You Want a Soda With That?

Fast-food is a huge industry that is expected to exceed $164 billion by 2009 in the United States alone. The restaurant segment of the industry is characterized by periods of soaring volume (usually on weekend evenings) interspersed with stretches of moderate to low activity.

Fast-food customers expect immediate service - even during peak times - which adds to the stress on workers processing their orders. Too often, their attempts to handle the high-volume demand result in sub-optimal treatment of the customers they are actually serving.   "During our peak times our employees would start talking faster," explains Scott Sylvera, manager of operations services of Colonial Foods, a Pizza Hut franchisee with 102 locations. "In some cases, you couldn't understand what they were saying because they knew they had five calls waiting and they wanted to get through the order as quickly as they could." In the highly-competitive fast-food industry that kind of service can easily propel customers into the arms (or drive-up windows) of competitors. 

Automated Ordering

This sounds like an ideal situation for a self-service, speech system. That's why it's surprising that speech recognition has made little headway in the fast-food industry - particularly for segments that process a large percentage of orders by telephone. In fact, Colonial Foods' 40 Pizza Hut locations and one sushi restaurant in Japan are among the rare examples of fast-food outlets that have deployed speech to handle customer orders. Colonial Foods' locations use Jacent Technologies distributed system and the sushi restaurant employs IBM's ViaVoice on a desktop.

Proprietors and managers of fast-food outlets know they need help during peak periods but they are largely unaware of the fact that speech recognition can provide the customer-service boost they require. The best method for reaching them depends upon how the corporate-franchise relationship is structured. "Some scenarios require going to the corporate level because they control the innovation that their franchises can incorporate into their operations," explains Trevor Stout, Jacent's president and CEO. "In the pizza industry, we found that a lot of the innovation comes from the individual restaurants rather than from the corporate Center." For example, Sylvera first learned about speech from another Pizza Hut franchisee who had deployed a Jacent Technologies system for ordering.

The object is to supplement rather than replace their employees with a cost-effective approach that fits within the franchisee's profit margins. At the same time, it's critical that the solution be more customer friendly than the harried employees. "We wanted something to supplement our order takers to make peak times more manageable for the restaurant and to make it easier for our customers," says Sylvera. Using a call center was too expensive but Sylvera describes Lisa (the name of the speech system) as "a kind of intermediate step" that is not only affordable but customer friendly. She gives the customer their options, including opting out of the system.  After the customer places the order she tells them how much it will cost and when it will be done.

Another requirement is that the system be integrated with the restaurant's other operations. These include the vocabulary for and handling of special offers and the ability to transmit completed orders to the restaurant's production system. According to Sylvera, "Lisa is completely integrated with our system.  The order doesn't have to be re-keyed or re-entered in any way, shape, or form. This means that there would be no customer interaction with a person except for the delivery person who brings them their food."

Where's the Beef?

Sylvera admits to having growing pains.  "It took us six months to really work out all of the intricate details that got us where we are today." On the other hand, "Lisa is probably the most polite person you could ever speak to and she's very dependable."  She works hardest during peak periods, which means that "when a customer calls, we can place their order immediately and we've reduced their on-hold, wait time."

Using Lisa has also produced an unexpected benefit:  "If a customer likes the automated phone system, we've noticed that they use her a lot and that they seem to order more often than before." What more could you ask for? Well, maybe double cheese.

Judith Markowitz is the technology editor of Speech Technology Magazine and is a leading independent analyst in the speech technology and voice biometric fields. She can be reached at (773) 769-9243 or jmarkowitz@pobox.com.


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