Using Tech for Better Guest Engagement

Restaurants will focus on creating story-driven dining experiences, harnessing technology and local partnerships to deepen emotional engagement with guests, according to the "2024 State of the Industry: Future of In-Restaurant Dining" report by Incisiv in collaboration with Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions.

The report, which surveyed 127 restaurant executives across the U.S. and Canada, found that technology such as interactive digital menus, in-restaurant mobile apps, and augmented reality experiences are playing a vital role in empowering restaurants to stay relevant and meet the evolving needs and expectations of diners.

For a deeper dive, Modern Restaurant Management (MRM) magazine reached out to Yevgeni Tsirulnik, SVP, Innovation and Incubation at Toshiba Global Commerce Solutions

How should restaurant operators approach digital investments moving forward? How do you suggest they best balance operational and guest needs?

The restaurant industry is constantly evolving, and embracing change and leveraging technology to enhance operational efficiency and the customer experience is essential. Balancing operational and guest needs involves adopting technology that makes back-end processes more efficient and improves the front-end customer experience. 

Restaurant operators can achieve this by prioritizing digital investments that streamline operations, boost the customer experience, and deliver a strong ROI. For example, implementing a seamless online reservation system optimizes the restaurant's scheduling while offering convenience to customers. Regularly collecting feedback through surveys and other channels ensures that technological solutions meet customer expectations and enhance operational efficiency.

Additionally, digital inventory management systems provide real-time stock updates, helping maintain optimal inventory levels, reduce waste, and ensure the availability of ingredients. According to our survey, 23 percent of restaurants use predictive analytics for optimized staff scheduling. This allows restaurants to forecast customer volumes and align staffing levels to meet demand, improving service quality and reducing overhead costs.  

Investing in mobile solutions for ordering and payment also reduces wait times, enhances customer satisfaction by allowing customers to order and pay via smartphones, and even supports group payments. Data analytics helps understand customer preferences, optimize inventory, and fine-tune staffing levels, ensuring that restaurants can adapt to trends and improve their overall performance.  

How many times have you observed a hostess marking table availability on an erasable board? Camera vision can significantly enhance restaurant operations by providing real-time data supporting flow and service efficiency. Consider a few of these benefits: 

Current Customer Count: To help manage capacity and adhere to any occupancy regulations. 

Wait Time Tracking: Improve the precision of wait time estimations.

Seating to First Server Contact: Cameras can track the duration from when a customer is seated to when a server approaches them.  

Identifying Bottlenecks and Improved Service Efficiency: Identify how efficiently staff members move between tasks and potential customer service pitfalls, providing opportunities to refine employee training or rectify operational challenges.

By adopting innovative technologies like online reservation systems, digital inventory management, predictive analytics, mobile solutions, digital analytics, and computer vision, restaurants can support their operational needs and transform every meal into an experience that leads to repeat visits.

In what ways are restaurants investing in integrated technology right now? How should they be turning to AI?

When was the last time you placed an order in a restaurant app for curbside pick-up? Some even offer the ability to save meal profiles for easy reordering. These conveniences help consumers integrate dining into everyday routines. Restaurants are increasingly investing in integrated technology to enhance both operational efficiency and the customer experience. A significant number of restaurants are deploying interactive digital menus, allowing diners to explore dishes and ingredients in detail. These digital efforts are often supported by unified platforms that combine various functions, such as ordering, inventory management, and employee scheduling, into a single, streamlined system. 

Turning to AI, restaurants can further optimize their operations and customer engagement. AI-driven predictive analytics, for instance, help forecast demand, manage inventory, and reduce food waste. Some restaurants already employ such tools for optimizing food preparation. Additionally, AI algorithms can analyze customer data to create personalized marketing campaigns, significantly improving customer engagement and retention. An overwhelming  91 percent of restaurants reported leveraging targeted digital marketing campaigns to reach new demographics in the recent Incisiv restaurant study. 

Additionally, when the technology ecosystem is enabled with a real-time IOT platform, many valuable use cases can be implemented with a focus on operational excellence and improved customer service:  

Kitchen production verification: Ensuring accuracy and efficiency in food preparation. 

Waste management: Reducing food waste by monitoring inventory and expiration more effectively. 

Spoilage detection: Promptly identifying spoiled or expired items to maintain food safety standards. 

Consumer tracking in QSR (Quick Service Restaurants): Enhancing upsell opportunities by monitoring customer preferences and behavior.

Smart checkout systems: Streamline the payment process and reduce wait times. 

Customer satisfaction: Improving service quality by analyzing customer feedback and behavior. 

