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Technology and customer experience

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The use of technology, including artificial intelligence, in any function or operation is assumed to result in efficiency. That is, if the scenario allows for the minimal if not complete elimination of human intervention in the process. Otherwise, human involvement can contradict this assertion and result in inefficiencies or bottlenecks.

However, as with anything involving people, the human “touch” is almost always necessary. Any process or function devoid of human presence can be perceived as too uninvolved and impersonal. Worse, certain nuances are missed, and the customer experience may be seen as unsatisfying or incomplete. In short, not in all situations can humans be completely removed from the process.

I was at a fast-food branch at the corner of Valero and Dela Costa streets in Salcedo Village, Makati on Tuesday afternoon. It is one of those high-tech branches where customers place their orders themselves through big touch-screen monitors. One can also pay directly while ordering, using a credit card or an electronic wallet like GCash.

The thing with this system is that it takes a bit of time to navigate the menu. The advantage, however, is that given the numerous ordering terminals available, one can take more time ordering. I placed two orders: for dine-in, a sandwich, a drink, and a dessert; for take-out, a box of fried chicken. On both instances, I paid for my orders by tapping my card on the credit card terminal just below the screen.

Problem No. 1: Twice, while placing my orders, two different credit card terminals issued torn-up receipts. Obviously, for the two terminals I used, the thermal rolls were misfeeding. Thus, the receipts bunch up during printing and tear. And not one store staff was checking if the credit card terminals were working properly, i.e., correctly printing receipts. I had to call their attention to the torn receipts.

Problem No. 2: My first order, for a sandwich, a drink, and a dessert took 15 minutes to process and be delivered to my table. For any fast-food establishment, 15 minutes is too long for serving time. Considering the fast-food process, had I gone to another branch where orders are still manually taken, I would have had my order on hand as I stepped away from the counter.

Problem No. 3: The takeout chicken order was placed at 5:04 p.m., as indicated in the printed receipt. At 5:24 p.m., I approached the counter to follow up. The person at the counter walked away to consult someone, and then came back to me that it would take another 20 minutes for them to process the order. I was told 20 minutes after ordering that I would have to wait another 20 minutes. Of course, I found this to be unreasonable: 40 minutes to fix a box of fried chicken?

To the store’s credit, after I complained that another 20 minutes of waiting was unacceptable, considering that I already waited 20 minutes, someone went to the back and came back with my order. The box was handed to me, no bag, no napkins, and no offer of utensils. Again, the staff behavior and the customer experience at the same store would have been a lot better had I opted to drive-through.

I know this for a fact because I frequently use that store’s drive-through. In fact, that very same Tuesday afternoon, I bought iced coffee at the drive-through before I decided to park and walk into the store. But that pleasant and quick service at the drive-through was overturned by the poor customer experience in-store for two orders.

Problem No. 4: If one studied the cycle time for the entire ordering process, at least from my experience, the use of technology appears to have slowed rather than hastened the ordering and delivery process. It took a longer time for the food to get to the customer’s hands, as compared to the manual ordering system of old. In fact, had I ordered drive-through for the food, I am certain it would have been faster. And this leads me to wonder if the queuing system is biased and prioritizes drive-through orders over in-store dine-in and in-store take-out purchases.

Problem No. 5: Under the automated self-order system, the store loses the chance to directly interact with the customer to relay possible waiting time or to convey possible delays in servicing the order. At least during drive-through, as one orders, the order-taker immediately relays to the customer whether a delay can be expected, i.e., 10 minutes waiting time. This is not the case with the self-order system using touch screens.

In most cases, technology aims to simplify tasks. But it can sometimes introduce complexity. Poorly designed interfaces or complex technological systems that require extensive training can lead to inefficiencies as users take longer to complete tasks or make more errors. Or sometimes, human behavior becomes the bottleneck. Or, there are “disconnects” in the system.

In the case of processing the fried chicken order, technology automated the ordering and payment. But the actual task of cooking the chicken and packing the order still relied on human intervention. It was perhaps a case of orders coming in faster than the kitchen can handle. But the faceless robot interfacing between the two functions — order taking and food preparation — does not know any better. There lies the first disconnect.

And because of the automated ordering system, human oversight in the preparation process became more crucial. And the task of managing customer expectations fell through the cracks, as there was no way for the point-of-sale or ordering system nor the food preparation system to directly inform or advise the customer of possible delays. This was the second disconnect.

So, unless the customer walks up to the counter to complain, the staff and all the systems are all clueless about the poor customer experience. And this is concerning considering that a problem can be “detected” only after a complaint comes in. In terms of managing customer experience, if a complaint comes in, then that means the system already “failed” and no one saw it coming.

I am all for automation and the use of high-technology and artificial intelligence. But it is essential for companies to develop strategies that can enhance the benefits of technology but at the same time mitigate its negative impacts on productivity and human skills. Automation and technology should not displace people but complement them. Interpersonal skills cannot be automated.

Moreover, better interfaces should be developed to address possible “disconnects.” If order-takers at drive-through counters can get updated information from the kitchen on delays, and can relay the same information to drive-through customers, why can’t the self-order system be configured to carry and convey the same information to customers ordering in-store?

Automation and self-ordering systems should not be seen as just labor-saving devices, or tools for operational efficiency. Technology allows for customization and should be used not just to save on costs and to improve processes. Just as important, technology should also improve and enhance the customer journey and the customer experience.

Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council


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