QSR experience
Technology is the key driver for QSRs to elevate their guest experience.

PDI recently met with PivotBridge Partners Principal Consultant Sam Gray to understand what impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the QSR industry. He shared numerous insights into the primary challenges QSRs have faced, along with the technologies that have helped them adjust to the rapidly changing market dynamics.

PDI: Thanks for joining us, Sam. Let’s start with something that’s on everyone’s mind. How has the pandemic affected the guest experience for QSRs?

Sam Gray (SG): The entire industry was already moving in the direction of improving convenience, primarily through the use of new technologies. But the onset of COVID-19 really magnified the importance of technology in driving convenience and delivering an overall better dining experience.

The drive-through model has been especially valuable for QSRs. Once again, the industry was already moving toward a higher percentage of drive-through business, but that number skyrocketed when the pandemic hit. I think it’s safe to say the future direction for QSRs will feature even more drive-through business and less in-store dining.

PDI: You highlighted the drive-through model, but what’s different other than just the amount of usage?

SG: The drive-through experience became much more important almost overnight. It was already trending upward, but the rate of acceleration has surprised even some of the most seasoned analysts.

But that uptick is also creating challenges. If you suddenly have all this new business, you better make sure you have the right technology to maintain a high level of guest service. In particular, two areas stand above all else right now: the speed of food service and order accuracy. QSRs absolutely need to get those two areas right.

PDI: How important is digital ordering today?

SG: The whole world of mobile ordering, or digital ordering in general, has grown much faster than our wildest expectations. It requires a strong digital presence, an intelligent ecommerce platform, and a willingness to invest in the latest technologies to gain a competitive edge.

The QSR space is changing so fast, because everyone is looking for that slight advantage. Shaving even a few seconds off the average guest wait time can be a huge business differentiator at scale. It turns out that reliability, security, and constant uptime are the foundation for digital ordering success. That’s why network connectivity and security have become so valuable.

PDI: Why is order accuracy more important than before?

SG: The entire engagement and transaction—from digital ordering and in-store systems to digital menus and flexible payment options—is critical for keeping customers happy. With contactless service and social distancing, the “face” of your restaurant is your combined digital presence and physical presence.

PDI: How important is security with all these new changes?

SG: Security should be at the top of everyone’s list of priorities. It touches everything, and if you don’t do it right, it can quickly disrupt everything as well.

Security in the COVID era is about making sure all your digital platforms and systems are safe and trusted. You’re now managing more payments online, and your staff might be taking orders or payments on tablets in your parking lot. You might have had to deploy more wireless access points outside your building to meet guest demand. It’s paramount that everything is secure, because your business is as vulnerable as your weakest link.

PDI: Are there any other security impacts that you’ve witnessed?

SG: First of all, QSRs must demonstrate that they’re prioritizing payment security. With so many dining options available, maintaining guest satisfaction is job one—and that starts with protecting their personal and financial data. You simply can’t afford the public embarrassment or damage to your brand reputation because of a high-profile security breach.

Some brands are using intelligent networking software to separate their payment systems from all their other back-office systems. That gives them a leg up on achieving PCI compliance. While their customers might never overtly notice that, it can go a long way in helping maintain their trust and loyalty.

PDI: You’ve talked about the value of improving the guest experience. What role does technology play?

SG: If you look at most surveys, diners are still focused on convenience. They want speed of service, accurate orders, and secure payments. Now that much of the guest experience is happening beyond the four walls of the restaurant, that places a huge burden on technology to perform as advertised. Granted, you still must deliver a cohesive omnichannel experience, but the emphasis is on technology to deliver it.

PDI: What, exactly, does that mean for diners?

SG: If you think about guest experience, their impression of your business now starts with what they see on their phones or tablets. It’s what they experience on your sidewalk and in your parking lot. And it all has to fit together seamlessly from their perspective. For example, they can have a fantastic online experience, only to have it ruined by a poor in-person experience.

The technology might work great, but we really need to raise the bar on the physical experience and human element in paying off what the technology promises. That challenge certainly isn’t unique to the QSR industry, but QSRs are on the frontlines of the consumer experience. They have to be vigilant in making sure there’s not a disconnect in what their guests anticipate and what they actually receive.

PDI: Many QSRs are still dealing with pandemic-related disruptions. Do you foresee any long-term business impacts beyond the pandemic?

SG: Over time, we’re likely to see more restaurants embracing the “ghost kitchen” model and foregoing the actual storefront. They’ll focus on food service and let someone else worry about technology and delivery. That will reduce their operational expenses and allow them to focus on what they do best.

We also anticipate that the physical building space will change. Larger brands are already de-emphasizing the indoor dining space as they embrace digital ordering with drive-through or curbside pickup options.

PDI: Speaking of brands, how has brand marketing changed recently?

SG: The expanded use of all this new technology is leading to much more intelligent marketing. Just think of all the digital ordering systems and mobile apps. We’re capturing more customer data these days, so it’s much easier to perform data analysis.

If brands can effectively mine that data, it really opens up all kinds of marketing opportunities. Not very long ago, the primary delivery mechanism for marketing promotions was email. It’s quickly shifting toward texting and social media platforms. That tends to boost customer engagement and make them feel more valued.

Capturing data through Wi-Fi is also key. Brands can now do extremely targeted promotional marketing and deliver a much more personalized consumer experience. It’s a win-win scenario, because diners are receiving better service, and the brands are tapping into new revenue streams.

PDI: Speaking of Wi-Fi, how does it contribute to these marketing efforts?

SG: QSRs are extending the reach of guest Wi-Fi, collecting more data, gaining insights, and delivering highly targeted offers in real time. If they can correlate Wi-Fi data to ordering and wait times, for example, they can identify potential issues and opportunities much faster. This helps brands localize specific offerings for the right demographics, and it also gives them a much faster way to test offerings before extending them to other locations.

PDI: We’ve talked a lot about positive transformation, but what are some of the common mistakes you’re seeing across the industry?

SG: Security is a big area of concern. QSRs that haven’t properly invested in data and network security are already behind their industry peers, and they’ll become increasingly vulnerable over time. That’s one of the reasons QSRs who have invested in digital transformation prior to COVID are way ahead of those who have simply been reacting to market disruptions.

Technology is a great equalizer, but you can’t just slap a new technology on top of a weak foundation. Having to play catch-up under these unprecedented market conditions isn’t a good recipe for success. However, the good news for QSRs is that they can easily leverage technology to become more agile, adaptive, and responsive to stand out from the competition.

You can thrive in today’s digital economy. Contact us today, to learn how we can help you transform your business.