How technology expands the customer experience beyond the restaurant

June 11, 2014 | by Alicia Kelso

Technology's “consumerization” is driving guests to demand a more frictionless relationship with their favorite brands. It is also giving those brands an ability to develop a one-on-one relationship with their guests for the first time ever, according to Caleb Mitsvotai, senior manager of IT Innovation and Technology Strategies at Panda Restaurant Group.

Mitsvotai was joined by IT execs Don Long, from White Castle, and Jeff Weiss, from Dave & Buster’s, at last month’s NRA Show to provide a roadmap on how to navigate new technology in order to enhance the in-store experience. Richard Crone, CEO of Crone Consulting, also pitched in, claiming the mobile experience has five trigger points that restaurant operators need to keep in mind when creating a strategy:

  • Restaurant discovery and online pre-ordering;
  • Check-in, menu preview and data-driven offers;
  • In-restaurant and table-mobile interaction;
  • Mobile payment and check out. “This is the moment of truth; this is why we rendered the service. We want to get paid and mobile payment in-store has real opportunity,” Crone said.
  • E-receipts, social sharing and promotions.

There is a long list of third party providers that can help restaurant operators build their own customer management platform, such as GrubHub and Google, but Crone warns that you don’t want those vendors to directly manage that relationship.

“The one who enrolls the customer for an online interaction will control the database and the data that comes with it,” he said. “You want to look for tech connections – ideally mobile connections – that you yourself can make with the customer.”

Examples of how to use technology to influence trigger points

Mitsvotai, Weiss and Long offered examples on how their specific brands are using and developing technology to influence the trigger points. White Castle developed its own app after finding it was easier to set up products, pricing, coupons, etc., through its enterprise system, with some coding help from its POS provider.

“We have everything integrated. It’s important that we have the ability to interface the information in our systems and get it right,” Long said.

Panda is in a pilot mobile app phase and Mitsvotai said the platform is aimed at the brand’s most loyal customers.

“Those are the ones who are going to download the app and they’re worth nine times more than an average customer, so we want to make it a perfect experience for them,” he said. “We don’t want a third party intermediary app doing the analytics on our best customers.”

Weiss said the most important detail for Dave and Buster’s was making sure the payment is secured and the brand is attempting to remove the middleman (server) from handling the credit card payment process. The company also uses kiosks, which were installed about eight years ago.

“Everyone told us not to install machines, that they won’t provide good service. But we learned that not only do our customers not mind the machines, the machines upsell better than over 50 percent of our servers,” Weiss said. “A lot of ROI comes from that upselling.”

Pros and cons

There are numerous benefits when it comes to developing a robust mobile platform for your brand. They include the frictionless relationship Mitsvotai described, as well as the ability to mine consumer data.

“We now know their behaviors and can have an influence on those behaviors and extend their experience beyond brick and mortar,” Mitsvotai added. “If you have a guest coming in three times a week for lunch, that’s a really loyal guest. But if they never come in for dinner, then you can target them and give them incentives to do so. You already know they love your food and experience.”

Long said mobile technology also expedites service, particularly when a customer orders a Crave case (30 Sliders) at the drive-thru. Those who order through White Castle’s mobile app also spend more. A lot more.

“Our average check is $6. Our mobile average is $27,” he said.

The major “con” on the list presents itself if the app isn’t done right.

“If it doesn’t work, the customer will delete it and likely delete the experience,” Mitsvotai said.

Patience then becomes a virtue with app development, as a majority of food orders are moving to mobile.

“If you expect to connect with the best customers, and connect with them more than once, you need a mobile app. That is where you’re going to build your database and your loyalty,” Crone said.

Which wallet will win?

Which type of app you go with depends on your brand and your customer. It’s important to note, for example, that just because Starbucks has had much success with its mobile presence, that doesn’t mean your brand should emulate its characteristics. Having a pre-loaded gift card payment opportunity saves the merchant a small percentage per transaction, however that doesn't mean automatic consumer adoption.

“I like the prepaid gift card advantages, but that doesn’t mean it should be the only payment tender in your app,” Mitsvotai said. "I want as many customers to download this as possible and if I just offer the gift card, will people avoid that?”

Long said White Castle is pursuing electronic gift cards, but “something has to evolve” with payment technology before they go full speed ahead.

“Our customers aren’t the same as Starbucks’ customers. They don’t come in every day. When you have a technology – NFC – that isn’t supported by Apple, it makes us not want to lead the bandwagon,” he said. “We’ve been looking for vendors that will support different technologies and just trying to get to where our customer can communicate with us more.”

Mitsvotai said it shouldn’t matter to restaurant operators which mobile wallet technology emerges as the winner.

“That’s not what it’s about. It’s about getting data on my customers and creating a genuine value-add app,” he said. “It’s a win-win – I can know more about them and target their campaigns, and I can extend their experience so they can love me more.”

Photo provided by Wikipedia.

Topics: Customer Service / Experience, Mobile Payments, Online / Mobile / Social

Alicia Kelso
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine. View Alicia Kelso's profile on LinkedIn

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