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Applebee’s no longer wants to answer your takeout calls

It wants to outsource these orders to customer centers, where a person or an automated system will take your orders and also try to sell you a little.

More than half of Applebee’s around 1575 US locations already use the customer center for phone orders, according to the company. By the end of the year, Applebee’s wants most of its restaurants to come on board.

“I would like to have, in an ideal world, almost all of these [restaurants] to use the mall, “Applebee President John Cywinski told CNN Business in a recent interview. Of course, that does not mean you can not call your local Applebee if you have questions about, for example, how busy the place is. In such cases, someone in the restaurant will be nearby to pick up.

It can seem strange for restaurants to send phone orders to third parties. But they are investigating the possibility as the industry struggles to staff its restaurants and the number of phone orders increases.

Phone orders are increasing

Applebee's wants more of its restaurants to use customer centers.

Onosys, a software company that helps restaurant chains set up digital ordering systems, receives far more inquiries to customer centers than before.

Last year, only about 5% of new customers were interested in the service, said Ryan Younker, technology manager at Onosys. But over the last six to 12 months, “at least 25% of our incoming … questions are either solely for a call center or for online ordering and call center,” he said.

A few things are running restaurants to consider outsourcing phone orders.

First, there is the sticky increase in demand for to-go meals. During the pandemic, customers switched to delivery and collection, and many have kept the habit. Most people who order meals outside the place use an app or website to place these orders – but not all.

In the last year, about 8% of restaurant consumers surveyed by the restaurant consulting firm Technomic said they had placed an order by phone – twice as many as said they had done so before the pandemic.

“Telephone is still a relatively common way for consumers to order, especially for takeaway and especially if they want to work directly with the restaurant,” said David Henkes, senior principal at Technomic.

And then there is the fact that restaurants are still understaffed. The National Restaurant Association said that as of April, bars and restaurants were down 794,000 jobs compared to before the pandemic, a decline of around 6.4%.
“Any role you can think of in a restaurant – there is a shortage,” said Henkes. Without enough working people, every employee takes more responsibility. Taking calls adds more stress to an already difficult job. “Many times that person [answering the phone] juggling two or three other jobs, “he said.
Domino's caters to customer centers.
Domino’s (DPZ), for example, recently said it is struggling with a shortage of drivers across the industry. It uses call centers to help, because they will “allow stores to focus on production and delivery when they have little staff during rush hour,” CEO Russell Weiner said during the April conversation.

Applebee’s is not trying to solve an immediate crisis. Staffing has reached pre-pandemic levels, according to the brand. And Applebee’s started working with external customer centers over three years ago, even before the pandemic hit.

But customer centers allow “our team members to really focus on dinner and restaurant-level execution,” Cywinski said. “I’m always a little worried about team members making a dinner rush … having to stop what they’re doing in the restaurant to pick up a phone to take an order.”

Outsourcing calls “improve our efficiency and enhance the guest experience,” he said. “It’s well worth it if you think about the option cost of an interrupted call or a busy team member putting a guest on hold.”

Ideally, from the brand’s perspective, customers should not even realize they are not talking to an Applebee’s employee.

Or if they do, it’s just because the experience is better.

Thank you for calling Applebee’s

So how does it feel to call an Applebee and reach a call center?

On Thursday afternoon, Applebee’s CEO Melissa Hariri called an Applebee’s location with a customer center to show me how it works. I stayed on the line, muted, as she placed the order, first with an automated system and then with one person.

Hariri called the restaurant and hit number two to place her order using automation. After giving up each item, a robotic female voice repeated it and asked what else she wanted.

On the “children’s hamburger”, however, the smooth process met. “Sorry. I was not able to add a baby burger because there is no alternative in this place. If you need it, you can always ask to be contacted by a representative for more help,” the machine said. Hariri continued with his order.

Right after hanging up, Hariri called back, this time asking to speak with an agent. He was calm and polite. There was no background noise and Hariri was never put on hold.

Hariri ran through her list again. When she got to the kid’s hamburger, the agent asked if she wanted it with or without cheese. She specified – no cheese – and he continued. After a few more items, Hariri asked the agent if the baby burger was available at the restaurant. He confirmed that it was.

Later, Hariri looked at the baby burger deviation, and found out that the restaurant really did not have a baby hamburger on the menu. But it had a cheeseburger for kids.

The agent knew that a cheeseburger without the cheese is a hamburger. The machine apparently did not. “Our team is looking to improve this on the automated side,” said Hariri.

So it still pays to talk to a person, sometimes.

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