KFC pushing new technology for its workers

The chicken chain is testing voice-activated technology, social media and QR codes to improve training and the work environment.
Photograph courtesy of KFC

A lot of the focus in the restaurant business right now is on consumer-facing technology, and for good reason. Consumers like using their phones and other devices, and it only makes sense they’d want to use them in connection with restaurants.

But employees like using them, too. And in KFC’s case, the company is finding that employee-facing technology can help as well.

That’s why the Louisville, Ky.-based chicken chain is testing a number of technology strategies aimed at workers. Executives there believe they can improve the work environment inside their stores while helping with training, which in turn can help improve customer service.

“The customer experience can never exceed the employee experience,” said Ryan Ostrom, KFC’s chief digital officer. “We want to make every day easy and rewarding for team members.”

Doing so, he said, “creates more consistent products for our customers. When employees are better-trained and more efficient, the more consistent our hand-breaded chicken is around the world.”

Labor is a major challenge for the restaurant industry, and especially quick-service chains like KFC, which has to employ a lot of people but make a profit off of relatively inexpensive food.

As such, the industry relies on young people to staff its restaurants.

Those young people are increasingly tech-savvy. And at a time when demand for labor is high, technology can be a key element in recruitment. “It’s becoming table stakes as you’re dealing with millennials,” Ostrom said, noting that by 2020, 80% of the company’s workforce will be millennials.

KFC is testing three new forms of technology. One is a voice-activated training test that the company has started at its restaurants in Australia and some restaurants in the U.S.

The program uses an Amazon Echo Show to help train employees, allowing them to ask questions and watch videos while they’re performing tasks. “It provides the associate the ability, for instance when their hands are deep in flour, to ask questions like, ‘How do I put chicken on the rack?’” Ostrom said.

Or if they’re packing a box, they can simply ask the Echo Show for a video of how to pack the box properly.

The company’s digital team worked with operations to find out the 100 most frequently asked questions in the kitchen. “It helps associates learn on the job,” Ostrom said. “Since we are about hand-breaded chicken, making the product in the back of the house, it’s important to have your hands free.”

The system is still in testing, and Ostrom said the company is “trying to optimize the solution” as it determines the test results and looks for ways to roll it out to other restaurants.

“There’s a big opportunity in the voice space,” he said.

Social media is another opportunity. Much of KFC’s younger workers were “born and raised on technology and mobile platforms and communicate socially.”

KFC’s locations in Australia have started using social media networks, notably Yammer, to communicate with one another.

That’s not just within stores, but within entire markets. “They can share ideas, ask questions and also have a little fun,” Ostrom said.

That fun includes weekly contests on things such as speed. Stores within markets can compete with one another, which can build team morale within stores.

The system has grown rapidly, from 2,500 workers on the system in 2015 to 24,000 now. “If one store is running out of something, they can ask if they can borrow from another store,” Ostrom said. “Or they can ask how others are executing certain promotions or innovation launches. It allows silos to be broken down.”

The company is also testing QR codes at its restaurants in Russia that enable workers to scan the codes with their phones and get information or videos to help with training. “Instead of associates asking questions, they can quickly pull out their phones and see a short video of how to use machinery, how to set up or how to close,” Ostrom said. “It’s using team members’ own phones and getting strong results, creating consistent products.”

“We know the customer experience can’t exceed employee experience,” he added. “We need to create technology in the kitchen and the stores to make training easier and improve team members’ experience.”

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