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Customer Experience 2020: Building Connections And Driving Traffic In The Age Of Intelligent Search

In a panel discussion at Brand Innovators' Dallas summit, execs from Brinker International, Taco Bueno, and On The Border talked thinking 'beyond omnichannel.'

Over 77 percent of U.S. adults own a smartphone, which means that “mobile consumers” aren’t a segment — they’re essentially the population itself. As such, it’s past time for marketers to think about crafting personalized messages tailored for consumers, not their devices — and to prepare for the next wave of disruption: intelligent search.

In a panel discussion at Brand Innovators Dallas, GeoMarketing talked with execs from Brinker International (Chili’s), Taco Bueno, and On The Border to talk about how fast-casual chain’s and QSRs are addressing this “new world order.”

GeoMarketing: The path to purchase is no longer linear — and neither is the loyalty experience. How are you addressing that build a one-to-one connection across devices and bring people into your restaurants?

Sarah Beddoe CMO at Taco Bueno: Being in QSR, the thought process probably doesn’t kick-in for someone to come to our restaurants until mealtime hits. So, for us, it’s more about consistently educating about our brand, where we are, and being relevant where we know our consumer is. So, for example, as I think about omnichannel and communicating with our consumers, our job is to keep our story relevant in each one of the channels. So we talk a lot about who we are and what makes us different; we are a very small chain in a very saturated, and ver competitive, category in Mexican QSR. So, it’s our job to be talking about our points of difference throughout all of our different channels so that when consumers are thinking about making the decision for mealtime, it’s top of mind and they know a little bit more about Taco Bueno.

Essentially, it’s not just communicating offers and deals, but [highlighting] the reason why Taco Bueno is the decision you want to make — especially given that we’re not on every street corner.

Wade Allen, VP Brand & Digital Innovation, Brinker International:  Two things: 1) I have watched Domino’s really closely. They got their core product right, and then they went after every channel on the approach. I admire them, and I’ve actually taken a page out of their book: Open up every possible channel for consumer to use for purchase. So if that’s online, if that’s through the app, if that’s in the restaurant — it’s all equal. The more frictionless the experience, and the more open channels [there are] for people to order on, the better opportunity we have.

I think the other thing that that then creates is this: You have to make sure you have contextual marketing and you know your guests, because if I’m making an online order, and then I pop into the restaurant, and you don’t know — or can’t connect me — there’s a massive disconnect. So, what we’ve tried to do with our team — whether it’s through our loyalty program, or the way that we do our coupons, or any bread crumb of data — is tie back to an experience through a unique key, and then determine, behaviorally, how a customer has actually used our restaurant.

We also have tablets on the table. Those tablets have given us an enormous amount of feedback from our guests, and we can also tie that back to the consumer. We’re building real-time systems so that we can immediately communicate to them in a relevant way, again, contextually. So we know that you complained on social media on this particular night and there’s a problem; we’re going to immediately address that before we just throw you a coupon that says, “Hey, come back and get a kids eat free meal,” right? If they’re mad about something else, we can address that upset first. So, I’d say that contextual marketing, awareness of the customer, and really being on all the time in all the channels is what’s key.

“Omnichannel” is simultaneously a hot topic and a buzzword that has fallen out of favor in some circles. What does “thinking omnichannel” mean to you? How do you build an experience that is based on a personal connection, not a device? 

Sarah:  ‘Omnichannel’ truly is just a buzzword. I think about it a bit more simply: I’m a consumer, and I don’t like being hit with different messages from different channels — because I’m the same consumer, and I just happen to be touching all these different channels. So, for me, I think about it as, “let’s make sure we’re messaging consistently across all channels.”

For example, I don’t want to hit a consumer with an offer in an e-mail, and then have a conflicting offer in Facebook, and then have a conflicting message on television. That’s not always what happens, but it’s just about making sure that the experience and the communication we’re sending to consumers is consistent across the board.  I think Domino’s does the best job of this: They message one thing, and one thing only, and they contour their message to the channel that they’re talking in.

As of now, we spend roughly 50 percent, of our paid media budget on digital. We spend the majority of that on Facebook, just because we know our consumer is already looking for offers, deals, and information on Facebook. So, our goal is to go towards them, where they are right now. Long-term, I think there are other places that we can be as well.

Wade: I don’t believe the buzzword. I believe that our consumers, at the end of the day, are guests in our restaurants. I watch my wife, for example — she’s the quintessential customer for us. She’s got four little kids, she’s running all day long, and then she stops into our restaurants.

She’s always on her mobile device, but sometimes she’s on her computer at home, too, and she is the same customer, regardless of the channel. We have to stop looking at people through the channel lens and start looking at people through the “people lens.”

Specifically to Chili’s, we believe that the way to do that is data. It’s really about getting the systems in place so that we can have the trackability and visibility of how our guests shop and purchase.

Sarah, to the comment you made earlier about consistency of message — I think that’s really important when you don’t have all that data. But the next level you go to is, now how do you make it truly relevant, personalized, and contextual for that individual, given the channels that you have? You absolutely want to talk to an individual based on the last communication you sent them, regardless of the channel.

