Restaurant Guests in the Driver’s Seat

The popularity of drive-thru continues as sales are up 30 percent since 2019. But what do customers want from the drive-thru experience and how can QSRs better meet those needs? How will the drive-thru change in the coming years?

To learn how brands can improve the drive-thru experience for their guests and their team, Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine reached out to Kevin Jones, VP of QSR and Hospitality at Mood Media, who has a proven record in  sales and account management revenue growth and has been recognized for designing world-class customer experiences for both global and local brands. Throughout his 17 years at Mood Media, he's held various customer engagement and sales leadership roles and has worked with key technology partners to optimize innovative solutions based on vertical market trends and customer feedback that deliver positive ROI to operators.

What do guests want from the drive-thru, and what don’t they want to see?

Guests have high expectations for their drive-thru experiences. They want accuracy (67 percent), speed (61 percent) and personalization (33 percent) above all else. 

What does that mean? Customers want seamless interactions where their orders are taken correctly the first time. They don't want to have to repeat themselves due to poor restaurant sound system quality or distracted employees. That's why we recommend drive-thru audio solutions like wireless headsets and high-quality speakers and microphones to ensure crystal-clear communication between guests and staff.

Guests also want to be engaged and well-informed throughout the ordering process. They don't want to be left in the dark, squinting at static, outdated menu boards. High-definition digital menu displays are a must, allowing you to showcase mouth-watering images of your offerings and update content in real time. An intuitive content management system (CMS) empowers you to feature the right items and promotions at the right time of day to boost sales.

Guests also want to be engaged and well-informed throughout the ordering process. They don't want to be left in the dark, squinting at static, outdated menu boards.

Customers definitely don't want to see long lines and excessive wait times in the drive-thru lane. At leading restaurant chains, drive-thrus can account for 70 percent of sales or more, so every second counts. Preventative maintenance and solutions like vehicle loop detectors, which alert your team as soon as a car enters the drive-thru, eliminate downtime and keep the line moving smoothly.

At the end of the day, guests want an effortless drive-thru experience that exceeds their expectations. Quick service restaurants (QSRs) that can deliver this caliber of experience cement customer loyalty and keep them coming back for more.

What are the first things a brand should examine when reimagining their drive-thrus?

Brands should first examine their customer journey and pain points. Take a step back and assess the entire drive-thru experience through the eyes of your customers. Where are the bottlenecks and frustrations? Is the menu difficult to read? Are orders often inaccurate? Does the payment process take too long? By identifying the key areas where the customer experience breaks down, you can prioritize your technology investments and process improvements for maximum impact. 

Right now, the biggest challenge the industry faces is all things tied to labor. Anything that helps with labor, like back-of-house training solutions that simplify and make employee training easier, is important. The right back-of-house solutions will not only simplify and streamline employee training but also boost staff morale, leading to increased retention and reduced turnover in an industry where high employee churn is a significant challenge. 

Next, brands should take a hard look at their drive-thru tech stack to address outdated systems and see how they can better integrate their systems to improve communication. Many QSR franchises are operating with legacy equipment that can't keep pace with customer expectations or facilitate a seamless employee experience. Conducting a comprehensive technology audit will reveal opportunities to upgrade your hardware and software for optimal performance.

Brands should also examine their content strategy. In the drive-thru, menu boards are your most powerful selling tool. QSRs should feature the right items at the right time, optimize their promotions and pricing to drive sales, and display visually compelling imagery. Digital menu boards can also reduce manual updates through automation. Drive-thru content strategy can significantly impact average order value and customer satisfaction.

Brands should also examine their content strategy. In the drive-thru, menu boards are your most powerful selling tool.

Finally, don't overlook the human element. Your drive-thru employees are the face of your brand, interacting with hundreds of customers every day. Examine your hiring, training and performance management practices to ensure your team has the skills and support they need to deliver an exceptional customer experience.

While automation and AI can help reduce touchpoints and labor and create efficiencies, businesses must strike a balance between technology and human interaction. The great brands will figure out how to shift labor from certain tasks to others, using automation to improve efficiency and allow employees to focus more on the customer experience. Solicit feedback from your frontline workers to identify opportunities for process improvements and technology enhancements that will make their jobs easier and more efficient.

