10/17/11 – Alicia Kelso
Some Culver’s franchisees are taking a proactive approach in accommodating their guests with hearing impairments.
About 60 operators in the 440-unit chain have implemented Order Assist, a drive-thru system that makes it easier for those with hearing loss to place their orders.
It is expected all new company restaurants will include the system, according to Paul Pitas, director of public relations and communications at Culver’s.
Bettering employee and customer experiences
Order Assist, created by Inclusion Solutions, is available at other independent restaurants, but Culver’s is the first chain to offer it as an opt-in for
franchisees. It began doing so about five years ago after Founder and CEO Craig Culver learned about the system and decided it made sense for business, and also helped with employee and customer experiences.
“We know the hearing impaired have trouble at drive-thrus. It is stressful for them and it can be confusing to our team members. This is an opportunity
both to provide better service and a better experience for our customers who are hearing impaired,” Pitas said, adding that some Culver’s units get as
many as 15 to 30 deaf or hearing impaired customers a week.
The system costs about $750 per unit and comes with an Inclusion Solutions-patented “BigBell,” receiver, order pad and employee training. The BigBell alerts staff that a customer will be pulling forward to order in an alternative way. (In addition to offering ordering solutions for the hearing impaired, Order
Assist also provides translation for Spanish-speaking customers, something Culver’s also utilizes).
Once at the window, customers are given an order form that includes location-specific menus and prices.
“It’s pretty simple and efficient, and it doesn’t break the bank. Our franchisees see the benefit because it eliminates an awkwardness that was prevalent.
We need to make sure we take care of all of our guests and this is just another way to do that,” Pitas said.
Research behind the launch
Patrick Hughes founded Inclusion Solutions in 2000. The company initially offered the BigBell, which alerts employees at any business that assistance is needed at the point of entry, and BallotCall, which improves the accessibility of polling places.
A few years later, Hughes researched the level of accessibility needs in the restaurant industry by conducting a survey of 6,500 consumers who are deaf
or hard of hearing.
“I had never thought of it before and the results were shocking. Drive-thrus just don’t work for deaf people and a lot of them feel like it’s off limits
to them. But they want to be able to use a drive-thru just like the rest of us because it’s quicker and more convenient,” Hughes said.
In the Inclusion Solutions’ survey, 42 percent of hearing impaired respondents said they left a drive-thru experience without making a purchase because
they were frustrated with the experience. Hughes said this result is bad for business both from a financial and a reputational perspective.
Making financial, reputational sense
To underscore the benefit such accessibility would have on the bottom line, more than 94 percent of Inclusion Solutions’ survey respondents indicated they would be highly likely to visit a restaurant that put in such a drive-thru system for persons who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“If we start to fix these markets’ access – the disability and the senior markets – it will help tremendously with the bottom line. Usually this crowd isn’t
eating alone, so if accommodations are made, you’re going to get $2 instead of $1,” Hughes said.
Pitas said although it’s too difficult to pinpoint quantifiable results from having Order Assist in place, the addition has been positive, especially since
the drive-thru generates almost half of Culver’s entire business.
“The drive-thru is huge. That’s why this system has worked for us and it’s very important,” Pitas said.
Mike Baskin, VP of sales and operations at Inclusion Solutions, said a positive ROI will also come from the message it sends to customers to have something like this in place.
“There are 2 million people in the U.S. who are completely deaf and 28 million who are impaired in hearing. One of six families has a member of the family with a disability; thus one of six families walking into your restaurant will see a powerful, emotional reason to connect to your franchise, beyond the food you serve,” he said. “Reputational marketing is hard to quantify, but it’s invaluable.”
Will other brands catch on?
Hughes is trying to make the system available at other chains and also trying to shed more light on the issue of accessibility across the industry.
He recently met with Dawn Sweeney, National Restaurant Association president and CEO, to discuss ways the industry can better accommodate disabled customers.
Although Sweeney won’t comment about specific products or companies, Hughes said the meeting was positive and productive.
“The restaurant and hospitality industry is always interested in technological developments that create greater accessibility for consumers,” Sweeney added.
The system is starting to trickle into drive-thrus in Canada. Mark Wafer, a Tim Hortons’ franchisee in the Toronto area, recently installed the Order Assist
system at four of his seven units. The rollout comes as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act takes hold, mandating accessibility features
According to David Segal, head of marketing at National Quality Institute’s People Access, which consulted Wafer on the Order Assist addition, these Tim
Horton units are currently collecting data to present to the brand’s corporate office for possible adoption systemwide.
“Principally speaking, Ontario is the only province with this accessibility law in place (in Canada). It’s blazing a lot of trails and this Tim Hortons
franchisee is leading the way. The challenge is getting the word out about how this affects businesses for the better by generating new customers and retaining employees,” Segal said. “Compliance isn’t intimidating or over-legislative, but rather socially responsible and good for business.”
The big three
Since the mid-1990s, McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s
have had to defend themselves against lawsuits brought forth specifically from their lack of drive-thru accommodations for hearing-impaired customers.
The cases all claimed the QSR giants were in violation of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and have since been settled. In the Burger King case, the chain agreed to test electronic ordering devices and provide menu order forms at some of its restaurants to accommodate the hearing-impaired.
Requests for an update about that test, as well as comments from the other two brands, were not returned. However, in the past, many chains have pointed at their picture-heavy menus as examples of accessibility. Wendy’s
noted after its lawsuit that the company has long used pencils/pads to facilitate the ordering process for the hearing impaired.
To see a Video on how it works visit the link below.