Timers: It’s all about the stats

My passion is baseball. Some of my business travel is decided by what games I can attend near my client. My television programming, reading, and Pinterest favorites are skewed toward this great sport. Oddly, I will go to great lengths to avoid social media so as to not encounter spoilers for games I want to watch. And, one of my bucket list items is to visit all the US professional baseball stadiums.

Learning about the rich history of this sport is fascinating and for me, what is most intriguing are the statistics. As a boy, I would spend hours memorizing stats from my prized collection of baseball cards. In those days I followed the RBI’s (runs batted in) of the great players or the ERA (earned run average) of awesome pitchers. Now, with modern baseball, I watch the “save and hold” categories, OBP’s (on-base percentage) and so much more..

I suspect you may be wondering why I’m talking about baseball in an article about drive-thru timers. Stay with me, I’ll get to the point soon.

Maybe you’ll remember the 2011 movie “Moneyball” starring Brad Pitt. The movie was about Billy Beane, the General Manager for Oakland Athletics. The Athletics were a small market team that struggled to compete with the big market teams like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and the LA Dodgers. Billy Beane found his competitive advantage by using statistics to transform his team, one of the poorest in the league, to a serious contender and one of the most consistent franchises.

Enter, the drive-thru timer, one of the tools used by the Billy Beane’s of the QSR industry. This technology collects data from the source and is used to quantify drive-thru performance. By measuring the seconds between triggers and analyzing that data, operators are learning to be competitive by evolving in higher efficiency and increasing productivity.

Most drive-thru crews see the timer as this graphical display hanging on the wall providing a visual on their efficiency. That is true, but to management teams, the drive-thru timer is much more. It is a computer used to gather information obtained through a series of pulses received on vehicle detector boards (VDB) housed in the timer and headset base stations. System applications are easily configurable producing graphical reports to track specific operational goals. Most systems are now network accessible and allow management real-time access for multiple stores.

Ping! A car arrives up to the speaker post triggering an electrical impulse starting the timer. This impulse is generated when the metal from the vehicle is detected by the pre-formed loops installed in the concrete pad during the construction phase of a store. (When a loop installation is needed after the concrete pad is in place, it is done by making a 5” deep saw cut in the concrete and a loop wire kit is placed into the cut, then sealed with an epoxy sealant.) The loop wires at the speaker post or the service window travel into the building and are directly connected to the vehicles detector board inside the timer and base stations.

The timer is running like a stopwatch accounting for each second it takes the customer to be greeted, finish concurring the order with the 4-year old in the back seat, confirm the order, and the amount of time they remain in the queue as they proceed to the service window. (As a side note, a properly functioning order confirmation display can help shave seconds off this process by providing a visual reference for the customer.)

The customer arrives at the service window and pings another loop installed in the concrete. Now, the timer is measuring the performance at the service window. As the car drives off the pad, the timer has collected the data it needs and stores it in the back office for the operator to analyze. (Another side note, with the new trend toward mobile orders, imagine how much time is saved with orders already decided, be fulfilled already paid or online.)

You now have a high-level understanding of how the whole timer process comes together, what about maintaining your timer equipment? Unfortunately, there are no preventative maintenance best practices for timer issues. Most problems are just related to internal technology (IT) and aging equipment.

Symptoms of your equipment defaulting are often seen as polling issue, which is an error with the back-of-the-house software or even with outside parties. Another symptom is “ghost cars” or “timer run-on”. That is when your display is counting and you do not have an actual vehicle in the lane. Most newer timer models are designed to remove ghost cars from polling data.

Not if, but when a timer system component throws you a curve ball it is most likely the controller unit, a display unit, or in some of the older units, printer issues. Vehicle detector boards (VDB) rarely default. With a quick call to an industry drive-thru service provider, components can easily be replaced at the store level. (Insider note, most service providers have “Advance Exchange” programs to get your component in-house quickly, however, most charge any additional fees to clients to participate in the program. Wayne provides this helpful service without fees).

One last place your timer might strike out is at the loop. In Phoenix, pavement can reach temperatures at more than 150 degrees with the complete opposite peril of sub-zero temperatures in Michigan. Whether your technology baking in the sun or salt, ice and snow are seeping into cracks, regional climates playing a big part in failures. The lifespan of a loop is around 5-7 years. (Hint: Take notice cracks in the pavement or breakdown of the epoxy, when you find them it won’t be long before you’ll hear a little static in your communicators.) When the loop is exposed to the elements, the fix is to have your service provider rework your saw-cut, replace the loop, and reseal the opening.

In the QSR industry, it is well known that many of the quick service brands claim the drive-thru is the source for as much as 60-75% of a store’s revenue, all based on the premise to conveniently create and fill a customer’s product order with both speed and accuracy.

Do you think a timer provides a good return on your investment? If you install a timer, how will you apply what you learn through the sets of statistics collected by this tool? Is there such a thing as too much data?

Timers are computers so you can customize the program to display only the data you the way you want to view it. As an example, suppose you want to eliminate “greet time”, that’s the time your customer is at the menu board before they are greeted, the system can be programmed to collect and stored weekly, versus daily. Maybe what is important to your operation “number of cars during this window”, “total time” or “service time”, just program accordingly.

Some timer systems are cloud-based, allowing competition between stores in real-time, which is great for morale, but is it necessary for what you are trying to achieve?

All this data shows you how to trim seconds off the interaction you have with your customer. One must wonder if rushing your customer through the drive-thru is the best form of customer service, or maybe it is better to slow down and spend time with the customer ensuring their experience in your drive-thru is also casting a bright on your brand.

The drive-thru timer is the ultimate stopwatch to check your processes and hit home runs with business goals, but the company management style ultimately decides if you’ll actually use the data. Efficiency and effectiveness come with different definitions depending on which team you play for when you are in the hospitality business.


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