As a marketing executive, Brandon Coleman III is quite tech-savvy. The self-professed technophile regularly reads tech industry blogs and magazines. He works closely with the technology experts that surround him at Romano’s Macaroni Grill (www.macaronigrill.com), and as CMO for the Dallas-based chain, is currently leading Macaroni Grill’s efforts to roll out a market leading customer relationship management platform.
Coleman is taking a three-phased approach that starts with first amassing data, then linking data to understand trends, and finally, targeting and changing behavior. Technology is the enabler that has already helped the company achieve its phase-one goals. Coleman talks to Hospitality Technology about his vision for CRM in the restaurant industry, and shares a preview of his plans to integrate data from a variety of sources. The results will ultimately influence behavior while delivering a more satisfying and personalized experience to guests.
HT: How successful has the restaurant industry been thus far at customer relationship management efforts?
COLEMAN: The restaurant industry has done an excellent job at making connections with guests and amassing data from sources like email, loyalty programs and cards. The next opportunity lies in connecting the in-store behavior with online behavior and creating a robust profile for each guest that interacts with the brand, in terms of both actual and desired behavior.
HT: Is there anyone out there doing this really well, that could serve as an example to hospitality?
The king of mining consumer data and using it to generate more sales, better leads and more offers is Amazon. When you’re on Amazon.com, they’re constantly recommending things that fit your profile. They are mining data down to the deepest level: what you’ve purchased in the past, what you’re looking at now, what others who purchased that item have also bought. The big piece of it is not only having data, but using it to target offers and new customers.
HT: Amazon is a powerhouse brand, and of course doesn’t have the brick-and-mortar element that restaurants do. Where do restaurant brands start?
It’s a three-phased approach. You’ve got to start small and first amass the data. Generate an email program, collect data from guests, and get Facebook fans and followers. Second, go after linking that information and understanding the behavioral trends. Start leveraging things like Facebook Connect for social graph data, and Facebook Insight. If you have a page, you can dive in and see who is following you, who is engaged with your brand, who promotes your brand, and then you use that information to target those guests. Third and finally, once you’ve watched trends and are able to understand them, only then can you begin to really target and change behaviors.
HT: What’s your ideal scenario for phase-three restaurant CRM? What would you like to know about your guests, and how would you use that information?
I would want to know from the very moment they think about dining, to the actual experience in the restaurant, whether it’s a to-go or in-restaurant experience. To understand that, I’d also want to know guests’ preferences, history, etc., and tailor that experience when they arrive.
For Macaroni Grill, we’d want to know if they like wine, if they like to order desert, if they like appetizers, what items they’ve tried and not tried. We’d want to be able to use that knowledge in our communication, just as Amazon uses that information. Then, taking it beyond preferences and order habits, I’d like to introduce social graph data and understand who their friends are. I want to be able to say, “This person has friends that have dined at Macaroni Grill, so I want to target them.”
HT: What’s missing, in terms of technology, in achieving that goal?
I think there are two things: first, the connection between in-restaurant and out-of-restaurant. We can track data as the guest arrives on our website, we can see where they go, and understand how they order through online ordering. But the experience ends when that browser window is closed, and then they show up again in the restaurant.
Some restaurants have been able to address this by using loyalty programs, and understanding that they emailed a customer and then that person came in, or they used their loyalty card for an online purchase. What I want to understand is the true experience of the guest from the moment they think about dining until the moment they are enjoying their meal. And even beyond that, what are the behaviors outside that, and when can we target them to get them to think about dining.
The second piece that’s missing is sharing amongst vendors — POS and other partners. I see many companies chasing a one-stop-shop model. They want to be best at web, email, mobile, online ordering, etc., so that the customer only has to go to one shop. The industry needs more open source thinking, where APIs are shared and solutions are integrated. This would benefit all of our partners.
HT: Are you starting to see some technology move in that direction?
