No business segment has been hit harder during the pandemic than the food service industry. Unified communications (UC) solutions could be a key ingredient in the industry’s recipe for a comeback.
Seventeen percent of all U.S. restaurants — more than 110,000 in all — have closed permanently since the pandemic’s onset, according to the National Restaurant Association’s 2021 State of the Industry report. About 2.5 million workers lost their jobs and more than twice that many faced long-term furloughs during the year. Industry sales numbers fell $240 billion short of pre-COVID forecasts.
A flexible communications platform helped many eateries generate enough business to sustain operations despite pandemic restrictions. UC systems that support omnichannel communications have been invaluable for satisfying consumer appetites for more call-in and online ordering.
With in-person dining restricted, the majority of food orders (63 percent) were made by phone, according to one survey. Meanwhile, online ordering, which was already on an upward trajectory, accelerated rapidly. Analysts say orders placed via smartphone and mobile apps generated as much as $38 billion in 2020. Another study found that online ordering grew by nearly 4,000 percent last year in some large U.S. suburbs.
In addition, many consumers intend to maintain or increase their off-premises dining after the pandemic has subsided. In one survey, 42 percent said they plan to continue using phone-in or online ordering services for carryout and delivery.
An Acquired Taste
Accommodating new consumer ordering habits has been difficult for the many restaurants that have only basic telephone service. They can’t keep up with rising volumes of carryout and delivery orders. Missed calls are lost business — studies show that 34 percent of callers who hang up will not call back.
UC solutions give customers a number of different ways to connect with restaurants. In addition to voice, email, text, fax and website integration, a robust UC platform enables communications via interactive voice response (IVR) systems, chatbots and virtual assistants. Mobile integration is another valuable feature, allowing restaurant operators to get alerts and messages sent straight to their smartphones when they aren’t near a desk phone or a computer.
UC analytics and reporting features also create value by helping restaurants understand their market. Through integrated data tracking and analytics features, restaurants can get a better idea of what’s selling and what isn’t. That allows them to cut costs and improve efficiency by adjusting their supply purchases and tweaking their menus to match customer preferences.
The UC Menu
When choosing UC, restaurants must decide whether they would be better served by an on-premises solution or a cloud-based one. On-premises solutions typically allow greater customization and more direct control, but cloud-based UC eliminates upfront expenses with its pay-as-you-go model. Restaurants without any IT expertise on staff would likely be better off with a cloud-based solution. UC-as-a-Service (UCaaS) requires far less hands-on management than on-premises solutions, is easy to access, deploy and scale, and is continually updated with new features.
You can also leverage the provider’s expertise for advanced capabilities. For example, you might want to integrated AI-powered chatbots to take all online orders and relay them directly to the kitchen staff. That can save time, improve efficiency and reduce manual transcription errors.
Pandemic restrictions have been a major blow to the restaurant industry, but those with flexible communication capabilities have been better able to adjust to the loss of in-person dining revenues. The ability to connect with customers through the channel of their choice will continue to be a competitive advantage for the long-term. Call us to learn more about using unified communications to spice up your operations.