Amanda Corral, Head of Digital Marketing, On The Border: Yes, I totally agree. You need to be always on in all these channels that consumers want to use to interact with you.

For us, for example, we have different “occasions” that we look at. Our biggest is our dine-in occasion, obviously, and we see a lot of interaction with mobile prior to a dine-in occasion. So, e-mail, social media, et cetera makes sense for communicating with these guests.

But we also have our to-go option, as well as our catering world — and to-go, for us, is heavily mobile, while catering orders [are largely placed] on desktop.

So, I think the next step for us is truly bringing that personalization into all of these channels by understanding how guests use them [for different occasions]. I don’t know what the next new buzzword for that’s going to be — but we’ll figure it out.

Amanda, you mentioned that you see a difference in how your customers engage with you when they place to-go orders versus larger catering orders. On a macro level, how do you all see your customers engaging with you today? Are there preferred channels for different people and different occasions? And how has this shifted over the past several years?

Sarah: In QSR, we’ve seen a migration to delivery. We are a drive-thru business. 70 percent of our business goes through the drive-thru, 30 percent is actually dine-in. Now, we are seeing a peel-off of the delivery into third-party [mobile] orders— so we are partnering with DoorDash, Grubhub, UberEATS, and now our competitive set is anyone who has food. We compete with Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, High Five, any restaurant, because they all deliver. So I think our process on how we compete in the marketplace has completely been disrupted.

The thing that slightly concerns me, which is where we’ve had to really focus, is that the experience is no longer in our control. For example, as soon as “Susie” drives through the drive-thru and gets her seven tacos, our team is responsible for what Susie drives home with. On the other hand, when Mike from UberEATS goes to pick up seven tacos and six burritos and delivers them to Susie’s home, I am no longer in control, but I am 100 percent responsible. So the experience that our consumers are having, with the invention of delivery, is really changing how we think about the delivery of our product experience. Because, ultimately, they will not discredit Uber, they will discredit Taco Bueno.

Amanda: I would say the same. It’s been very disruptive because the Amazons of the world shook up all the retailers first. Restaurants were not a part of that for a while, until UberEATS, et cetera came into the world.

So now consumers are wanting that restaurant-quality food in the experience that they’re getting through Uber, through Amazon, and things like that. So, that’s been something we’ve been working on as well with a lot of these new partners and making sure that your restaurant is seen as a player in that space.

Wade: Delivery is the tangible example of how both interaction [and] expectations have changed. If you can click a button [on your smartphone] and get something delivered to your house from Amazon on the 24th of December, as a last-minute gift, then you should damn well be able to get into a restaurant and get out, with hot food, without a problem. Right? Or it better be delivered to my house or walked out to my car — that’s the expectation today.

So, that expectation has been massively raised, and it’s going to continue to get hotter and hotter for retailers and the hospitality industry. So, delivery is one element. We’re also looking at pre-order, the ability to pre-order your food and consume it where and when you want, whether it’s on-premise or off-premise.

And lastly, I think another thing that’s going to be massively disruptive is intelligent search. It’s going hit us in a big way. I think if you’re stuck in thinking in the world of apps, Google has some news for you. The world is going to be transacting on the search engine — and never even get to people’s websites. Or people are going to be transacting in voice, and I think that’s going to shock a lot of companies.

Wade, thank you for going right to my next question. Connected device usage has jumped 130 percent over the past year, with voice searches skyrocketing. How are you thinking about the age of voice and intelligent search? 

Sarah: I’m going to be really honest: We’re not thinking about intelligent search yet. The reality is, for a bit, it was gimmicky; Alexa was just this really cool toy that we all got for Christmas.

Right now, we’re starting out by optimizing our search and making sure we’re relevant, and we’re coming up, and our data’s clean, and customers know where are stores are. Because, at the end of the day, that barrier is ultimately if people can find [your business] or not. That’s problematic. So I think we’re probably in the first stages of getting that up and running, but it’s top on our minds.

Wade: Getting the ground floor [of your digital presence] built up so that customers can find your location pins on Google and different places, is a must. I’ve had a chance to talk with some pretty innovative people at Google, and the comments that have been made to me put me in check a little bit. One of the things that they said is, “Our goal, in less than 10 years, is to never have a consumer leave our search engine page. We want it to be able for them to find it, transact, find the location, and have the food delivered all in that one capacity. Yeah, if they have to go to the restaurant, great, but our intention is not to direct to a webpage.”

And they’re working feverishly to make that happen. What that tells me is that, again, we are creatures of wanting frictionless experiences, and if something is easier, then we’ll then adopt it. Voice ordering is a hell of a lot easier than trying to type into your browser, and so it’s coming. It’s coming through Siri, it’s coming through Alexa, it’s coming through Google Home, it’s coming through Cortana.

It’s going to happen, and so in order to combat that, as retailers and as brands, we have to get our underpinning data layer ready to be consumed across any mechanism. Otherwise you’re going to be stuck spending a ton of time building an app, only for apps to be forgotten in a certain period of time. You heard it from me.