Is the restaurant chatbot just another passing fad; one more “must-have” marketing tool that will turn out to be much less effective than the hype surrounding it would suggest?
Or are they going to be an essential means of engaging with customers that no restaurant can afford to be without?
The rise of the chatbot in other customer service industries has certainly been spectacular. In fact, according to a recent Business Insider study some 80% of customer-facing businesses expect to be using chatbots in 2020 and almost half of those questioned are already doing so.
More than 40% believe that the use of these tools will enhance their customers’ experience.
And there may be good reasons for this belief.
Although chatbots are in essence no more than cleverly coded software, when used creatively they can be a highly effective marketing tool that also delivers significant benefits for customers.
Chatbots can be integrated with business websites or deployed through apps such as Facebook Messenger, and in an age of increasing banner-ad blindness and plunging e-mail open rates, they offer an excellent way of sending marketing messages, answering questions and facilitating customer service.
These capabilities make chatbots ideally suited to the restaurant business; where they can also help with reservations and ordering, promotions and building customer loyalty.
Using one of the specialist restaurant chatbot technologies now available, such as Allset, Guestfriend or Punchh, it’s possible for customers to make their reservations and to be guided through the menu to place their orders even before arriving at the restaurant.
Chatbots can be integrated with restaurant POS systems to offer promotions and upsells; remarkably, they can also be programmed to remember customers’ previous orders and suggest options based on their preferences, something which even the most diligent human waiter might struggle to do.
The use of promotions and special events to attract customers is an essential element of most restaurants’ business models. Unfortunately, neither traditional marketing methods nor even social media are as effective as they once were. Chatbots, however, have been found to generate far higher open and response rates than conventional social media messages or e-mails.
And, of course, chatbots are able to engage directly with customers and answer questions about promotions in a way that was previously impossible without staff spending hours fielding phone calls.
In much the same way, when integrated with a POS system, a well-designed chatbot can handle many of the promotional and administrative tasks associated with a restaurant loyalty program, which is, in turn, one of the most important marketing tools any restaurant can have.
Whether it’s sending out news of special promotions and rewards for program members, or answering queries about their account balances or status, the chatbot can save significant amounts of staff time.
And, of course, it is far better at engaging and retaining program members than e-mail messaging or social media blasts.
We all know that the restaurant business is one of intense competition and low margins, in which a failure to respond quickly and sympathetically to customer feedback or complaints can be extremely damaging and perhaps even fatal to profitability.
While not a perfect solution, a chatbot can be a non-intrusive way of soliciting feedback and offering customers a quick, simple way of registering complaints and receiving a response; even if it may be, for the moment, generic in nature.
That being said, chatbots have the drawbacks of any emerging technology, and these run deeper than just the occasional glitch or bug.
The Artificial Intelligence (AI) that powers the more advanced systems is developing at astonishing speed, but it does not, and likely never will, offer anything resembling the sophistication of its human equivalent.
Nor can chatbots ever offer the personal touch and sympathetic ear on which all customer-oriented businesses ultimately depend.
But with all the time-saving advantages and marketing reach it offers, it should be no surprise that the chatbot is rapidly coming to be seen as an indispensable item of restaurant technology.
The way in which they are used may vary considerably depending on the size and type of outlet, but it seems certain that no restaurant owner or manager will be able to ignore them altogether.