Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Much-touted automation actually reducing speed of customer service

Order a ready-made drink at any high-end restaurant in Gaborone on a slow, mid-week day and one thing is bound to happen. It will be at least 15 minutes before the mostly English-speaking, typically tip-extorting waitress who won the scramble for your table delivers the order.

Contrast that with the sort of service you will get at Batshana, an old-school, matchbox bar in Mogoditshane, which is located a little way off the Gaborone-Gabane. There your order will be delivered in less than 10 seconds and you will not be extorted for a tip.

The main difference between these two types of establishments is that the former has automated its systems while the latter hasn’t. What the comparison highlights is that despite what a parade of speakers at a Gaborone International Convention Centre conference would have you believe, the switch from manual to automation has further degraded customer service – service that has always been far from satisfactory.

Even before automation, one too many high-end restaurants were struggling to provide good customer service. It was the coming into being of the supermall (initially Game City and Riverwalk in Gaborone) that introduced stand-alone high-end restaurants to Botswana.  Prior to this development, these sort of restaurants were only found in hotels and were less ritzy.

With the high-end restaurant came the exploitation of the unemployed youth and university students. Most of these restaurants don’t pay a monthly salary but get a commission on the sales they make. Tips are also a major component of their earnings. On the account of this payment structure, the entrance of each restaurant is a battleground where waiters lie in wait for customers and pounce on them as soon as they walk in.

The quality of service that these young people provide shows that their training is woefully inadequate. One too many of them typically disappear after seating customers and taking their orders; they underestimate the time it will take to deliver an order by many orders of magnitude; some have pre-Medieval food hygiene habits (don’t cover the mouths when they cough or sneeze and periodically scratch their heads with the same hand they use to handle crockery and cutlery); and prioritise chatting with co-workers over checking on the status of orders they have placed with the kitchen.

Despite the poor service, these waitrons feel quite comfortable shaking down customers for tips and compliments. The latter takes the form of them making repeat stops at a customer’s table after delivering orders, to ask a variety of questions along the lines of “How’s the food?” In one respect, the latter is a direct result of Botswana having failed to implement its own indigenous food sub-cultures into western-origin eateries. In indigenous and indeed in all of Sub-Saharan Africa cultures, one is not supposed to speak while eating and children who fall foul of this custom are reprimanded with “O ja ka ofeo bua ka ofe?” [Which mouth do you use for eating and which do you use for speaking?]

On a normal day, the high-end restaurant also prioritises elaborate, style-over-substance theatrical productions. That explains such spectacles as sprinkling dried leaves around the rim of a plate as food-styling innovation and flair-tending. The latter is a mostly hygiene-bereft, time and drink-wasting showmanship used to make cocktails. Given that orders typically take long to arrive, it would certainly be ideal to dispense with these unnecessary and time-wasting theatricalities.

Then came technology that isn’t making customer service any better. There is a past in which an order for a cup of coffee took little more than a minute’s conversation between customer and waiter, a short walk to the coffee station and delivering the order five minutes later. Following automation, the waiter’s first port of call after a taking a customer’s order is not the kitchen but a point-of-sale terminal to “punch the order in the system”, meaning to input information about the order into a networked computer system that links the restaurant with the kitchen and, in some cases, the manager’s office. Via the miracle of technology, the order is electronically transmitted to a remote production printer in the kitchen where it is printed out on a slip that staff there used to process the order.

However, this process doesn’t happen in the blink of an eye and is fraught with its own problems. The transmission could fail and it could be some time before the sender realises the problem – at which point the process will be restarted and the customer is getting impatient. Similarly, the printer could have run out of the paper roll, meaning the order slip can’t be printed out.

Someone who has waitressed at four high-end restaurants in Gaborone says that penny-pinching restaurant owners typically buy cheap, poor-quality IT equipment in order to save costs.

“A computer system whose memory is not large enough will take very long to process an order,” she says.

Contrast that with past when all waitresses had to do was run handwritten tickets back to the kitchen and have orders processed immediately.

Botswana typically does what the rest of the world – especially South Africa, does and often with very little foresight. In some parts of the world, the physical menu and hand-written orders are being replaced with kitchen display systems, ordering tablets, and QR codes. It is just a matter of time before this technological innovation proliferates high-end restaurants. Not all customers will be able to navigate this technology and penny-pinching restaurant owners will use poor-quality devices that will keep giving out. Resultantly, some (especially elderly) customers will leave restaurants frustrated, hungry and thirsty.

The use of technology in restaurants has caused a great deal of consternation in a part of the world where most of it originates – the United States. Anthony Advincula, director of communications for Restaurant Opportunity Center (ROC) United, an organization that fights for the rights of restaurant workers across the US has stated that the rise of technology in the restaurant industry is mainly for the owners and not customers and employees.

One part of the solution is a quite simple one: not all restaurant workflow processes should be automated and not all steps in a process are suited for automation. There is certainly no need to input information about a simple order for a cup of coffee into a networked computer system when that results in the order taking long to arrive and arriving cold as a result.

Away from the restaurant, automation literally brings service to a halt in the civil service where those seeking assistance are met with the “system e down” mantra.” A prose comedy column has proposed that “System e Down” should replace “Fatshe Leno la Rona” as Botswana’s national anthem. 

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