Late! So we ate! …Service challenges of on-line food ordering

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

Eight minutes. That is the time given by the food ordering service to its drivers to wait for a customer to call once the driver or rider is at the specific GPS pinpoint location agreed. A micro-second after that and the driver can “dispose” of the food in whatever way he or she so wishes. “Dispose” in this case could mean a lot of things, including doing justice to the food. In fact, for some services, the phrase used is “the driver can do as they please with any food items.”

This was exactly what was playing out when the gentleman angrily, and hungrily, walked out into the yard of the office complex looking for the rider bringing his food. After about a minute or so, he spied a gentleman sitting on a branded motorcycle in the corner of the parking lot. This had to be the bearer of his food. He was however intrigued that the rider had his face to the wall and his backed turned to the entrance. That was odd, he thought to himself.

The hungry customer walked towards the rider and as he got close enough, he caught the rider’s attention with an “Excuse me”. The rider turned to face the voice and that was when the hungry customer saw a sight he would struggle to get out of his mind for a long time to come. Because right before his eyes, he saw the rider eating the food, his food, the food he had ordered and paid for. The shock was so unbearable, for a brief moment, the customer was rendered speechless. What ensued between the hungry customer and the rider who was consuming his food could easily have been a scene from Jerry Springer.

Restaurants and the drivers they send to deliver food to customers—as well as the developers of apps used in ordering food online—need to know that they are not dealing with “normal” customers. A hungry customer is an angry customer. This therefore means that the one’s patience would, in all likelihood, ran out quicker than normal. Even if a customer was not particularly hungry when she ordered the food, Pavlov’s experiment tells us that the thought of the food arriving alone can make the customer hungry. This is why when it comes to food orders, tempers can flare up so easily.

The number of unpleasant incidents involving food delivery dispatch riders cum drivers and customers is all too common. There are several reports of drivers cancelling orders just before the customers got to them. With no regard for the challenges that we face in this country with directional signs and even our much-touted GhanaPost GPS, food service dispatch riders have been accused of intentionally cancelling orders just so that they get to eat the food.

Dispatch riders do not take this lying down. There are many who argue that almost all cancellations are due to the customer’s fault.

“I call no one answers. I text they do not respond. What do you want me to do, sir? I can’t stay all day at one spot because of a pack of food. There are other places I have to be.”  

“I am supposed to see you at the pickup point with your phone in hand. When I don’t see you at this point, I will call. If you don’t pick up the call, I will send you a message. Because I know there are some people who don’t pick calls from unknown numbers. If after all this, I don’t get a response from you, what should I do?”

“Boss, time is money oooo. If after the 8 minutes I don’t get a response, that is it. Me, I get paid for the trip and I am instructed to dispose of the food. If it is a food I like, I will eat it. If don’t like I will give it to someone. That is the life!”

With counter arguments like that it becomes very difficult to blame these drivers and riders. They also have commitments. They cannot truly wait on one customer for hours. Besides, these riders and drivers are also working with rules. Therefore, no matter how much they would want to get the food in the hands of the customer, rules are rules and rules must be obeyed.

There is one thing those in the online food ordering space need to know. It is what I call The Principle of Assumed Ownership. In the very instance a customer orders for food, and the food is dispatched, the customer assumes ownership of that food. It does not matter that the food has not gotten into the customer’s hands. As far as the customer is concerned, the dispatch rider is bringing “her food”. So you can imagine the customer’s anger when she comes to meet a rider eating “her food”.

It is a failure to appreciate these basic things that causes so many issues between eateries and the customers they desire to serve. In my experience, customer service is really about understanding the way people think. It is about human nature. The business that is better able to understand the way its customers think is in the best position to offer the best of services.

On the flip side of the cancellation of orders by riders and drivers is cancellation by the customers themselves. It is also a common phenomenon in the online food ordering business. Customer cancellations occur when a customer feels the order has taken too long in arriving.

A study published in the March 2021 edition of the Journal of Business Research found that the longer the restaurant takes in dispatching the food, the greater the chances of customers cancelling the order. When the customer is informed that the food has been dispatched, chances of cancellation reduces drastically. Just knowing that the food is on its way changes the customer’s attitude. That study was titled, “Longer waiting, more cancellation? Empirical evidence from an on-demand service platform”.

A hungry customer has a very short fuse for waiting for long. The customer will not care if the driver knows the area. The customer would not be bothered about the experience level of the driver. The hungry customer would not even consider the possibility that the driver might have had an accident on the way. All the customer wants is “his or her food”.

What customers do when their food is delayed is not unlike what dispatch riders also do when customers take too long in coming for their foods. Both parties react negatively to long waits. This is why businesses must learn to manage the time between ordering the food and when the food finally gets into the hands of the customer.

One way this can happen is for businesses to inflate the time of waiting. We are told that excellent customer service is about under-promising and over-delivering. If the business knows it would realistically take ten minutes, it would be best if the customer is informed that it would take fifteen or twenty minutes. This sets the customer’s expectations to manageable levels. If the business delivers earlier than the customer expected, the customer would be excited.

By delivering ahead of the customer’s expectation, a business puts itself in a position to win that customer’s business over and over again. There is proof of that. An October 2019 study titled “Faster Deliveries and Smarter Order Assignments for an On-Demand Meal Delivery Platform” found proof that a 10-minute earlier delivery is associated with an increase of one order per month from each customer.

Inflating the time of waiting also helps by catering for any unforeseen challenges that might occur. Anything can happen with food delivery. Too many things can, and sometimes do, go wrong. By inflating the time of waiting, the eatery gives itself an opportunity to right the wrong within the time period.

Studies have shown that there has been an increase in the use of online food ordering apps. Way before the COVID-19 pandemic struck humanity, there was a spike in the number of apps that could be used to order food online. With the advent of the pandemic, the demand shot up drastically. We are heading towards two full years since the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the globe and from the look of things, we might still have to live with this virus for some time to come. Our only prayer is that things should only get better.

News of lockdowns being introduced in other countries does not give much comfort about our immediate future as a people. What this means is that the on-demand food service sub-industry will continue to see an increase in customers. Newer customers will try their hands on using any one of the many food aggregator apps out there. It is in the interest of all the players in the chain to ensure that the experience of each customer is such that the customer would keep coming back for more. Failure to do that and the customer might cancel not just that one order but all future intentions of using that restaurant or app to order for food online.

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