Customer identification: Personalizing customer experiences by recognizing customers and tailoring services to their preferences. 

What are some things restaurant operators can do to deliver a better delivery experience?

Consumers leveraging delivery have many reasons for ordering; maybe they are hosting a house of guests, or they are sick taking care of a child, or they are recovering from illness, or maybe they are just tired from a long week! What they all have in common is that they want their food quickly, and they want it hot. Partnering with delivery platforms is a key move that 77 percent of restaurants have made to provide improved delivery experiences, acquire new customers, and expand their reach. Integrating POS systems that support both in-store and online orders helps ensure seamless order management and reduces errors. An increasing trend is integrating proximity sensors and AI to efficiently manage dine-in, pick-up, and delivery logistics to help optimize the flow of orders and minimize wait times. 

Synchronizing order timing with KDS ensures that orders are prepared and dispatched promptly, enhancing coordination between kitchen and delivery services. Additionally, providing real-time tracking for customer updates and partnering with reliable delivery services all contribute to a superior delivery experience. Finally, establishing robust feedback mechanisms allows restaurants to gather insights and continuously improve their delivery processes, ensuring high levels of customer satisfaction.  

How can restaurant operators use technology to provide heightened dining experiences that “transcend beyond mere convenience to integrate wellness and gastronomy?” How do they develop deeper customer relationships?

Restaurant operators can leverage technology to provide heightened dining experiences that transcend beyond mere convenience by integrating elements of wellness and gastronomy. By harnessing AI for personalization, operators can suggest related items based on customer history and preferences. CRM systems can track customer preferences and dietary restrictions, enabling personalized menu suggestions that cater to individual needs. Interactive digital menus can provide detailed nutritional information, ingredient sourcing, and suggested wine pairings, enriching the dining experience with valuable insights. 

To develop deeper customer relationships, restaurant operators can implement digital loyalty programs that reward repeat customers and provide personalized offers, fostering a sense of connection and appreciation. Engaging with customers through social media allows restaurants to share stories, gather feedback, and continuously engage with their audience. Hosting special events and cooking classes using advanced booking systems can also build a community around the restaurant, offering unique experiences that strengthen customer bonds and encourage repeat visits. By integrating these technological solutions, restaurants can create more personalized, health-focused, and engaging dining experiences that resonate deeply with their customers. 

What do guests expect from restaurant technology?

Diners want to enjoy their dining experience. While they may not actively think about the technology, they want an elevated experience prioritizing ease of use, speed, personalization, transparency, and engagement. They look for intuitive and user-friendly interfaces that simplify online ordering and reservations, ensuring a hassle-free process. Speed and efficiency are crucial, as guests appreciate quick service facilitated by technologies like mobile ordering and payment options, which minimize wait times and streamline transactions. 

Personalization plays a significant role, with guests expecting dining experiences tailored to their past preferences and behaviors, making each visit unique and memorable. Transparency is also essential, as guests want detailed information about menu items, including ingredients and nutritional content, enabling them to make informed choices that align with their dietary needs and preferences. Additionally, guests value interactive experiences, such as engaging loyalty programs, digital menus, and easy feedback mechanisms, which foster a deeper connection with the restaurant and enhance their overall satisfaction. By meeting these expectations, restaurants can create a more enjoyable, efficient, and personalized dining experience for their guests.

How should restaurant operators be reexamining their loyalty efforts?

Restaurant operators should thoroughly reexamine their loyalty efforts. Operators can achieve this by leveraging customer data, adopting an omnichannel approach, implementing tiered rewards, offering experience-based rewards, and ensuring regular program updates. By using customer data to personalize loyalty rewards and incentives, operators can create a more engaging and tailored experience that resonates with individual diners. An omnichannel approach is essential, as it ensures that loyalty programs are accessible through mobile apps, websites, and in-store, providing customers with a seamless and convenient experience. Implementing tiered loyalty programs can motivate diners to visit more frequently by offering increasing benefits for more frequent patronage. Experience-based rewards, such as cooking classes or exclusive tastings, add a unique and memorable dimension to loyalty programs, making them more attractive. Finally, continuously updating and innovating the loyalty program helps keep it fresh and relevant, ensuring ongoing customer engagement.  

The study showed that while 86 percent of restaurants already implement loyalty programs that reward referrals and repeat business, only 17 percent offer in-app rewards for direct orders. This suggests a significant opportunity for operators to enhance their programs by collecting preferences and order history through app-based interactions. By addressing these areas, restaurants can build stronger customer relationships and drive repeat business. By embracing these strategies, restaurant operators can better meet their guests' evolving expectations while improving operational efficiency and building stronger customer relationships.