Absolutely. APIs are slowly being released. POS companies are doing a better job of it. Sharing information allows us to better understand our guests, and to better provide them with offers and suggestions. And that can really change the business.
HT: Let’s talk about some of the specifics at Romano’s Macaroni Grill. Where were you a few years ago in terms of customer engagement and where are you today?
The before was very basic: we had a web presence, a Facebook page, Twitter. We were there but we weren’t engaged with the space. In the last two years, we’ve seen our emails go from 300,000 to 1.3 million subscriptions. Facebook grew from 11,000 to 172,000 likes, and Twitter went from 3,000 to 9,000 followers. That was an important thing for us, to first amass the data.
With the help of a small graphics firm, SuperBig (www.superbigcreative.com) out of Seattle, we re-launched our website to be much more engaging. We’ve just launched online ordering [on September 1, as of press time] for carryout and catering. The online ordering piece comes from SnapFinger (www.snapfinger.com) and is fully integrated into our Aloha POS from NCR (www.alohapos.com).
We are on par with other large restaurants companies, but in my vision we are only one-third of where we could be. And that’s where we’re pushing it to over the next year. The next steps for Macaroni Grill are even more important: to link that data together from Facebook, email, and online ordering.
HT: Your organization has significant plans for integrating this data. Can you talk about that project?
We as consumers engage with multiple touch points — laptop, tablet, mobile phone, websites, social networks, in the restaurant, email. What we want to do is connect all of these touch points so that each time the guest touches our brand we can understand who that guest is. We’re working with Zipscene (www.zipscene.com) to connect all this data that we’ve amassed. We’re going to token the guest as they come to our website, follow them across our website, and see if they view more dessert, if they look at more appetizers, if they check out the wine list. Those behavior markers will go into a profile that’s associated with that token. If we have their e-mail address, that can also be connected to their profile. If they use online ordering, we can see at what time and what items times they order.
We will ask them to log in with Facebook Connect. We’ll be able to understand when they’re interested in looking at our menu, what preferences they have, who their friends are, when they’ve dined with us. The last piece is to connect into the restaurants. We’ll start with our most loyal guests, connecting all their information, and will gradually expand beyond that and connect the casual passer-by. Eventually, we’ll be able to tell them what their friends have ordered in the past, and if their friend commented on a dish, we can show them that recommendation.
All of a sudden, I start bringing this human element back into the technology. I think that’s the pinnacle — the tipping point where things start to change — when technology connects us to the human behavior element of it.
HT: How will this approach to CRM provide value to the guest?
This is an important piece — it helps us make the guest experience significantly more rewarding, personalized and seamless. For example, we could alert servers to allergens before they come to the table to greet. It lets us become aware of special requests and preferences ahead of time. We could provide relevant recommendations from other people who they know and trust, as opposed to from the marketing department. Customers could have the ability to store their payment information to save time, and would receive offers and deals that are relevant to them.
HT: What’s the timeline to roll-out?
I think it’s another 12 to 18 months from now. The biggest piece is getting all the partners to integrate. Fishbowl Offer Manager (www.fishbowl.com) is a great technology. It would allow us to use a single offer code redeemed on the POS, and understand who exactly redeemed that offer so you’re able to make the connection between email and the restaurant. The real opportunity is getting Fishbowl to connect to Zipscene and Snapfinger so that we can collect data and then change behavior from that data.
HT: How would you council your peers on collaborating for technology-enabled marketing?
There’s obviously always going to be room for improvement and sharing amongst different departments. My recommendation is to schedule time to meet, whether or not you have something to talk about, and then discuss current goals. We get great ideas from our IT team by just telling them where we are trying to go. Not every meeting has to have a tactical purpose.
Marketers need to embrace technology in order to get to the next level. In the past, the audience was there. It’s no longer the days of Mad Men. The TV audience is fractured. You’ve got to be able to target the guest when they’re ready to hear the message and the only thing that allows you to do that is technology.