Automation – the solution to staff shortages in hospitality or the death of customer service?
It seems everywhere you look now there is automation. From the self-service check outs at the supermarkets, to online banking or self-organising doctor appointments, vaccinations, flights, hotel stays and now, even more so since covid, ordering drinks and food within the hospitality industry. Once thought on as high-tech, reserved for the luxury market – out of reach for most, automation is commonplace, as more and more aspects of our lives become digitised. So, is automation a hospitality solution to staff issues?
There are obvious benefits to business and consumer. A smoother customer journey, increased efficiency, digital records of every interaction and (after the initial investment) costs can be significantly reduced.
For the hospitality industry there could be even more plus points. It’s no secret that hotels, bars and restaurants have been rocked by a double whammy of covid restrictions and staff shortages caused by Brexit.
But does automation provide a much-needed solution to streamline processes, cut costs and cover staff shortages? Or could it be the beginning of the end of customer service?
HOW CAN AUTOMATION HELP THE HOTEL AND HOSPITALITY SECTOR?
According to recent research three quarters of pub and restaurant bosses are increasing pay to attract staff, as shortages are reportedly still having a huge effect on the sector. Back in July there were reports of vacancies being their highest since records began. Pay increases are no bad thing, it’s really time that the sector put a focus on attracting the best workers to jobs.
Long and anti-social hours could be playing their part in driving employees away too, so could automation help here? Online reservations and automated guest communication could significantly reduce the load for staff ahead of a guest or diner’s visit.
Automation could cover some of the tasks traditionally done by FOH and BOH staff as well as increasing communication and limiting mistakes.
Those venues that introduced online ordering and table service during the pandemic may have seen how seamlessly automation can integrate front of house and back of house processes. Serving staff are freed to focus on the most necessary tasks and miscommunication is limited, because there is less reliance on the person and more on the process.
At hotels too, it allows those working shifts to know the status of each and every guest as well as any issues that may have arisen without the need for a full in-person debrief.
So there are up sides. But when we ask ourselves if s automation a hospitality solution, we need to remain focussed on the customer. Not just the processes of the business.
BUT DOES AUTOMATION HAVE TO MEAN THE DEATH OF CUSTOMER SERVICE?
For me automation can actually improve the guest experience by allowing venues to focus entirely on service, while limiting the opportunities for mistakes to be made. However there needs to be a balance.
If a guest enters a venue and is largely ignored, they seat themselves, order their own food, perhaps collect their own drinks and the first interaction they have with a person is when the food is delivered then, yes, we head down a route where customer service will take a back seat.
Similarly, at a hotel, a guest books themselves in, checks in automatically, receives their key card via an automated app with a map that then shows them to their room, again we’re losing that personal touch.
For me, there needs to be a compromise, whereby automation plays its part but service staff are allowed to focus on just that, providing personal service with attention to detail.
Automation allows us to focus on learning more about customers than ever before, so let’s use that to give guests the best customer service they’ve ever received. If part of the journey is automated, for example, they book themselves into the hotel and receive all the relevant documents via an automated email then my advice would be to build in a personal ‘fact-finder’ phone call into the journey. One simple phone call to find out the reason for their stay and any extra/upsells we may be able to add.
Another way to use automation without losing the guest experience is to think outside the box. One venue that does this particularly well within a theme is the Rollercoaster Restaurant at Alton Towers. Food is delivered to tables via the medium of rollercoaster. Guests watch on in awe as their food makes its way through gravity defying loops and drops as it heads to their tables.
Less need for serving staff – all the guest experience and an imaginative dining experience that fits ideally with the location. The venue is always sold out.
Think of what makes your venue unique then find a way to automate part of the customer journey and you won’t go far wrong when it comes to streamlining while still showing guests a great time.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR AUTOMATION AND HOSPITALITY?
Robot delivery may still sound like something from a science fiction movie, but it’s already being trialled here in the UK and is becoming the norm in places like Japan and America. Restaurants receive online orders, and the food is delivered hot to the door via an autonomous vehicle.
You can read more about the trial in Milton Keynes here: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/apr/12/robots-deliver-food-milton-keynes-coronavirus-lockdown-starship-technologies The technology was a hit for the younger generations in particular!
You may have seen the UK’s first ever pizza vending machine. Not a way I’d like to see our industry go, but it shows that automation is here to stay.
For me, it’s clear that automation is here to stay. Those venues that are cashing in on its benefits. Thinking creatively about how it can be applied, but still providing the personal touch, are those for me that will undeniably come out on top.
Food does loops and drops as it travels to its dining destination at the Rollercoaster Restaurant at Alton Towers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaS6l3XR-gI
Starship Delivery bots take food to the residents of Milton Keynes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbQN-a2d1s0