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Can Restaurants Afford to Automate Customer Service?

Coral Drake | May 11, 2023 |

Can Restaurants Afford to Automate Customer Service?

Customer service automation is a scary prospect for restaurants, but it can’t be ignored. Nearly half of jobs (45%) currently performed by paid employees or contractors can be automated with the technology that we have today. It’s not at all surprising that an industry as desperate for a workforce as the restaurant industry is digging deep into automation. 

Automated technology enables orders to be processed faster, reduces labor costs, and can improve service. In fact, 76% of restaurants have already implemented at least three automation tools. 

Some restaurants seem to believe that automation is the future of customer service:

  • McDonald’s is experimenting with an automated drive-thru
  • Spyce has a fully robotic kitchen and a kiosk ordering system


Even more restaurants are automating other aspects of the restaurant process:

You might notice that the majority of these restaurants are either large chains or tech startups. Even the biggest chains are quicker to automate the kitchen than the front-of-house service positions. 

Customer service automation comes with bigger risks because the customer experience has always been such an important part of the restaurant industry. This is an industry that relies heavily on good customer interactions. 

Can restaurants survive a switch to automated customer service? Here's what you need to know about the pros and cons of automation vs. human interaction at your restaurant. 

Automation vs. Human Interaction in Restaurant Customer Service

Risks of Automated Customer Service

Loss of Personal Service

While automation can help reduce labor costs and improve efficiency, it can also lead to a feeling that there’s no personal touch. Human interaction has been the cornerstone of the restaurant industry for a long time, and customers may not be willing to interact with a machine when they dine out. 

Real issues with digital ordering systems and self-service kiosks can also lead to negative customer reactions. Automated systems may not always handle customer inquiries appropriately, leading to frustration and dissatisfaction. 

AI isn’t equipped to handle complex issues that require human intervention and problem-solving skills. Depending on AI can lead to frustration for customers, and for staff trying to work with the programs to assist them. 

If the automated system fails to deliver a positive customer experience, brand image and reputation can suffer.

Disconnect Between Staff and Customers

Customers can lose their individuality to restaurant managers and staff, leading to a disconnect that results in lost business. As customer service automation replaces personal interaction between customers and staff, a sense of detachment may develop. 

Customers may feel like they are dealing with a machine instead of a person, which can reduce the emotional connection and lead to a less satisfying experience. Staff can come to see customers as a problem in the automated flow and become irritated when they ask for staff instead of using digital ordering systems

Staff members who are accustomed to relying on automation for customer service may lose empathy for customers. Furthermore, the type of personality that thrives with the aid of automation may tend to be less warm and engaging with customers. This can lead to a culture of dependence on technology, in which employees are unable to connect with customers. 

Unintended Consequences and Cascading Errors

Unintended consequences in the implementation of an automated customer experience are impossible to predict. Your restaurant could lose checks and balances and the inability to creatively respond to problems. 

Automated systems are not immune to technical glitches. A glitch can disrupt the entire customer service experience. Unlike in a traditional setting, in which staff can step up to fill roles and respond to problems, a problem in an automated system requires a software fix, which takes time and expertise to solve. 

You may notice unexpected changes in sales and customer behavior. For instance, automated systems may not be as effective at upselling as human interactions, leading to missed opportunities for revenue generation. Customer service automation systems may be vulnerable to cyber attacks, leading to the potential for data breaches or other security risks.

You don’t know what unintended consequences of instating customer service automation your restaurant may encounter. However, it’s wise to go slowly as you compare the effects of automation vs. human interaction on your restaurant. 

Negative Worker Reactions

Customer service automation is likely to cause some strong reactions among staff. In a Las Vegas casino, workers held a strike over the automation that is rapidly replacing service jobs, such as the Tipsy Robot mechanical arm that mixes cocktails

Your workers may not react as strongly, but they may have issues with automation. Workers and unions may resist the introduction of automation in restaurants, fearing that it could lead to job losses and reduced wages. 

