Guests Rate Top Restaurant Technology

It's hard for a restaurant operator to resist the siren call of installing some shiny new technology. Everyone wants to save money and improve operations, and well chosen technology can accomplish those goals. But once the cost-benefit analysis is done, there's another factor to consider, and that is whether your customers will support that new technology. The danger here is that customers will see no benefit to themselves when they encounter some new equipment in your restaurant.

In a study recently released by the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research, three researchers found that customers put a higher value on some types of technology than they do on others. The study, "Customer Preferences for Restaurant Technology Innovations," was conducted by Michael J. Dixon, a doctoral candidate at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration; Sheryl E. Kimes, Singapore Tourism Board distinguished professor of Asian hospitality management; and Rohit Verma, associate professor of operations management.

The technology test
Dixon, Kimes, and Verma suggest that technology should offer restaurant customers the benefits of increased convenience or increased control of the service process, or that innovation will fail. For their part, restaurants are looking for increased service speed and quality, reduced costs, and increased volume and revenue. With those factors in mind, Dixon, Kimes, and Verma tested the reactions of over 1,700 restaurant guests to the following eleven different restaurant technologies: pagers for table management, handheld order taking while waiting in line, online reservations, Internet-based ordering, virtual menus available tableside with nutritional information, virtual menus online with nutritional information, kiosk-based payment, kiosk-based food ordering, payment via SMS or text message, payment via smart card (RFID-enabled), and payment via cell phone using NFC technology.

The customers who responded to this survey averaged 75 restaurant visits per year, and the younger respondents were more frequent restaurant visitors than older respondents. Younger respondents were also more likely to use various types of technology than the older respondents were, but the researchers found no difference in technology use between the sexes.

Dixon, Kimes, and Verma found that the respondents considered tableside virtual menus with nutritional information to be most valuable of the eleven technologies presented to them. They found pagers, handheld order taking, and online reservations to also be very valuable (ranked together in close succession). The kiosk-related technologies (e.g., kiosk-based ordering) were valued neither high nor low. Respondents gave only a middling rating to Internet ordering, and they saw little value in cell-phone-based payment systems and smart-card payment.

Value increased by use
Perhaps more useful for restaurant operators is the interaction between technology use and the value that customers give to that technology. In short, it seems that using a technology allows people to see its value. In this study, the technologies used most commonly were pagers and online reservations, both of which got fairly high value ratings. On the other hand, the respondents hardly used cell-phone payment at all (and saw little value in it). The results show that the value of a specific technology increases after the customers have had the opportunity to use it.

So, for instance, respondents who had used Internet-based ordering accorded it more than twice the value than did non-users (a value score of 79% vs. 39%), those who had used pagers found them to be more than half-again more valuable than nonusers (a score of 84% vs. 50%), and those who had made online reservations considered them to have almost twice the value as did nonusers (a score of 91% vs. 59%). Even the perceived value of the payment technologies improved with use (although customers remained cool overall).

This finding may put restaurant operators in the awkward position of encouraging guests to use a new technology even though the guests might not immediately see the value of the innovation in question. Needless to say, it's self-defeating to force guests to use technology that they hate, but it may be possible to offer inducements for customers to at least try things out. The researchers propose that one way to do that is to offer demonstrations and assistance to encourage people to use the technology, with the idea that guests will then see the value of those innovations. Except for the people who just love to use new technology (or those who hate machines no matter what), the key is to show the value of using any innovation. Likewise, the choice of a new technology must fit with the restaurant's concept, and so not all systems will work for all restaurants.

In conclusion, Dixon, Kimes, and Verma point out that technology might take away some aspects of personal service, but if innovations improve service quality and boost value to the guest, that technology should be a success.

Glenn Withiam is director of publications for the Cornell Center for Hospitality Research. The study, "Customer Preferences for Restaurant Technology Innovations," is available at no charge from the university website.
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