July 8, 2019 | by S.A. Whitehead
A disengaged teenage fast food employee blurting out, "Do you want fries with that?" was once the limit of customer engagement and upselling for most QSRs. It never worked very well, so it's little wonder that when restaurant tech offered something better, restaurant leaders were quick to respond.
And today, everything from Big Data to artificial intelligence is informing the upselling that is now more likely to come from a mobile app or a drive-thru menu board than the actual carbon-based life forms behind the QSR counters and drive-thru windows.
Likewise, with huge QSR brands like McDonald's plunking down cash in the $300 million range on decision logic tech companies like Dynamic Yield to support the burger brand's AI-assisted upselling and customer personalization efforts, you can bet that tech-assisted selling is only going to grow more common.
But at what point does it all become a little too much?After all, whether suggestive selling via customers loyalty apps or technology that "recognizes" the phone that loyalty app was downloaded on as customers enter QSRs, all of it ultimately depends on data. Lots and lots of data about individual customer's online habits being collected and stored all the time everywhere we all go.
And that, according to a lot of consumers, is well, kind of creepy.
A crash course in 'creepy' techOne woman who looks at data of all kinds most of the days of her life in order to gauge restaurant industry trends is the president of restaurant trends think tank, Culinary Tides, Suzy Badaracco. In an interview with this website, Badaracco said customers definitely have some issues with the way restaurateurs and other retailers obtain and use their data.
In fact, she said if she had to rank things like consumer privacy and brand transparency in order of greatest concern for most Americans, she would say restaurant customers are most concerned about the overall privacy of the data they share, followed closely by concerns around the secondary use of such data. Issues like a given brand's transparency about ownership and operational practices, which have received a lot of media attention, as well as a brand's food sources and preparation details, would probably be less concerning to restaurant consumers, she said.
Perhaps more importantly in Badarracco's mind, is that restaurant brands don't seem to be "on the bus" when it comes to understanding these concerns among their patrons.
"Consumers want a voice in how the information is used. ..." she said. "They do understand they are being tracked, but it varies on if they understand how this is being done exactly. They are willing to trade personal data but only if they get something in return."
For instance, she said the data around how Americans use restaurant apps or other restaurant-affiliated online tools, shows that currently diners don't really seem to have a good understanding of how brands work with and use their data. Most diners just want the brand to make sure their apps and other online tools work well, primarily, to get what they want to order with as little time and inconvenience as possible. But beyond those needs, she said, customers do get a little "creeped out" if and when they learn brands are digging deeper into their dining doings.
"There is a sliding scale of creepy — face recognition — creepy, recognizing a previous order — less creepy, ordering takeout through app — not creepy," she said.
For instance, research performed by Oracle NetSuite, Wakefield Research and The Retail Doctor indicates that there's something of a disconnect between all types of retail executives, including restaurateurs, and consumers related to this subject, with 73% of executives thinking retail environments, in general — including restaurants — have become more inviting over the last five years. The problem is that the same study found only 45% of consumers thought so.
"Consumers are not interested in speaking with robots while shopping in-store or online. ..." said a line from the research report. "Despite significant investments in enhancing the customer experience online and in-store, retailers are not able to keep up with rapidly changing customer expectations and this is creating a huge disconnect. ... Seventy-nine percent of retail executives believe chatbots are meeting consumer needs. Two-thirds of consumers (66 percent) disagree, with respondents noting that chatbots are currently more damaging to the shopping experience than helpful."
And the dichotomy continues with other tech-associated findings in the report, including:
Cowboy Chicken's decidedly un-'creepy' approachAt the chicken chain, however, President Sean Kennedy said his brand approaches its use of tech and customer data with one notion foremost in mind: To know the customer is to love and respect them and their data.
"The simplest way to explain the base principal of the digital ad strategy is to 'Know The Customer.' This is the strategy that underlies the keyword phrases which we've selected for SEO, as well as the paid ad campaigns which have been implemented," Kennedy said in an interview.
"Content opportunities are finite, and ad dollars are budgeted, so we have to be smart about the way that we're reaching the customer base. Through website analytics, audience segmentation, buyer intents, and other indicative data, we're able to gain an understanding of what resonates with the customer base and continue to optimize around these strategies based on results-driven reporting."
Kennedy said the brand also feels this approach is absolutely essential to a personalized customer engagement experience that reaches customers right when they're trying to decide where and what to eat.
"This has led to experimentation with platforms like Waze advertising, as well as plans to implement re-marketing initiatives," he said, by way of example. "We're continually evaluating ways to effectively reach the customer base."
But when it comes to the dollar-magnet for tech at the chicken brand, the chain's app is where it's at. Kennedy said he sees it as both a strict marketing tool and customer retention and loyalty platform because it taps into the brand's customers' daily experience.
Then, as far as customer-tracking and message personalization tools used by his brand, Kennedy said the app comes first, followed by email marketing and re-marketing via search and display ads.
"In addition to the app, search marketing has been a critical tool for us as it allows us to do intent-based advertising and track this ad spend to directly measure impact in terms of revenue," he said.
As far as "creeping" customers out with the brand's use of tech and digitally based marketing practices, Kennedy said he rests easy knowing that the brand's platforms are easy to opt in and out of. Likewise, he points out that Cowboy's unsubscribe rates are lower than the restaurant industry average.
With 100,000 people currently enrolled in the brand's "Campfire Email club" and 50,000 in its loyalty program, it would seem Cowboy's Chicken has managed to strike something of a sweet spot between being intrusive and truly communicating with customers in an honest, seemingly non-manipulative way.
"Consumer concerns regarding transparency and data use are always a key consideration when making marketing decisions," Kennedy said. "We want to be as personalized as possible with our messages and offers, but we want to do so in a way where the personalization is done responsibly and with avenues where the customer can opt-out if they choose to."
By way of example, Kennedy — who could be identified as a Gen-X-er — said he hates getting text from brands, but that's why his brand offers options. He said the biggest users of Cowboy Chicken's SMS platform, for instance, are between 18-24. It might not be right for him, but it is right up the Gen Z-er and late millennial's alley.
He added that the company's email adherents, however, fall mostly in that 35 to 54 age range, while app users run the gamut from 18 to 65. The point is, the brand offers the options, so participating in its tech has some measure of control for the patron. And, a sense of control, well that may be the one thing we all want more of these days.
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