Tracey Fullington, national account manager for SCA Americas-Tork; Baron Concors, global chief digital officer of Pizza Hut; Douglas Kwong, digital director of Cicis Pizza; and Stacy Peterson, chief information officer of Wingstop.
A tech-savvy customer experience is table stakes these days, considering that 28 percent of adults have downloaded a restaurant app over the past three months. The numerous platforms and the plethora of service are overwhelming, however.
Restaurant operators are asking, "Do I need a white-label app or a third-party app?"; "Is there a difference?"; "What about a loyalty app or a payment app?"; "How much does it cost?"; and "Can I have just one app or do I need several?"
Baron Concors, global chief digital officer for Pizza Hut; Douglas Kwong, digital director for Cicis Pizza; Stacy Peterson, chief information officer for Wingstop; and Tracey Fullington of SCA Americas - Tork, discussed these issues March 29 in a session at the inaugural Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit at the Highland Dallas Hotel in Dallas.
"Apps serve a need, but only diehard customers will use it because they have to install it on their device," said Concors. "Most customers order online."
"Unless a customer eats at your restaurant every day, don't underestimate your mobile website," she said. "An app simply helps eliminate wait time."
Kwong, however, is a strong supporter of mobile apps, especially their loyalty program functions, which work well for Cicis Pizza.
"An app is a loyalty program," he said. "At Cicis, if a guest visits five times, their next one is free. Mobile apps provide valuable transaction data on our customers."
Questions to ask
Before choosing a vendor, operators should do their homework.
"Make sure they have the wherewithal to handle everything," Concors said. "Pizza Hut has peak events when the app is used — the Super Bowl, Halloween, the night before Thanksgiving — and we need someone who can handle that."
Another question to ask a vendor is about security.
"They need to be able to work through data security and make sure you're not liable for a data breach," Kwong said.
It's about marketing
Peterson commented that marketing the app is vital.
"How will the app be marketed?" Peteson asked. "Secondly, you have to consider operations, especially with online ordering, which is how most customers place their order."
Making customers aware of the app is important to Cicis Pizza.
"Let customers know it's there," Kwong said. "Also, educate your employees about it and how to answer customers' questions about using it. You cannot over-train."
Restaurant operators also need to be aware of potential trouble spots when utilizing a mobile app.
"Now that mobile apps are an important part of business, you have to retrain your employees about how you thing about your guests," Peterson said.
Concors emphasized the consideration of ordering via a mobile app versus online ordering.
"Is the digital ordering experience (mobile app) easier than the alternative (online ordering)?" he asked. "An app is not the answer to all things. Learn from both. Don't turn your customers over to social platforms only to have your rates raised."
He added that it's critical that your brand publish the mobile app.
"If they change partners, your customers will have to download a new app, and that's confusing."
Mobile apps definitely have benefits for restaurants and their customers.
"It's easier to take an order via an app," Peterson said. "It's a better outcome and experience all around – for the restaurant and customer. It's also financially beneficial in that it's simple."
For Pizza Hut, Concors likes the ability for testing,
"You can learn a lot from your customers," he said. "Also, by using a mobile app, you're much more likely to get an upsell."
Cicis Pizza has benefited from a mobile app's ability to provide insights on customer behavior.
"What time are customers coming in?" Kwong said. "Are they blue-collar, families? You find that out with an app."
How does a mobile app increase efficiency?
Efficiency as a restaurant brand and operator is important to the bottom line. Mobile apps can help with that.
"Look at a customer's ordering behavior," Peterson said. "Anticipate to make it easier for guests to do so."
Pizza Hut wants to be smart about the content it presents people.
"You're not going to put a 'Meat Lovers' pizza in front of someone who always orders a veggie pizza."
Implementation for franchisees
Having a mobile app may be a great idea, but it's a waste of money if franchisees aren't on board with it.
Pizza Hut, for example, requires its franchisees to use the app that the chain rolled out in 2009.
"That's what it took to get franchisees to implement it," he said.
Wingstop also mandated the use of the app.
"It was mandated for 98 percent of our franchisees," Peterson said. "But corporate paid for it for the first three years."
Cicis Pizza's franchisees had a different take on mobile app implementation.
"Our franchisees asked for it," Kwong said. "They knew what they needed to take the brand to the next level."