For a long time, there have been predictions of chatbots becoming ubiquitous in restaurants. The two obvious use cases here are booking and ordering.
The booking use case has recently been highlighted by Google’s Duplex bot. This is a voice bot that can make an appointment or reservation at a restaurant over the phone. It is an impressive bot, because of how well it understands the speech and meaning of the human in the conversation and because of how human it has been made to sound, complete with human-like pauses, “umms” and “aha’s”
The Duplex bot was designed for restaurants and other small businesses that do not have automatic booking systems. These businesses rely on humans to take calls and make bookings.
Of course, many restaurants participate in booking platforms such as open table which make it very easy for customers to see exact availability and compare offers during the booking process. There is no need for these restaurants to be called manually to make a booking.
Of course, automation of restaurant booking in the way that Duplex allows, creates some possibility for abuse. For example, it doesn’t seem right to allow Duplex to call several restaurants simultaneously to find out whether it is possible to book a table or not. This would lead to restaurants taking many more speculative calls and having to hire more telephone agents to deal with the calls. It’s arguable that the bot should be able to call several restaurants in order until it finds one with a table at the desired time.
The chatbot case for booking using a Duplex-like bot, therefore, seems to be confined to the use case where the user has specific restaurants in mind, in order of preference, and those restaurants are not part of a restaurant booking platform.
There are some restaurants that do not appear on booking platforms but allow online booking. It’s arguable that a chatbot could be an alternative to a web form for booking. A voice chatbot could allow for more convenient and speedy booking.
A text chatbot, for example, could be simpler to use than a web form and at the same time allow the user to ask questions.
FAQs are of course a common use case for chatbots and could easily apply to restaurants.
One specific use case for restaurants is ordering food. It has been predicted for a while that a chatbot could take care of food ordering.
It is already the case that high-end restaurants put their menus on Ipads. It should, therefore, be a relatively easy step to have customers order from the Ipads directly rather than dictating their order to a server.
The problem is that customers frequently have questions or want to customize their orders, so it is more convenient to speak to a human than make the order through a graphical interface. It is also much faster.
The question, however, is would it be much faster if the customer was using a voice bot. Admittedly voice bots would need to be at the Duplex level or better to be able to be as efficient as a human in taking the order or answering questions. The voice bots do however have an advantage. They could use the screen to display information about the order to the user as the order is made. This could help to reduce some of the errors that commonly happen in restaurants and provide a better experience. In addition, that voice bot could be on the table and always available, unlike the server. The server could, of course, be available to deal with problems.
While it may be more efficient for restaurants to use voice bots, there are privacy issues. Customers may not like the idea of having a microphone on their table, so this would need to be addressed. It may be possible to use QR codes or location services for patrons to access the voice bot on their phones instead of on an external device. This might serve to reduce some of the concern about being recorded.
Replacing servers with bots may reduce some of the joy that comes from human interaction in the restaurant. Of course, servers will still be required to deliver the food and will need to coordinate with the bot (until the robots fully take over of course - just watch some Boston Dynamics videos if you doubt this is coming).
In short, it is likely that voice bots will eventually be part somehow of the restaurant experience. These bots will use a combination of screens and voice to assist the customers in ordering.
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