The Changing World of Drive-Thru Technology

One of your repeat drive-thru customers just ordered 20 chicken nuggets and as they’re slowly pulling up to the pay window, a Silverado with monster wheels and flashy LEDs speeds ahead of them from the next order lane. Another health-conscious customer just got so sick of saying “no” to the double bacon cheeseburger they hear about every time they drive up to order that they begin to preface each visit with “I’m not interested in your new special, I’d just like a chicken sandwich.”

New technology like license plate scanning may eliminate the need for separate order and pay zones by storing each customer’s meal preferences and payment information with their license plate number. Until that time arrives, however, some fast food customers are using social media to voice their frustrations, even going so far as to create their own People Against McDonald’s Double Drive-Thru Facebook Group. According to its members, double drive-thrus create “anxiety, poor customer service…and a potentially hostile environment.” One situation in which two cars were fighting for their place in line even resulted in someone getting stabbed, underscoring the importance of getting the innovation process right.

To paraphrase the Facebook group, how do quick service restaurants show frustrated customers that innovations like “two ordering lanes that merge back into one lane to the pick-up window” are not “senseless” propositions? Better communication is one solution, but it is not enough for fast food giants to educate customers. One owner of 27 Wichita, Kansas-based McDonald’s restaurants tried putting up signs explaining the double drive-thru process in simpler terms only to conclude that customers either ignore or cannot understand them.

In order to compete, QSRs increasingly need powerful technology that helps them increase drive-thru speed and accuracy.

Artificial Intelligence Saves the Day

The three charts below show the pressing need for artificial intelligence-based innovation at the drive-thru:

Drive Thru Statistics Charts

Data Sources: QSR Drive-Thru Studies (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019)

Even with the arrival of double drive-thrus and new technology in more fast food chains, overall wait time increased by 20 seconds in 2019 over the previous year.

ConverseNow, an Austin-based artificial intelligence startup founded in 2018, aims to make ordering more efficient by taking a conversational approach to AI-based Customer Relationship Management. They are currently working on integrating dynamic suggestive selling into drive-thrus. Traditionally, this has been the job of crew members and, more recently, digital menus that automatically display combos and other ways to complete a meal on the order screen.

Technology Investment is Heating Up

In 2018, Jack in the Box announced a $30 million minimum commitment to improving drive-thru technology, including digital menu boards that allow for more personalization.

McDonald’s Corporation’s acquisition of Dynamic Yield in March 2019 opens the door for intuitively designed AI, as customers are already able to see order suggestions based on the time of day, season, weather, and trending purchases.

In September 2019, McDonald’s also bought Apprente, a conversational technology company that aims to speed up drive-thru order taking by recognizing voice-based commands from customers. Apprente will be the first member of McD Tech Labs in Silicon Valley, which McDonald’s is forming to develop its technology infrastructure and disrupt not only the drive-thru, but order taking through kiosks and mobile apps as well.

According to McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook, the formation of McD Tech Labs, along with Apprente’s technology, is the next step toward building a “culture of innovation” that is integral to the company’s Velocity Growth Plan first announced in 2017. By investing in Plexure, a technology platform for mobile marketing, McDonald’s can now offer increased mobile ordering personalization in 48 countries outside of the United States as well.

Improving AI-Based CRM

With the rise of more conversational artificial intelligence, there is no chance of forgetting to upsell and less risk customers will be annoyed by hearing about menu items they have repeatedly refused in the past. After all, asking “Would you like fries with that?” to someone who is on a diet and has avoided fries for their past five drive-thru visits is not a way to get their repeat business, let alone increase the amount of items they order.

According to a 2019 QSR Magazine study of ten fast food giants, suggestive selling happens less than 55% of the time at even the most diligent drive-thrus with little, if any, emphasis on personalization. At two of the chains, this technique occurred at the greeting stage 55% to 60% of the time, leaving no way for the suggested add-ons to be customized based on a customer’s order, which ultimately leads to a longer wait as drive-thru workers have to waste precious time guessing on the right upsell to suggest rather than responding to changing customer needs in real-time.

Mai, a digital assistant by Chicago-based Encounter AI, is able to take drive-thru orders with 85% accuracy. The next step for improving AI is to field test software across different markets to allow for systems to learn from more complex order combinations.

With dynamic suggestive selling, a QSR’s cloud-based system can store the items customers have ordered in the past and remind them using an Alexa-like voice prompt. Theoretically, these next-generation technologies will be able to say something like, “I know you’re not much of a fry person, but I see you ordered apples the last time you visited us. Would you like to add those to your current order?” More importantly, if the customer responds “No – I don’t like apples. I only ordered them for my niece the previous time,” the system will adapt and suggest another option, as well as any trending menu items that are relevant to their previous preferences.

Other innovations that will affect order taking at drive-thrus, kiosks and mobile apps include PAR Technology’s API integration of Mobiry with Brink POS software. Mobiry allows for fast food restaurants to offer only the types of coupons and social promotions most likely to incentivize a repeat purchase. Distinguishing between different customer personas, as Mobiry is doing, represents the next stage of increasing the speed of service at drive-thrus. This is because it encourages customers to visit with a specific order in mind rather than waiting to decide after they approach the menu.

AI provides a chance for QSRs to offer upsell opportunities, resulting in higher drive-thru revenue.  It makes the ordering experience more personalized, intuitive and seamless for the end user to drive repeat visits at a higher check price.