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2016: The Year of the Chatbot

Chatbots are now taking orders for restaurant brands large and small.

Over the summer, Wingstop, Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell all demonstrated their work on bot-ordering in various ways. Microsoft and a dozen others have rolled out bot-making software for smaller brands. And a new partnership between delivery engine Olo and Conversable, the bot maker behind Wingstop and Pizza Hut’s foray into the space, has text-to-order chatbots poised to proliferate.

It’s the logical next step for brands as the usage of social messaging apps has now surpassed social networks, counting billions of daily users—the top four account for nearly 3 billion users each day. Messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Kik, Twitter, Telegram, Discord and business-focused collaborating messenger Slack are all replacing time spent scrolling or swiping through traditional social media.

For restaurants, it’s a very nascent field. They’re not talking about the numbers quite yet, and investors shouldn’t expect those billions of users to make the switch immediately as it’s still a bit of a novelty.

“I think that is a new experience for customers and one people have put in the surprise and delight bucket,” said Olo founder and CEO Noah Glass. “I think like all things, it’s going to take this becoming a familiar interface for consumers to kind of seek it out.”

For first movers like Wingstop, it’s just another effort to be where its millennial consumers are.

“By offering message-based or chat-based ordering channels, we’ve widened the top of our ecommerce funnel for the convenience of our customers. This not only drives transactions, it also helps establish trust with our customers that Wingstop will meet them where they are,” wrote Kevin Fish, VP of restaurant and technology and ecommerce in a VentureBeat op-ed. “Whether that is Facebook Messenger, Twitter, SMS, or even verbally via Amazon’s smart audio device, the Echo. Wingstop provides FAQs and an ordering system in the bot, which is what millennials are demanding.”

Conversable CEO Ben Lamm said getting in front of those users without interrupting their messenger usage is key.

“Millennials prefer this medium for interaction,” said Lamm. “If you can conversationally find the answers you want, order a product or service, or solve a customer care [issue] all from within whatever messaging channel you are in, why would you download an app or go to a website to try to do the same thing?”

That is a key concern for space-starving consumers who will make room for messaging, but likely won’t delete any of their food photos to make room for a restaurant app.

In an admittedly unscientific test, we compared Wingstop’s digital ordering on the phone to a chatbot order via Twitter. By tweeting "#order" to Wingstop, a message was sent, beginning the ordering process. It was simple, we never had to leave Twitter, and the stripped-down offering shaved 30 seconds off the order time. That native quality opens up every messaging platform or front end to chatbot ordering, allowing for a neutral ordering routine across any platform. 


“Front ends are where the customers are, specifically on these messaging platforms who are in conversation about the brand and then collapsing the space between conversation and a commercial transaction. I can go right from mentioning Wingstop on Facebook, and then Wingstop is interacting with me and I’m already in the process of purchasing Wingstop,” said Glass. “And you can stick conversational ordering into whatever front-end experience you can dream of.”

The experience on the restaurant end is about the same as digital ordering. It similarly puts the ordering tasks in the consumer’s hands and feeds orders into the API-open POS, incrementally cutting labor hours spent on the phone and doing order entry. It also cuts down on waste by ensuring at least an accurate order from the consumer.

One thing to remember is that most chatbots are not based on artificial intelligence. Users shouldn’t expect to ask complicated questions or get weather updates like they might with Apple’s Siri. But as an extension of digital ordering or a handheld kiosk, these chatbots don’t have to be all that smart. Wingstop’s ordering bot feels like more of a standardized test than a digital order. And for consumers who just want to make a basic order, that’s a great thing.

In the next months and years to come, expect more complex chatbot integration and expansion into whatever the app du jour. Also look for more ordering options; it’s just a matter of time until a group can order lunch without ever talking to each other face-to-face.

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