Techno tactics: technology-based solutions help combat common drive-thru gripes

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Techno tactics: technology-based solutions help combat common drive-thru gripes

Complaints about drive-thrus generally fall into three categories: slow service, missing items and incorrect orders. Training staff to be service-minded is the first line of defense, but investing in technology makes a strong complement.

Outsourcing order-taking is one of the latest strategies to improve the drive-thru experience. Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. recently announced plans to explore a system that routes drive-thru orders to dedicated, off-site call centers, while Carpinteria, Calif.-based CKE Restaurants soon will expand a remote-ordering test it launched in five Hardee's stores in December 2004 to five more units.

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Rather than spending capital on call centers, Hardee's outfits remote employees' computers with touch-screen order-taking software that transmits data to POS systems at restaurants via DSLs (digital subscriber lines). Loop detectors alert headset-equipped order-takers when cars reach speakers. In-store staffers also hear the communications.

Relying on dedicated, remote staff hired specifically for clear-speaking voices and--in heavily ethnic markets--bilingual ability, will improve order accuracy and the overall customer experience, says CKE Chief Information Officer Jeff Chasney. "I have a whole collage of people taking orders, and they are focused on one thing," he says, noting that the program is not a cost-saving effort since there currently are no plans to reduce the number of on-site employees.

On-site technology that enables orders to he sent remotely costs $1,000 per store (labor expenses not included), but CKE does not envision a systemwide rollout of the program. Because adding effective communication lines would not be efficient for all locations and using satellite technology would yield delays, Chasney expects to target stores with high volumes and/or heavily bilingual customer bases.

FINGER TAPS

Twin goals of customization and order accuracy have driven Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz in a different direction. The convenience-store chain places control in customers' hands, offering its trademark touch-screen ordering system in the drive-thrus at two new Convenience Restaurants. Customers tap orders onto screens (installed at two different heights to accommodate varying vehicle sizes), selecting from the full menu of burgers, pizza, coffee and panini sandwiches as well as c-store standards such as milk, cigarettes and bread. To prevent lines at pick-up windows, cars wait in dedicated parking spaces for items that take longer to prepare.

The broad menu, coupled with a learning curve for customers in new markets such as Raleigh, N.C., who are not familiar with the touchscreen system, slows the process at first, but customization and convenience rather than speed are the focus, says Bill Reilly, Sheetz executive vice president for sales and marketing. "It can be a juggling of cars sometimes," he says, "but customers told us, 'Don't follow the same rules as the McDonald's of the world. Your core promise is convenience.'"

EASY PAYMENT PLANS

If convenience is the promise at Sheetz, speed is on most operations' hot list. It also is the most common customer complaint in R&I's 2005 Consumer Drive-Thru Survey, with 21% citing slow service as the problem they face most often in drive-thrus. With every second seeming like an eternity, operators are turning to the payment process to help beat the clock.

"You'd be surprised how many people use credit cards in the drive-thru," says Don Buonavolanto, principal and vice president of Buona Beef, which has offered cashless payment for more than three years. "We were going to put on a minimum transaction amount, but we feel if we did that we would chase away business. People use credit for $7 and $8 transactions."

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Buona Beef's system requires customer signatures, but other concepts such as Caribou Coffee save additional time by eliminating that need for charges below a set amount.

R&I's survey suggests that whale the majority of customers currently do not use credit or debit cards for drive-thru purchases--77% never have used them while 21% sometimes do and 2% always do--these figures are expected to rise as the technology spreads. Polling indicates that 41% of drive-thru consumers would like more windows to accept credit or debit payments.

RIDING THE TECH WAVE

Rounding out the latest initiatives are improvements to the nuts and bolts of drive-thru technologies--headsets, speakers and menu boards. Like many operations, San Bernardino, Calif.-based Baker's Drive-Thru is shifting to duplex wireless headsets that allow customers and staff to hear and talk to each other at the same time, unlike previous one-way systems. The chain "went to great lengths" to design speakers at the optimal height for clear communications, says Vice President and Chief Operations Officer Joe Amlani.

Also becoming more common at menu boards and inside stores are two-way cameras, which Mark Godward, president of foodservice operations consultancy Strategic Restaurant Engineering in Miami, says can improve communications by displaying employees' and customers' mouth movements and facial expressions.

Exterior cameras are not mandated for franchisees of Culver's Frozen Custard & ButterBurgers, based in Prairie du Sac, Wis., but those who have installed them find raised awareness an additional benefit, says Jeff Bonnet, director of operations for the central region.

"'Out of sight, out of mind' is truly a concern during peak revenue periods," he says. "If you see that [the drive-thru] is backed up you can readjust your deployment and put people there to take care of the business."

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Who's Using It?

To complement its consumer drive-thru data, Restaurants & Institutions surveyed 19 of the industry's leading quick-service chains offering drive-thru in segments including sandwiches, burgers, chicken, ice cream and Mexican. Feedback clearly indicates that technology is top of mind.

* 15 chains offer cashless payment at the drive-thru while only three of those require customer signatures on receipts; eight say cashless has improved speed of service; two more plan to accept credit or debit cards by the end of 2005.

* 11 use exterior cameras to monitor drive-thru traffic.

* 1 uses digital menu boards.

* 16 use wireless headsets for drive-thru employees.

* 9 offer order-confirmation screens in drive-thru, with eight saying the equipment has helped improve order accuracy; five more plan to install them by year's end.

* 9 said menu boards rely more on graphics while five said they rely more on text; five said they are about the same.

* 5 last installed new menu boards less than six months from the time of the survey; 10 last did it more than two years ago; 11 plan to install new menu boards by the end of 2005.

* 17 use presell menu boards to showcase items before the point of ordering.

* 9 use analog speaker technology and five use digital; nine plan to install new speaker technology by the end of the year.

16% Percent of customers who say they often receive the wrong food order or an incomplete food order from restaurant drive-thru windows,

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