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Are QSRs undermining customer relationships with too much mobile?

While mobile should definitely play a large role in the fast-food industry, QSRs need to be wary of completely replacing the human touch with technology.

Restaurants such as Chili’s Grill & Bar are integrating mobile in new and innovative ways, and the future of QSRs in general looks very mobile. Yet, restaurants need to keep in mind that consumers will still want the personal touch of wait staff in addition to the convenience and efficiency of mobile technology.

“Ideally, technology will do for fast food what ATMs have done for banks — provided an easy way for people to get what they want quickly, if they choose to go that route,” said Brandon Rhoten, vice president of digital and social media at Wendy’s, Dublin, OH.

“Don’t think you’ll see the traditional set-up disappear anytime in the near future, though,” he said. “It’ll get tweaked before changing dramatically.

“We don’t want to become robotic, either. There’s a balance between those who want access via digital channels and those who want to talk to a person, so we are working hard to make sure we don’t go too far.”

Mobile advances
It should be unanimous at this point that mobile can benefit QSRs in a number of ways.

Since QSRs pride themselves on providing quick service, they can look to mobile to make their restaurants even more efficient.

KFC, for example, launched a mobile wallet in Britain that let consumers order via mobile and then pick up food from an Express Check-out line. They could also swipe QR codes in-store to avoid the line (see story).

Chili’s is also using mobile to make the in-store experience faster for customers. The QSR recently announced that it will be rolling out tabletop tablets to all company-owned restaurants in the country by the first half of 2014.

The tablets will let customers browse an interactive menu and place an order whenever they are ready. It also lets consumers play games and pay the bill.

QSRs can easily leverage mobile for customer-facing opportunities, but they can also use mobile to improve backend systems such as inventory management and marketing.

Additionally, QSRs can interact with consumers via mobile before they even enter the restaurant.

“Mobile will play a significant role both inside and outside of the restaurant,” said Dirk Rients, senior vice president and director of mobile at DDB, Chicago.  “Restaurants can provide utility-based mobile experiences that allow users to find the nearest location, view menu and nutritional info, redeem offers, build your meal, and even pay via your phone.”

Tech-savvy waitstaff
As more of the fast-food process moves to mobile, the role of wait staff may come into question. If consumers can order and pay from a mobile device, the role of a waiter becomes less obvious.

“There may be some brands that enable automation fully from the ordering/payment standpoint and others that will always want to maintain a personal touch,” said Brian Yamada, executive director of channel activation at VML, Kansas City, MO.

“Ultimately while technology will bring efficiencies in this area it will also demand that waitstaff become more digitally educated. Technology can only work as good as the people that use it.”

Carrie Chitsey, CEO of Blk24, Austin, recently experienced what happens when employees do not understand a QSR’s mobile abilities. She tried using the Isis mobile wallet at a McDonald’s drive-thru and the employee had no clue what to do with the technology (see story).

Yes mobile may allow QSRs to function on a smaller staff, but it will require that staff to be more knowledgeable about the restaurant’s mobile offerings.

If a consumer can order and pay via mobile, the waiter who brings the food to the table must be familiar with the system and also provide an excellent experience that provides a personal touch on top of the mobile efficiency.

“At this point, it’s probably a bit overly dramatic to say that companies that don’t adopt mobile fast enough will disappear,” VML’s Mr. Yamada said. “But it’s fair to say, as more and more transactions will happen via mobile, that players that don’t move fast enough in providing customers true value and utility through mobile may risk customer loyalty or share to others.

“There are still some major barriers that will hopefully breakdown as mobile payment adoption and mobile innovation breaks through to their mainstream customers.”

Final Take
Rebecca Borison is editorial assistant on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York