Three Ways to Keep Up with Your Fast Casual Customers

If there’s a common thread in the restaurant industry, it’s the topic: how do we keep our customers consistently coming back for more? Customers today want everything to be fast, convenient, delicious, trustworthy, personalized, valuable.. Hmm is that all? Facing these customer expectations isn’t an easy feat for restaurants. So what can they do to satisfy them and keep them coming back? In this blog, we’ll discuss three things brands are doing or can do, to keep up with the challenges around being fast enough, innovative enough and personalized enough for their consumers, in order to maintain retention. 

Challenge 1: I want my food NOW. 

At SessionM we like to say customer retention is king. While I think the restaurant industry would agree, they might argue that a very important factor of that royal throne is a customer’s time. In today’s world, everyone is impatient, which causes a higher risk for churn. If an order takes a while, customers complain. If there is a long drive-thru line, people will leave. This is why mobile ordering, online ordering, kiosks, and AI technology in drive-thrus have been such a big focus. To the point that restaurant brands are acquiring technology companies to help them with these initiatives. 

Take a look at McDonald’s, who purchased Dynamic Yield earlier this year for $300 million dollars. According to Restaurant Dive, “Cutting down drive-thru times will be crucial to the long-term success of fast food restaurants, especially since this area makes up 60% to 70% of sales.” Knowing this, McDonald’s saw an area in which they needed to improve and turned it into an opportunity to keep their customers, and their top QSR ranking. Now with Dynamic Yield, “using the data collected based on current restaurant traffic at the drive-thru, the technology will begin to suggest items that can make peak times easier on our restaurant operations and crew.” said Steve Easterbrook, CEO of McDonalds. 

Other companies are following their lead. Pizza Hut, for example, acquired QuikOrder, a mobile ordering company, and Chipotle is testing ‘digital pick up lanes’, in an attempt to deliver a more seamless, personalized, and overall faster experience. A customer’s time is more important than ever in order to make sure they stick around. With digital engagement only becoming table stakes, it’s a smart move for these companies to invest in technology to help them keep up with their customers’ expectations. 

Challenge 2: What is #trending?

Despite convenience and speed being high up on a customers list, in the end they are going there to eat food. For restaurants and fast casuals focused on similar food items (think pizza, burgers, sandwiches, salads) branding and menu innovation definitely becomes a factor when staying top of mind for customers. A few examples include: 

  • KFC introduced a new “Scoop to order” policy, where they have eliminated any pre-packaging with the effort to highlight their food is good quality. QSR Magazine describes it as, “…akin, in some ways, to the Chipotle-made-famous assembly line of open ingredient preparation. Only in KFC’s case, it’s happening in the back of the house in warming trays. A key, visual change: Instead of a box, KFC now serves up meals in open paper containers on a tray with a wood-themed design.” KFC is recognizing they are losing customers who want fresher food that they can trust, and the restaurant chain is acting on it. 
  • Popeyes released a new fried chicken sandwich. This not only had customers lining up outside for hours, but also caused a Popeyes employee to be held at gunpoint when a customer learned the chicken sandwiches were sold out. While that is definitely not the goal, it shows how much buzz your brand can get around a new menu item. 
  • Noodles & Company released Zoodle bowls on their menu earlier this spring as a healthier, low carb alternative. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, given the popular health trends amongst consumers. With the bad rep that fast food often battles in our increasingly health conscious society, innovating ways to broaden your customer base is important so everyone has something on the menu they can enjoy, no matter what their diet preferences are. 

Challenge #3: Closing the loop 

Another big part of keeping customers around is delivering personalized experiences. Given the many ways to do this today with constant technologies and strategies thrown at you, it’s tough to know how or where to start. One way restaurant brands can do this is through closed loop offers. What is that, exactly? This means delivering personalized offers at the point of sale, at the moment of impact. Our latest press release about our partnership with Olo, an ordering and delivery platform for the restaurant industry, describes how customers who order from QSRs that use Olo will now have streamlined access to loyalty-driven offers and discounts, which can be easily added as the customer completes their order. As you can see in the diagram below, it’s about connecting the customer experience. 

When it comes to delivering relevant engagements, offer management can be your most powerful tool as a restaurant brand. Our Chief Product Officer, Mark Herrmann summarized it perfectly: “Restaurants today are dealing with thin margins and a competitive food delivery space. From this perspective, making offers more readily available and easy to apply may seem counterintuitive. From the customer side, however, it’s this type of value-add that leads to positive experiences and encourages them to return”. By moving away from a discount-centric strategy, and focusing on driving behavior through personalized offers, you will not only positively impact your bottom-line, but also see an increase in customer retention. 

There are many challenges when trying to keep up you customer base and thwart off competition. Whether your goal is to cut down drive-thru times using AI, embrace mobile ordering, push out new menu items, or attempt to deliver more pointed and personalized offers, it’s all about being aware of what your customers are telling you, and making sure you respond (in a timely matter of course). 

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