2011.32 | Speech Recognition @ Retail

Speech Recognition

I really enjoyed reading over this recently released infographic on speech recognition.  Things have come a long way since a keyboard challenged office mate of mine bought a headset with attached microphone and commenced annoying my area of the office with his verbal discussions with his word processor over a decade ago.

Google’s iPhone app has had speech recognition capability for ages now, but I don’t really use it when I can just type something in – most searches are short enough that speaking it isn’t worth it.

I also have used Dragon Dictation for iPhone and iPad, but I’ve found I need to change my thought process for text entry.  It’s useful for a slightly longer text message if one is alone, but I don’t find that I speak out loud in the same way that I write, so the dictation app is not as useful for my use of  jobs like word processing – or blogging.

While I don’t find it useful for writing or searching, speech recognition is extremely useful in the car, when you cannot access your phone while driving – it is illegal in my area, so hands free operation is a must.  With solutions like Blue Ant’s S4, connected to Vlingo it is even possible to hear and send text messages and more via speech to text and text to speech.

In fact, from a retailer and consumer facing organization’s perspective, the biggest opportunities for voice recognition could be for using in an automobile scenario.  As per my last post, 2011.31 being able to order while driving by talking to the car is a twist on the mobile channel that provides an increased level of convenience for time constrained consumers.

Another interesting angle is the potential of providing speech recognition solutions in a drive thru environment for quick service restaurants.  While having customers use a touch screen would slow the order taking capability, if speech recognition improved enough, it could provide a potential throughput improvement for a drive thru.  Instead of relaying items to an attendant who lists them on the screen at car side, speech recognition could do the same thing more quickly and ideally more accurately – showing the customer items on the screen as they are spoken.  Sites with multiple lanes could be monitored by one person with improved throughput.

To take it further, this system could even be extended away from the outside of the restaurant.  Clients could dial a number for their local Quick Service Restaurant from their car and put together their order via speech recognition, and be given a unique and memorable order number –  their mobile number perhaps.  When they arrive at the drive thru, they can identify their order with the number.  The order can be pulled from the POS system as a suspended order, and the customer proceeds to the payment and pickup windows.  This would allow the customer to speed their ordering, and the restaurant to increase throughput at the busiest part of many locations.

As always, there would be a great deal of tweaking to be done, particularly around operations.  For example, if items are out of inventory, the system needs to know so that customers cannot order items that are out of stock, and ideally alternatives are provided to the customers.  In order to prepare this for prime time, some serious stress testing would need to be completed.

Speech recognition is far from optimal at present but has improved incredibly.  We have all dealt with IVRs that frustrate us, for example while trying to get help on a hotel reservation or change our phone service, but as it improves some intriguing possiblities reveal themselves.

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2010.33 | Drive Thru Technology

Given North America’s car based culture drive thru is a crucial and often the largest part of any QSR business. Adding the logistical challenges of the outdoors and queued vehicles to the already challenging job of taking orders, fulfilling orders and accepting payment is no trivial matter.  There are many areas where new technology is being leveraged – sometimes in unexpected ways – to deal with this challenging pursuit for QSR operators.

Digital Menu Boards – With costs for hardware decreasing, incredible consumer acceptance of digital screens everywhere, and the capability to update screens and signage in any way at any time remotely and consistently, moving to digital menu boards is a logical step for QSR operators, assuming they can establish an ROI.  There are some excellent points both for and against using this technology, but assuming a reasonable ROI, expect these to slowly take over.

Ordering Kiosks –  It’s not surprising that the leap would be made from digital menu boards to an actual kiosk that one can order from in line.  A few organizations have built some promising solutions and are piloting.  I’m a self service user and proponent, but I’m torn on the question of kiosks in drive thru environments given the potential complexity of the operation.  My experience with self service is that it generally takes longer to use a kiosk like this to order than just saying what you want.  Mileage may vary depending on your business, but consider the time to speak the order “One large double double, please!” to at least 3-4 screen touches to just buy one coffee.  The touchscreen will be much slower.  Now consider a family carload and their constantly shifting of orders and special requests (Where’s the button for extra ketchup?)  Add that to hundreds of cars streaming through a drive thru, and you’ve got significant reductions in throughput, and a potential traffic problem as cars back out into the parking lot or onto the street.  QSR operators would need to carefully understand the impacts of their menu and their customer base to implement a solution of this sort. 

A potentially more efficient solution would be an integrated solution to a mobile device that would allow customers to pick all of their menu items on their phone.  With all menu items entered, the order can be saved on the phone, and displayed as a 2d barcode.  When the customer arrives at the kiosk in their car, they scan the 2d barcode at a reader on the kiosk, and the entire order is displayed on the screen for customer verification.  This means 2 button pushes, as well as the avoidance of a scratchy speaker discussion that the kiosk was meant to provide in the first place.  It also means the capability of upsell on the screen which could merely slow down the ordering process in the self serve kiosk instance. 

Payments –  Contactless via NFC was supposed to be the wave of the future (forgive the pun), but my experience has been that even if the drive thru is equipped with NFC readers, the cashiers act puzzled when you wish to use them.  Much as people claim to want to use it, NFC has not been embraced, and there are no indications of changes to consumer behaviour.  It’s more likely that new cars with their increasing array of technological wonders will work this out for us as outlined in QSR Magazine.  It would make sense to enable one’s car to leverage payments based on pushing a button for a drive through scenario, and as the article says, the cars may even direct us to our favourite restaurants.  Perhaps the payments will be made via Facebook, with more and more businesses selling directly within Facebook, Facebook credits and mobile ubiquity coming together to simplify the process.

No matter what technology is leveraged, it will be key to consider simplicity, speed, and integration in any solution.  Any technology or process change has to be dead simple so that the process is as easy as today or easier, or it will not be embraced.  Changes have to ensure speed is not sacrificed for technology’s sake.  The bar is high, and customers are used to fast service.  Slow it down, and they will move to a competitor.  Integration will become increasingly important given all the different ways in which consumers can interact with a business.  It is important to bring all of these interfaces together to gain the full understanding of a customer for a business, and to allow them to interact with the business in the way they choose.

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