Before COVID-19 upended every industry around the globe, the restaurant sector was already facing labor shortages. Now, in the throes of a global pandemic, the low-wage work — combined with the threat of exposure to the virus — makes it even more difficult to find quality workers.
Despite a high unemployment rate, restaurants everywhere are struggling to hire and retain workers, and the quick-service restaurant (QSR) space is among the hardest-hit industries.
QSR Labor Pressures
Many potential employees consider fast-food jobs to be short-term and transitional. According to the New York Times, jobs in the sector have grown nearly twice as fast as employment overall in the past decade, but in spite of this growth, there aren’t enough willing workers to fill every available position.
Plus, many of the potential employees the industry disproportionately relies on are on the extreme ends of the age spectrum, with older workers more susceptible to the virus and younger people often living at home with their parents who might be in high-risk categories. Compounding the issue, annual employee turnover in the industry is estimated to be anywhere from 100% to 150% — which means fast-food restaurants are replacing their entire workforce at least once a year and possibly more often than that.
“Understaffing is a massive problem,” said Jonathan Maze, executive editor of Restaurant Business Magazine, in a New York Times piece. Not only does this staffing shortage annoy potential customers who are eager to eat out, but it also has a major impact on a restaurant’s bottom line.
Fortunately, artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are positioned to help solve the industry’s employment challenges. But how can AI address QSR labor problems in a society where people are afraid of machine intelligence and “robots” sparking mass unemployment by taking jobs from humans?
Artificial Intelligence to the Rescue
From reducing operational costs to enhancing efficiency, increasing revenue, and improving customer service, the implementation of AI to augment short-staffed restaurants has the potential to fundamentally change the way QSRs operate.
Today, conversational AI platforms are being integrated into existing mobile, web, call-ahead, kiosk and drive-thru ordering platforms, and point-of-sale systems to automate the order-taking process.
Using deep neural networks to deliver natural language understanding and speech-to-text capabilities capable of carrying on unstructured conversations with customers, AI is now able to take live customer orders, call-ahead orders, and mobile orders. The technology can even be easily adapted to handle multiple drive-thru lanes, ensuring the highest throughput volume possible.
Removes Pressure From Staff to Make the Job More Enjoyable
In the QSR space, human employees are under a significant amount of stress. They have to take a customer’s order, receive payment for a previous order, make change, ensure an order’s accuracy and get the meal to the customer quickly — all while the red numerals on the countdown clock tick toward zero.
Making matters worse, staff members often struggle to remember customer orders, make mistakes when recording those orders, get bored while completing repetitive tasks, and inevitably prolong wait times when dealing with their mistakes. By taking the mindless, repetitive task of order-taking away from human employees, AI removes a significant amount of pressure employees face, driving up the average employee’s satisfaction rate and making the job more enjoyable.
Speeds Up Customer Transactions and Improves Order Accuracy
According to a recent QSR Drive-Thru Study, drive-thru orders are inaccurate more than 10% of the time and average speed-of-service times have slowed down significantly in the face of such high employee turnover. Compound these issues with the massive expansion of drive-thru customers looking to minimize contact in their interactions with others in the face of COVID-19 and the challenge becomes even greater.
To ameliorate these concerns, AI can be trained using recordings of real customer orders, and because the platforms only need to know certain words to take meal orders, their accuracy can even exceed that of popular voice assistants like Alexa and Siri that have to listen to and know everything we’re trying to say. Plus, with more time to focus on customers in the store or at the window, human employees can shift their time to more specialized and challenging duties, such as receiving payments, making change, ensuring order accuracy, and preparing meals, thereby decreasing wait times.
Increases Average Check Size
Innovative AI platforms leverage customer data for opportunities to increase customer spend. They can dynamically update digital display boards based on customer requests and provide real-time, actionable insights on customer interactions to improve future performance.
By analyzing an ever-increasing amount of customer data insights and other factors, including time of day, item popularity, traffic, weather and items normally purchased together, AI platforms are able to encourage customers to purchase more expensive or upgraded items, as well as other add-ons, which ultimately boosts profits while improving the customer experience.
Improves Customer Service
When you have a staffing shortage or high employee turnover — as is the case in the QSR sector — the customer experience can suffer. A recent survey revealed that 35% of disgruntled customers will stop doing business with a company altogether in light of a lousy customer experience, making customer service more important than ever.
Cutting-edge AI platforms ensure a consistent experience across myriad retail operations, retain institutional knowledge regardless of turnover rates and provide unprecedented opportunities for customer experience optimization. Because AI platforms can be programmed to assist in a quick and enjoyable manner, they are always polite, professional, and ready to assist customers. AI always shows up — even on snow days — and, unlike its human counterparts, it never calls in sick, quits mid-shift, gets stuck in traffic or has a “bad day.” Best of all, AI platforms never get frustrated with customers.
From automating the order-taking process and increasing customer throughput to improving order accuracy, decreasing speed-of-service times, boosting check sizes, and enhancing both the employee and customer experience, AI truly drives greater efficiencies at every level of the enterprise. Restaurant employees have a wide range of tasks to tackle, and AI can ease labor pressures by streamlining the customer experience and improving employee efficiencies. At the end of the day, employees, customers, and restaurants all benefit from the power of AI.
This article was written by the Rob Carpenter, Founder and CEO of Valyant AI. To learn more about their solution, click here!