What McDonald's Move to Touch Screen Kiosks Really Means for the Service Industry



The recent announcement that McDonald’s is rolling out touch screen kiosks to facilitate ordering in all 14,000 of its locations has provoked reactions from pundits far outside of the usual technology and digital signage circles. As industry insiders try to determine what the long-range impact will be of one of the biggest names in U.S. fast food rolling out touch screens, some have read the rollout as primarily a labor-reducing move that, against the backdrop of national demands for wage increases by fast-food workers, will allow fast-food restaurants to cut low-level service jobs. We, however, see things a little differently.

While it’s true that the implementation of touch-screen kiosks in McDonald’s restaurants signals a change in the way that quick-serve restaurants will do business, we don’t see fast-food customer service positions being automated out of the job market anytime soon—and, in fact, they might even be a better bet for the service industry, and this is why.

Touch Screens Will Stimulate, Not Decimate, Service

Customers still look for face-to-face human interaction in their daily purchasing experiences. The idea of someone walking into a McDonald’s, ordering from a touch-screen kiosk, paying automatically, and being served by a conveyor belt with no human interaction is not in the cards in the immediate future.

The McDonald’s touch-screen-kiosk-based ordering model still requires not just people to run the machines, but people to interact with the customers at various points in the process. And while fast-food service is often derided as a less-than-enjoyable experience, having a large portion of the laborious customer-facing work of taking orders moved to the kiosks may open up space for customer service interactions that are both more meaningful and more pleasant.

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It will be up to McDonald’s and the other fast-food restaurants that adopt kiosk-based ordering to think creatively about ways to differentiate based on quality of service, but the kiosks will allow them to focus on pushing their service forward. Better training, higher expectations, and tasks more focused on positive face-to-face interactions instead of managing a line of frustrated customers could be better for patrons, employees, and employers.

And while powerful artificial intelligences may eventually be able to handle the most complicated face-to-face customer service interactions, that, at the moment, remains in the realm of science fiction.

Fast Food Needed Disruption

The fact is, McDonald’s needs something new to appeal to tech-minded Millennials and Generation Zers, who have been raised not just to interact with technology, but to expect a certain degree of technological upgrade and turnover in what they use every day. These are generations that have grown used to yearly smartphone releases and other such events.

With the draw of McDonald’s branding—and fast food in general—not being what it once was, touch-screen technology is a big part of that industry being able to pivot and reinvent itself to snag mindshare from the younger generations.

So while the introduction of touch-screen kiosks is now the latest tech innovation, if McDonald’s is perceptive, it will stay on top of the trends and find new and exciting ways to keep upgrading and pushing the in-restaurant touch-screen experience forward.

Not the Beginning of the End, but the End of the Beginning

Touch-screen kiosks in McDonald’s restaurants speak to another generational reality: Young people today tend toward self-service. In their online purchasing, in their use of technology for self-paced online learning, and so on.  

And with this in mind, as we see the emergence of a new quick-serve restaurant model, we are seeing not the end of customer service, but a reinvention and revitalization of customer service that meet the demands of a tech-savvy population while still giving it the human interactions it values.  

We will doubtlessly see more mass implementations of touch-screen kiosks throughout fast food and other retail segments. It’s up to the retailers to push innovation—both with their touch screens and with their employees—in ways that will bring in the customers and keep them coming back.

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