At the end of last year, the National Restaurant Association’s chief economist Hudson Riehle told the Washington Post that 39% of restaurant traffic was at the time bumper-to-bumper in a drive-thru lane.
Evidently, operators at some of America’s biggest chain restaurants believe this consumer preference — habituated through the pandemic — is here to stay. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal describes how they are adapting to accommodate: “The strategy from these giant chains is to orient their operations around drive-thrus and online ordering while testing new restaurant concepts that only serve food to go.”
Where space and budgets will allow, it’s likely that multi-lane drive-thrus will become a reality. But most quick-service restaurants have been looking at other ways to deal with the challenge of serving higher numbers of people, more quickly, more efficiently, and more accurately — and with fewer staff.
By now, most (if not all) have realized that voice technology is a swift, affordable, and practical way of processing drive-thru orders in a demanding world in which customers are typically only willing to wait 30 minutes or less for their food. But not every restaurant knows how to navigate the multitude of options available to them.
Here are six questions to ask when you’re thinking about the best voice tech to ease congestion, drive sales, and provide a personable customer experience:
- Is the quality of the voice interaction natural and conversational?
No restaurant wants to alienate its fan base with a clunky, robotic voice assistant that gets things wrong and doesn’t understand. Look for voice AI software that mimics normal speech patterns and doesn’t rely upon “wake words” or turn-taking with awkward pauses.
Good voice technology should allow for a fluent conversation without sounding so human that customers feel deceived or uncomfortable as the technology veers into what tech folks call the “uncanny valley.”
Some voice AI for drive-thru offers allow customers to see the text of the dialogue happening live in front of them as they speak. This way the customer can feel reassured about the order that has been captured and make any edits or modifications in real-time.
- Does it work well in physically challenging conditions?
Sometimes you’ve got to fix the roof while the sun is shining to avoid later regrets. Similarly, when picking voice AI for drive-thru, you should keep in mind how the weather and other external conditions could cause pain later on.
Notoriously, drive-thrus are in noisy urban areas or near highways and operate in the rain, wind, and snow. As a result, the quality of the microphones and speakers may differ greatly.
But it’s not just the hardware you need to be concerned with. You should also pick a high-quality voice technology that uses acoustic modeling to ensure that customers can be heard and understood, even in noisy environments.
- How quickly can you get your menu data up and running?
One thing that stops restaurant owners and executives from taking the plunge with voice AI is a level of nervousness about integration and how long it will take. That’s why it’s critical that you choose a platform that integrates swiftly and easily with the most important thing of all: your menu.
There are voice systems that require menu data from your POS to be entered manually. And while this is fine if you have a very limited menu, it can really slow things down for longer menus (sometimes taking months to complete).
For a plug-and-play option, choose a voice tech provider that has pre-built integrations to quickly digest data directly from your POS system. Simple.
- Can the technology easily recognize a range of accents and common expressions?
In the U.S., we have an incredible breadth of accents and identities. Unfortunately, some voice tech can really struggle to understand a full range of speech and slang and that can lead to frustrating interactions for hungry customers.
If your patrons call a hoagie a “huber,” refer to soda as “pop,” or vary between calling a particular menu item a burger or a sandwich, you need voice software that can be customized and — critically — has the ability to continuously improve as it's used.
- Does the vendor have the experience to help you build an intuitive voice UI/UX?
All restaurants want to create the very best experience for their customers, and ultimately that comes down to making sure interactions are quick, natural, and efficient.
Good voice technology is built on an understanding of how people naturally communicate and works to ensure all interactions are fluent and effective. Your vendor should have a track record of working with technology and human beings — great interfaces only come about through a deep knowledge of both.
- Are drive-thrus part of an end-to-end platform that includes phone, kiosk, and tableside ordering?
As anyone who works in technology will tell you, it really pays to take a long-term view. Today, you may only need voice AI to help your restaurant manage phone orders, but down the line you could end up with kiosks, tableside ordering, or drive-thru locations.
If you don’t want to spend time and money trying to force different channels to integrate with your POS, make sure you buy technology that is expandable and uses common APIs.
In our day-to-day lives, we’re all well used to adopting new technologies but for businesses it can sometimes feel like a risk. And yet, for restaurants right now, the bigger risk really comes from ignoring the opportunity of easy-to-implement, inexpensive technology like voice AI.
These critical questions should help any technology buyer make a solid vendor selection that ultimately unlocks much better food ordering experiences for customers and employees alike.
Ben Bellettini, SoundHound head of sales, restaurants
Ben has 14 years of experience working in restaurant technology sales, with 12 of those years spent in strategic leadership roles. His expertise lies in helping restaurants leverage groundbreaking technology to evolve and improve their interactions with customers.