Tips for Avoiding Pitfalls of an Automated Customer Experience

  • Keep your restaurant’s “humanity.” Strike a balance between automation and human interaction. Customers should have the option to interact with staff members if they prefer, and staff members should have the training and resources they need to provide excellent service in all situations, even when the machines go down. 
  • Automation should be designed to provide accurate and complete information and to address as many customer needs as possible. When you find that it’s not, you should be able to retrain it. 
  • Assure workers that they won’t be laid off or that their wages and benefits won’t be reduced. In a worker-hungry market like the restaurant industry, it may well be that you won’t lay off any staff while you implement digital ordering systems and other restaurant automation systems, like self-service kiosks and beyond. Many restaurant workers will be relieved by a more manageable workload thanks to automation.
  • Retraining programs can help workers who may otherwise be put out of work develop new skills that are relevant to the automated restaurant industry.  
  • Be careful that the introduction of automation is done in a way that benefits workers as well as the business. Work with your staff to identify areas where automation could improve efficiency while also preserving jobs and wages.

Potential Benefits of Automation

There are absolutely risks to restaurant automation in customer service, but there are also benefits, including sometimes unexpected benefits like improved customer experiences. 

While many restaurant owners (and customers) assume that automation will bring about a reduction in customer service while it improves the bottom line, in fact it can often do both. Here’s how. 

Improved Efficiency

Automating customer service at a restaurant can improve efficiency in lots of ways. Digital ordering systems mean that customers don’t have to wait for service. Streamlined ordering processes let customers order whenever they want to, instead of waiting for the waitstaff. 

Using online ordering, customers can even order before they ever get to the restaurant, so their food will be ready at their table or to go. Real-time updates on order statuses enable kitchen staff to prepare orders more quickly and efficiently. Staff can see exactly what orders need to be ready at what time and prioritize accordingly. 

Automated payment processing systems speed up payment processing times, eliminating the wait while cashiers process payments and waitstaff bring checks back to the table. 

Increased Accuracy

An automated customer experience may not be as good at dealing with nuanced problems as a human staff member, but it is often better at getting orders correctly and communicating them instantly. Automated systems are less prone to communication errors than human operators. 

Digital ordering systems ensure that orders are processed accurately, reducing mistakes and complaints. Customer service automation that asks about and notes any special requests or dietary requirements mean that important information like an allergy are less likely to be overlooked. 

Automated customer service systems can be programmed to support multiple languages, making it easier for customers who may not speak the restaurant's primary language to place orders and receive assistance. This kind of support makes the restaurant more accessible and welcoming to a broader range of customers.

24/7 Availability and Consistency

Automated systems can operate around the clock, providing customers with access to customer service and support at all times, increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty. 

Automated systems ensure consistency in customer service, regardless of which employee is handling the transaction, leading to a more predictable and reliable experience for customers no matter when they choose to patronize the restaurant. 

Data Analysis

Your restaurant can collect and analyze data on customer behavior, preferences, orders and feedback. These valuable insights improve the customer experience and enable you to tailor offerings to better meet customer needs. Data gathered through customer service automation can improve menu offerings, optimize staffing levels, and identify areas for improvement.

How Can a Restaurant Make the Switch to an Automated Customer Experience?

  • Self-Service Kiosks. Self-service kiosks are an affordable and powerful way to automate customer service. They can be placed at the front of the restaurant or near the counter, allowing customers to place their orders and pay without the assistance of a server. 
  • Mobile Ordering. Mobile or online ordering systems can be accessed through a simple mobile app or website that allows customers to place orders and pay online. Orders can be picked up in-store or delivered to the customer's location.
  • Chatbots and Virtual Assistants. These digital helpers can be used to answer common questions, take orders, and provide customer support. While staff may still be available to help, they can avoid answering the same questions over and over with these assistants. 
  • Tabletop or On-the-Go Ordering and Payment Systems. Mobile ordering and payment systems allow customers to order and pay from their table or anywhere using a touchscreen device, eliminating the need for a server to take orders and process payments manually.
  • Voice-Activated Ordering: This is an innovative and affordable way to move towards restaurant automation. Voice-activated devices can take orders and provide customer support. A human drive through or window operator can stand by and listen in case they’re needed, but voice-activated devices are typically very effective. 
  • Table Reservations: Allow customers to reserve a table online. This way, they can skip the line and have a guaranteed spot when they arrive at the restaurant.
  • Feedback System: It would be great if your staff always asked customers whether they had a nice time, but it’s just not realistic. An automated feedback system prompts customers to provide feedback on their experience, providing valuable insights to management.

Consider Some Elements of Restaurant Automation

Every restaurant can benefit from customer service automation in one way or another. Look at your business practices, customer base, and budget to decide how you can afford to automate customer service. In today’s competitive market, you can’t afford not to.