How should brands best invest in drive-thru tech that will garner results?

The key to investing in technology that will maximize ROI is to focus on solutions that directly address your customers’ pain points and priorities.

I’ve mentioned previously some really great technology that can instantly elevate the drive-thru experience, such as a clear audio system and sensor technology like vehicle loop detectors. But one of the best investments is a state-of-the-art digital menu board system.

Over 90 percent of customers say digital restaurant displays have significantly influenced their purchasing decisions, resulting in a nearly 40 percent rise in restaurant sales. Dynamic digital displays allow you to showcase high-quality product images, update pricing, inventory and promotions in real time, and feature targeted content based on factors like time of day and weather. Plus, with an intuitive CMS, you can easily manage your menu board content across multiple locations, ensuring consistency and compliance. 

What’s the next tech integration at the drive-thru that you expect to see?

I expect to see a greater integration of AI and personalization technologies. Some brands are already experimenting with AI-powered menu boards that can recommend items based on a customer's past orders and other factors. These AI-driven systems can also optimize the ordering process by streamlining menu options and removing out-of-stock items, reducing the risk of errors and improving employee culture.

Mobile integration at the drive-thru is also on the rise. Many customers already use mobile apps to browse menus, customize orders and pay ahead, but imagine pulling up to the menu board and having it automatically display your favorite items based on your app history. Or being able to use your phone to place an order and track its progress as you wait in the drive-thru line. Some QSRs are even exploring "geo-fencing," where a customer's mobile app triggers a signal to the restaurant when they are within a certain radius, allowing the kitchen to start preparing their usual order before they even reach the speaker. 

As drive-thru equipment becomes more sophisticated, brands will need to invest in reliable connectivity, data security and fail-safe measures to ensure a seamless customer experience.

Some brands have also adopted voice AI at the drive-thru. Although the technology is still in its early stages, I expect it to improve and grow in popularity. These AI-powered voice ordering systems can understand complex orders, make personalized suggestions and even upsell effectively. Voice AI can especially help reduce employee stress and minimize errors, leading to a more efficient and accurate drive-thru experience.

Of course, all of these technological advancements will require a robust, secure network infrastructure to support them, as well as reliable managed services to ensure maximum uptime. Ultimately, if the technology does not work, you're now doing the opposite of what the technology was built for, and you're creating a friction point with labor.

As drive-thru equipment becomes more sophisticated, brands will need to invest in reliable connectivity, data security and fail-safe measures to ensure a seamless customer experience.

Using more seamless tech, how can brands still personalize the guest experience and increase engagement and brand connection?

Brands should focus on leveraging data insights to deliver targeted, relevant content and interactions at every touchpoint, including:

  • Using customer data to display personalized menu recommendations and greetings on digital menu boards.
  • Integrating with branded mobile apps to gather data on guest preferences and behaviors, enabling targeted promotions and exclusive offers.
  • Implementing interactive technologies like touchscreen kiosks to entertain guests and gather valuable data insights.
  • Balancing high-tech solutions with genuine human connection, ensuring staff are well-trained in delivering personalized service.

By strategically combining cutting-edge technology with data-driven personalization, QSR brands can create a drive-thru experience tailored to each guest. The key to fostering deeper brand loyalty and driving long-term growth is leveraging the power of seamless tech to enhance, rather than replace, the human touch.

While guests want drive-thrus, some municipalities are not interested due to traffic concerns, etc. Is there something brands need to do design-wise to meet guest needs and those of the communities where they are located?

While drive-thrus are incredibly popular with guests, it's true that some municipalities have concerns about their impact on traffic, noise levels and the overall aesthetic of the community. In this case, brands should proactively address the needs of both guests and local stakeholders by:

  • Optimizing lane configuration: Experiment with double or triple drive-thru lanes to increase capacity and reduce traffic congestion.
  • Integrating noise-reducing elements: Incorporate noise-reducing materials and landscaping to minimize sound and visual impact on the surrounding area.
  • Leveraging technology: Equip digital menu boards, mobile ordering, and AI-powered voice ordering to streamline the ordering process and reduce wait times.
  • Considering smaller footprints: Explore "drive-thru only" locations with smaller footprints and no dine-in seating for high-traffic areas with limited space.