Forget Dessert, How’d That Digital Experience Go Down?


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Mobile tech, tablets, data and dinner tables changing the age-old restaurant customer experience

In the U.S., dining out is more than an occasional treat – for many, it’s the primary way they eat. With nearly 1 million locations happy to help gobble up discretionary spending, the restaurant industry is expecting record-level 2014 sales of $683 Billion.

Yet the restaurant industry has been uncommonly slow to adopt new technologies – much less to embrace digital disruption. Yet the time for fence-sitting is over; change is coming, as early adopters such as DinnerLab leverage innovations like big data and customer research to gain advantage. Companies like Olo are creating digital ordering apps and the “wait list” may be a thing of the past if start up NoWait has its way.

But these innovations – as interesting as they are – don’t yet have the ability to impact the industry at scale like the big casual and fast-food operators can. So when Applebee’s rolls out 100,000 tablets on customers’ dining tables in 1,800 restaurant locations, and Chili’s announces that it expects to have some 45,000 tablets deployed in 823 company-owned stores – it’s time to get off the sideline.

Not to worry – this isn’t a server replacement strategy.

The ability to leverage technology to improve operational efficiencies has long been a driver of tech adoption. More recently, the ability to improve customer experience has become a major consideration as well.

Which is why, at Applebee’s, they’re implementing tablet-based technology to give customers greater control over their dining experience. Increasing speed of service and payment processing, customers can use the tablet as a mobile point of sale, swiping their credit card and receiving their receipt via email. And for those who might not have one at the ready on their smart phone, diners can play games at their table while they wait for service.

It would be easy to think that the end-game for technologies like this is to render the human server redundant. And while that’s probably a business model some will employ, for the vast majority of restaurants the relationship between the server and the diner is a key driver of brand engagement and loyalty.

The fact is, technologies like these have the ability to make the average server’s job a lot easier. When the restaurant’s busy, the reality is it’s hard to stay on top of drink orders and bills at the speed which most increasingly impatient customer’s desire.  Technologies like these make life easier for servers and customers.

Leveraging technology to make human interactions more efficient and enjoyable.

Any business that relies in large part on the interactions between people to deliver great experiences – such as tellers in a bank, servers in restaurants, nurses in a hospital or call center agents on a technology help line – can find ways to leverage technology to make these interactions more efficient and enjoyable.

At Applebee’s, Chili’s and others, the advent of the tablet is a perfect example of how to leverage tech to improve the experience for customers and employees, as well as the bottom line. In dining, the waiter or waitress who makes you comfortable, helps you select a meal and generally looks after you is a key touchpoint. If the service is good, the chances of the overall experience being good are much higher. On the flip side, bad service leads to bad restaurant experiences, regardless of other factors.

By eliminating customer pain points associated with getting that drink order in or paying the bill quickly when they’re done, dinner table tablets make the human server more efficient, which is good for the customer.  A projected 10 percent increase in average sales is good for the business. And better service leads to better tips, which is better for staff. Everyone wins.

Next up: The tablet IS the table?

From customer-facing apps and tablets to big data analytics and back-of-the-house technologies designed to make the management and preparation of food orders more efficient, it’s increasingly obvious that technology will become a key driver of customer experience and business success for restaurant operators around the world.

As with many companies late to recognize the promise (and the threat) of digital disruption, late is significantly better than never. I suspect that’s a big reason behind the 51 percent of restaurants who say they’ll be devoting more resources to technology. Take Pizza Hut for example – in the video above, they’ve taken the concept of the dinner table tablet to the extreme, as the tablet actually is the table.

Like most frequent diners, I figure as long as you don’t take away my server, I’ll embrace anything that makes my experience better.

But I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to eat off of my TV screen…

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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