Just Eat feasts on chatbots to build the ‘greatest digital food marketplace’

Just Eat is investing in tech to secure its future against food disruptors

From choosing the right takeaway to tracking your order, buying food online is becoming as seamless for customers as it is complex for Just Eat to manage, meaning the food service must innovate at every stage of the transaction to keep its expansion costs down.

All businesses have a tipping point when demand becomes too high for its existing staff to manage. However, constantly increasing headcounts as orders grow makes a business “less efficient”, chief operating officer Adrian Blair told The Drum at the Unbound London conference. The solution: bots.

Just Eat’s first chatbot, launched on Facebook Messenger in September of this year, acts as an advisory bot to help people decide what to order, what restaurants to choose from and discover new choices.

Now it is working on a customer service bot that will be integrated directly into its app and website to try ease the volume of traffic its team have to deal with during peak hours. On an average Saturday night in the UK, Just Eat receives well over 400,000 orders in the space of a few hours, according to Blair.

“Food is by its nature very peaky, everyone wants to eat at the same time and that creates huge demand pressure for restaurants and for us it means suddenly there are lots of customer service issues at the same time,” said Blair.

He believes the route to delivering better customer service is by integrating more and more technology at every point in the journey from order to delivery to after care, consequently helping the business scale while “keeping a lid on cost”, replacing the need for as many human assistants.

The bot will be able to respond to simple commands, track orders and offer refunds with the intent to resolving issues quicker than a human can.

“If you have got a problem with your order we should be able to give you an instant answer,” Blair adds.

Despite only seeing “decent” levels of engagement on its Messenger bot, Blair believes it is integral for a brand in a continuously disrupted market to be the first to experiment with new technology, should the case arise when one of these technologies becomes mainstream. Which explains why the brand was the first, and is the only, food partner on Amazon’s voice service Alexa.

“We want to be the market leader in markets of scale in our industry and build the greatest digital food marketplace,” said Blair. To make sure we don't get disrupted we need to be at the forefront of innovation rather than shying away from it. A good example is the platform shift to apps, in 2012 our business was 100% web based. Now 80% of our business is mobile.”

“It is a mug's game trying to predict which platform and customer is going to gravitate to, it is up to the customer to decide. We want Just Eat to be available through every significant channel so we are ready when that happens,” he added.

It’s not just about improving the customer experience; the brand is building tech that helps restaurants cope with demand, such as its piloting of delivery robots and a driver app that intends to make orders easier to handle. It also offers restaurants access to data that outlines local prices and popular food choices in certain postcodes via its Orderpad technology system.

Meanwhile a VR experience it is trialling shows restaurants a birdseye view of their business on a busy Saturday night, to help them understand where orders are coming in, and why problems arise.

To foster innovation in food tech externally the brand announced a startup accelerator in November to assist early stage start-ups in the food tech space through investment, mentoring and business guidance. So far there are five companies on the 10-week programme. It has also set up a new corporate ventures team to look specifically at investment and partnership opportunities with start-ups.

Launched in 2001, Just Eat was the first digital food ordering service of its kind, but now the brand is facing competition from new players such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats promising people speed, variety and affordability that is forcing the old timer to innovate at scale.

In the past year, the online business has tackled new tech head on, trying its hand at delivery bots, chatbots, Amazon Alexa, virtual reality (VR); a broad distribution strategy it hopes will insulate the brand against disruption.

To make the service available through every significant channel, the brand has also has integrated into connected devices including Apple TV, and from today (15 December) Xbox One

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