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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2011.06 | Electronic Payments and Gratuities

Different cultures treat gratuities differently. For instance, visiting a Tim Horton’s in Quebec, customers often encounter a broad swath of coins in front of the point of sale unit. Consider this the horizontal approach to the traditional tip jar. It’s a simple visual cue to remind customers to leave their nickels, dimes, quarters, or the odd loonie at the end of a transaction. You don’t see that in Ontario where a a jar or cup are the favoured vehicle.

What becomes of tip jars in the electronic age? If there is no silver (nickel, copper, zinc) passing from hand to hand in a transaction, what happens to the tip jar?  This is a gap in the current move towards electronic payments. In this case, there is not an app for that – at least not one I’ve noticed.

In the past, paying with a card in a lunch line would have been considered pretentious – an inconvenience to the store and the customers in line. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way.  An article today in QSR quoted a shop owner who said that half of clients coming into his store want to use electronic payment. While the electronic option is a tremendous convenience to consumers, there are well documented costs to the store owners to provide this convenience.

The part of these new electronic transactions that has not been addressed in the media or in an electronic manner is the gratuity. While those of us who do not work directly in the service industry probably don’t give it more than a passing thought, those tip jars, and the income they represent are certainly important to the people that help us every day. Without the opportunity to leave a tip, consumers lose a chance to thank those who help us with a small token of appreciation. With the onset of increasing electronic payments, consumers are less likely to throw a few coins of change into the jar or on the pile, as there is no residual change to jingle in their pocket.

Casual and formal dining establishments certainly provide the capacity to tip electronically by providing a gratuity step in the electronic purchase but what about the coffee shops, sandwich shops, and independent burger joints? QSR establishments do not have any sort of capability to enable a gratuity to be passed via an electronic purchase.

What to do?  In some areas, tips can make a difference for employees, and for retailers a small perquisite with which to attract top notch help that can drive more business.  As usage of cash starts to decrease, innovative retailers and solutions vendors will find a way to continue the tradition.  I suggest the following thoughts:

  • Ensure any solution is unobtrusive and passive.  I personally loathe being asked if I want to pay $1 to support charity of the day.  I support various charities on an ongoing basis and applaud their work, but refuse to pay any of these point of sale charity fees on principle as it feels to me like someone is trying to shame me into doing the right thing by having a rosy cheeked teen ask me if I want to plant a tree for $1.  Tipping can NOT go in this direction if it is to be successful.   Any opportunity to leave a gratuity for good service needs to be understated and private.  The slot under the window for Ronald McDonald House at the McDonalds Drive Thru will see some of my change, as it doesn’t judge me.
  • Leverage solutions already in place to ensure ease of use and universal capability.  While it may be tempting to use an iPhone app to tip someone, adding a step to a low value transaction could potentially slow the line, and remove the potential of further gratuities for the server.  If the solution is only an iPhone or Blackberry app, what about the good old plastic card carriers?
  • Make any solution simple and ensure it is operationalized. Today, for small value purchases on credit, cashiers quickly swipe the card and hand it back – no signature required.  Given that card payments are moving to chip and pin in Canada, customers are more accustomed to swiping, dipping, or tapping their own cards.  Why not encourage customers to swipe their own card, and on the pinpad screen provide a single button press to round up to the next dollar with the push of a single button.  Nobody sees the transaction but the client, and the server can be rewarded.  In fact, now the retailer can see who’s really pulling customers into the store.

Tipping is complicated at the best of times.  Are they individual, are they pooled, would servers want to hide how much they get in tips from their employers, or from the tax authority?  While it’s hard to say the direction it will go, it seems inevitable that some electronic mechanism for tipping for low dollar transactions will occur.  Maybe one day it won’t be a trail of coins at the POS, but a tap of a contactless card to a separate reader that says tips – the true electronic tip jar…

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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