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The restaurant industry has undergone many rapid changes in the last several years, particularly with the adoption of new technology.

Technology is cool, but restaurant guests still want a human touch

In an age of technological innovation and automation, it’s important that you balance those tools with a human element.

Over time, most restaurant concepts, from quick-service restaurants (QSRs) to traditional sit-down establishments, have benefited from including a human element to their service. That is still very much the case today, even with the growing use of automated systems and technology in the restaurant industry. However, it is important to remember that the sudden rise in automation and high-tech systems was spurred by circumstances, in particular the COVID-19 pandemic. When not under the restrictions of a pandemic, many customers indicate they still value having a personal, human touch in their consumer services. 

Of all the restaurant concepts, QSRs were one that flourished during the pandemic, with their ability to adapt quickly to customer needs, like contactless pick up and online ordering. Market experts report the average QSR today has six to seven individual technological systems to handle their customer orders. However, with many of the pandemic restrictions lifted — like building occupation limits and public gathering restrictions — some people are returning to previous buying habits and service expectations. 

According to consumer studies, 59 percent of consumers surveyed said they feel like companies have lost touch with the human element in their services. A third of those surveyed said the most frustrating thing they found about modern customer service is the lack of human contact, and 75 percent said they prefer speaking with a person instead of using an automated system in their customer experience. 

While technology can help reduce labor costs and ensure efficiency with processing orders, the savings and speed may be outweighed if people find an automated restaurant experience unsatisfying. Customer satisfaction is a vital part of having a successful restaurant. Customers can and will speak to other people, and it can take multiple good reviews to outweigh a negative one. 

The pandemic accelerated the implementation of technology in the restaurant business model, benefitting owners financially and in time savings. But the result of this rush to adapt could lead to an over-reliance on technology and the elimination of customer service touchpoints. Those touchpoints are important for building rapport with the consumer and long-term relationships beyond a transactional approach. Restaurant operators must ensure the human element is delivered alongside the efficiencies of high-tech service.  

While you shouldn’t completely throw out the technology you’ve added to your restaurant, you should also continue to invest in the human elements of your service where these touchpoints still exist. Whether that’s the employee accepting orders, the one bringing the customer their food for pick-up, or the delivery person taking it to their home, you want to make the personal interaction with the customer memorable.  

When you train your employees who interact directly with your customers, don’t assume they already know how to provide good customer service. Make sure they are attentive to the customer and use positive language (like suggesting an alternative if a customer orders something that isn’t available). They should watch for customer body language, while being mindful of their own body language. Utilize technology to train and prep employees with FAQs customers ask and best practices for handling disgruntled customers. Lastly, empower them to make judgement calls like providing a free dessert or a gift certificate to satisfy a displeased customer. 

Customer satisfaction surveys are a good way to determine whether certain techniques are effective or not. If you want to know where your restaurant would better be served with a person providing the service instead of a kiosk or other technological device, try holding customer surveys to see where your customers are happy and where they see a need for improvement. Be sure to include age demographics in your surveys, as this will help you know which customers are more likely to use which services. While GenZ is quite comfortable reading a menu on their phone from a QR code, a baby boomer may struggle to read the font and avoid your restaurant rather than try to flag someone down for a menu. 

When you invest in new technology, quality testing is important. Make sure you test your new systems across varying customer age groups, since many times older customers tend to prefer more human interaction than automated when going to a restaurant. Easy user interfaces are important since customers don’t want to hunt for their items to order or to check on the status of a delivery. Finally, make sure your systems fit the kind of model your restaurant uses. Using ordering kiosks may not fit a traditional sit-down restaurant. 

It's a good idea to go through your restaurant’s entire customer experience personally or have someone give you a report on the entire experience from arrival to departure, or from ordering to pick up. Doing so will help you get a full-picture view of how all the parts of your customers’ experience fit together. This is a good way to determine where you can add human elements if there weren’t any before or provide a human option to a technological one. 

Finally, focus groups are good ways to evaluate your customer base’s satisfaction and hear about where different demographics would like to see changes. It’s important to include group members from a variety of demographics, in order to get an effective cross section of your customers. Be sure to remember, however, that not all demographics will be spread evenly throughout your customer base. Don’t leave anyone out but remember to keep your biggest supporters in mind. 

The restaurant industry has undergone many rapid changes in the last several years, particularly with the adoption of new technology. Now that markets are getting closer to pre-pandemic conditions, customers are finding they miss the human element that was lost during the period when everybody had to practice social distancing. Make sure your restaurant provides customers with the right balance of technology and human interaction. If you do, then you’ll soon have a loyal customer base that comes back for more. 

Robin_Gagnon_Headshot.jpgAUTHOR BIO

Robin Gagnon is the CEO and Co-Founder of We Sell Restaurants, the nation’s largest restaurant brokerage firm and the only business broker franchise specializing in restaurant sales.

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