do more than offer convenience or solve some labor issues.
Rather, they’ll also generate more revenue by making personalized recommendations, upselling customers, and reaching out to customers to prompt them to place an order.
As operators whose phone lines light up from open to close can attest, there are people who prefer to talk to someone to place an order.
Well, there are now restaurant bots that can field those calls.
One provider of this tech is ConverseNow. The company uses voice AI, which they explain is also known as conversational AI on their website. Their tech handles phone and drive-thru orders, and the experience is close to, if not exactly like, speaking with their human counterparts.
According to ConverseNow, operators no longer have to worry about unanswered calls. Customers won’t call in only to hear a busy signal. Drive-thru times are reduced. Workers can focus solely on service, prep, and fulfilling orders.
Additionally, the company is focusing on accuracy. There’s an agent-assisted solution, for example. If a complex order comes in, an agent can take over before things go sideways. Agents can also help ConverseNow’s AI to learn from new situations, ensuring the customer experience is painless and even more accuracy.
The tech is so good that Domino’s uses it along with Dom. Per the ConverseNow website, the tech integrates with leading POS systems like Toast; is live in more than 1,200 restaurants in over 40 states; and has taken 8.5 million orders and freed up one million labor hours for their clients.
Restaurant bots certainly make sense for high-volume, limited-service, and QSR operators. They can reduce labor costs and capture more (if not every) order with ease.
However, we need to consider the impact of reducing or eliminating human interactions in hospitality. Whether in the front or back of house, we appear to be heading toward an industry putting less emphasis on the human element.
Yes, team members still interact with guests to take in-person orders and for in-person dining. That is, for now.
In the QSR space in particular, ordering kiosks are becoming more common. At some point, AI-powered kiosks, along with other AI tools, will replace the need to interact with humans in fast-casual and casual-dining restaurants.
It seems at odds with the spirit of hospitality for guests to not have to interact with a team member until their food needs to be dropped. And with cobots, that’s also a task an operator can automate.
I’m all for progress and innovation. And I’m all for delivering on the guest expectation of convenience. However, it’s a balancing act. An operator opting to automate tasks so team members can better engage with guests needs to ensure that’s actually happening.
I don’t think we need less human interaction. And I, for one, have a growing concern that some operators are journeying further down the path of barely seeing the people they employ as people. Rather, too many are increasingly seeing team members as liabilities and nothing more.
I point that out to say this: When considering implementing any new tech, consider the impact on more than just P&Ls. This is a people business, and dedicating yourself to slashing costs and boosting revenue ruthlessly runs the risk of making a restaurant less hospitable for guests and staff.