Big Interview: Harris + Hoole's head of tech on modernising the coffee shop

The perfect coffee shop customer is that regular consumer, who comes in every morning for their drink and pastry, taking it away as they head to the office. And every coffee chain will want to grow their takeaway volume – especially their loyal customers, hence the popularity of coffee stamp cards.

Kester Dobson, head of technology at Harris + Hoole, describes to Essential Retail how the artisan coffee shop, which started its life as a joint venture with Tesco, delivers loyal takeaway customers through its mobile app.

The H+H app is designed to make a customer's visit to any of its 42 shops as easy as possible. After signing up with a name and email, customers are prompted to set their usual drink and add a photo.

If customers have a particularly long-winded drinks requirement – extra hot, soy, decaf latte with a shot of vanilla, perhaps? – this makes it easier for both the customer and barista.

"When you check into an H+H coffee shop using location services, you will pop up on the till," explains Dobson. "And if you've set your picture to look something like you, rather than a cute dog, the staff will recognise you, say hello and ask if you want your usual."

This information is passed from the till point to a screen used by the barista, which also reduces the need to shout out orders and write names on cups. Customers can also pay through the app if they wish using mobile payments, including Apple Pay.

The app was first launched on iOS three years ago, followed by Android six months later. The coffee chain caters to 99% of the UK smartphone market, even a small demographic of Windows customers. But BlackBerry has definitely been left behind – "I haven’t met anyone who is thinking about supporting BlackBerry," laughs Dobson.

And since 2013, the app has gone through two rounds of substantial improvements and to date nearly one million orders have been made through the app.

"Customers know it saves time, makes life easier and is more consistent," says Dobson, who notes that one H+H shop receives 50% of its orders through the app, while across the whole business the order app volume is between 20-25%.

Throw in the decision to get rid of physical stamp loyalty cards last year, and customers are given a further reason to download the app.

Using the app, customers can store their virtual stamps on their smartphones, accompanied by a little animation when you gain another stamp. Dobson describes how this gives even more value to the mobile app.

"In the world of restaurants, you visit maybe once a week, fortnight or month, are you really going to install an app for that?"

The chain discontinued its paper stamp cards officially in December 2015 and saw an enormous spike in app transactions, from 5-6% to the 20-25% it sees today.

"You haven't grown a new customer base over night with smartphones, you've just convinced your current customers it's worth using the app," he says. "And the sustained order volume is a testament to the fact it works."

This was probably one of the features which attracted Caffé Nero to buy the brand off Tesco earlier this summer. And with a paper stamp card of its own, it will be interesting to see if the European coffee chain will take on any of H+H's technology learnings.

Delivering better customer service

Dobson joined Harris + Hoole a few months after it launched in 2013, taking his love of coffee and technology with him. His background is in software engineering has been responsible for the development of first-class technology, from the launch of the award-winning app to installing Wi-Fi, which he claims is the easiest to access on the high street.

"The company had the aspiration to make the experience better than competitors," he says. "And with the opportunity to join a young business, there was truly a mandate from the leadership team to create brand differentiation through digital strategy and technology – not just better coffee, food and service, but the best technology and experience."

He adds: "It was lucky being a young business thinking about customer technology – it meant something a lot different in 2013 and 2014 compared to 10 years go, when it was a bit of a dark art."

Harris + Hoole made the conscious decision to not be aggressive with its data capture and email marketing, meaning customers don't need to exchange personal details or credit card numbers to gain connectivity in H+H shops. "We want to deliver the best experience and it doesn't matter how good your marketing is, if you're not serving the best experience."

But Dobson says it is a business decision to be that technology-orientated. "The attitude to technology in retail businesses is that a lot of people get a bit scared and just pay lip service, have a half-baked offering and tick a box," he says.  "In the older retail businesses there is a big disparity between senior leadership and customer expectation around technology."

Dobson says the leadership team needs to encourage the use of technology to make the customer experience better. "Until someone throws budget or acknowledgement to it, it's hamstrung," he explains. "The real challenge is how you get customers to trial and adopt technology – how do you improve and build the right relationship with customers? If you make a bad coffee, you make it again, but if the app went wrong we need to be open to gain feedback. And most retail businesses just don't have the dialogue with their customers."

Dobson says quite often customers will be short and irate when they provide negative feedback. "But if you are able to respond in an hour, they say they are sorry for being in a bad mood – customers want a good relationship with a good brand."

But which retailers are actually doing this already? We ask Dobson: "I hate to use Amazon because it's so cliché and boring," he says. "But the fact is the Prime customer gets treated a bit differently."

Dobson says Amazon also gains loyal customers due to its reputation of always delivering its items on time, and quickly finding solutions to missing parcels.

"I'd always go to them, even if they're more expensive, because it's the ultimate fear with shipping – if it doesn't turn up, you've wasted your money."

Future gazing

Looking forward, Dobson wants to get to a point where retail and hospitality companies don't even have to talk to their customers about connectivity and Wi-Fi, which will become increasingly easier with the proliferation of 4G and 5G networks.

"The biggest technical challenge for mobile apps," he says.

And when connectivity is at its optimum, that means the retail industry can do much more with technology in store, from beacons to upgrading POS systems. "Those are the bits of technology that drive customer empowerment – mobile POS, POS on a tablet? Just skip that and let the customer do it [on their smartphone]," describes Dobson.

"If the technology and infrastructure is there, the more empowered the customer is to engage with you."