Interview: Cote’s tech integration paves way for new loyalty play

Sandwich chain Pret a Manger is often depicted as an industry leader in inducing customer loyalty thanks to head office’s decision to allow individual branches to offer consumers free food and drink at their discretion, but it could soon have a rival.

Cote Restaurants is looking to make a name for itself in the world of customer surprises, with the launch of a new initiative that it believes will truly reward guests for their loyalty.

According to the company’s chief financial officer, Strahan Wilson, the integration of Cote’s booking platform and point of sale (PoS) system is the enabler for a new process that he expects will bring multiple benefits for the business.

It will allow individual restauranteurs across the chain’s UK sites to build a profile of their regular guests, which in turn will enable them to offer rewards – be it free dessert, or a glass of wine on the house – based on actual purchase history and visitor frequency.

“We’re taking the principles of good restauranteurship, which is for a manager to be able to recognise his or her frequent or loyal guests and reward them in the way they see fit.

“It’s been a core part of our business since day one, but the degree to which our managers do that varies quite significantly and therefore we were looking for a technological solution that really enables every manager to be an excellent restauranteur.”

From a systems perspective, it required Cote’s Quandoo booking system to integrate to the company’s Comtrex PoS system, so when a guest books online a traceable link is created between who booked and what they ordered. The integration creates central visibility over visitor frequency, spend, favourite meal items.

It has been a significant piece of work between the vendors, but Wilson believes there are no other organisations in the restaurant space that have completed the tech integration at such a scale. Both systems have access to each other’s data, and table bookings will now be opened in the PoS.

Traditional loyalty schemes are 'discount by another name'

Since joining Cote last year, Wilson has been pushing for the new solution. And now that it is close to launch, the wider team can truly see the potential benefits of what has been a complicated systems integration process.

The move is an effort to reward true loyalty, rather than offering schemes that are only really related to loyalty in name.

“My concern with loyalty schemes per se is they are quite transactional in nature – you don’t buy loyalty it’s just discount by another name,” Wilson explains.

“Because guests have met the criteria they feel they deserve the reward, but a covert scheme means you have the element of surprise and delight, and you can use it for a much bigger percentage of your user base.”

Discount vouchers used when booking online will be taken into account as part of the new system, but it is the covert loyalty which is expected make Cote stand out from its competitors.

As the CRM system develops over time, parameters will be set identifying which customers should be in line for rewards – these will be invisible to the guest at the time of booking, but at the point the table is opened be pushed through to the PoS. They will also be made available to staff on the tablet devices used to take customer orders.

“It helps managers identify loyal guests and for us to reward those guests. The surprise and delight component is the most important part, though.”

'Uber it' payment functionality

As should be the case with any progressive 21-century retail and hospitality technology investment, Cote’s latest initiative gives the company a number of business development options for the future.

The company is currently choosing between two CRM system providers, one of which will be integrated into the new platform in early 2018 to further build its personalised customer communication capability.

Also in the pipeline is a pre-order/pre-pay functionality that means guests – many of whom take advantage of Cote’s dedicated and well-marketed pre-theatre menu – will be able to up and leave with minimum fuss paying the bill.  

“Some of the existing payment apps that already facilitate this are clunky,” explains Wilson.

“You need to tell the waiter you are using it, which involves enablement and getting the waiter’s attention. And if it’s something you decide to use at the end of the meal you still have to go through the process of finding a waiter to activate it."

Cote’s pre-order/payment method has already been put to use in conjunction with its Christmas 2017 menu, for taking Christmas party deposits, but Wilson says it can be attached to the main menu in the new year.

“One of the big challenges we have in our pre-theatre business is if a show starts at 7:30, for example, at 7:10 the whole restaurants wants to pay the bill, which becomes stressful to guests and the waiters who don’t have enough machines.

“If we can alleviate that with pre-pay we can effectively ‘Uber it’ and enable people to leave when they want to. We’ll take care of it and email them the receipt.”

Wilson and Cote’s approach to IT

When it comes to promoting its various initiatives, Cote clearly isn’t going to be shouting to consumers about its secret rewards. The power of that particular business plan rests in the surprise element. 

But for the pre-order, pre-pay option, Wilson expects a lot of marketing investment to be directed in online pay per click (PPC) advertising, especially as the internet now represents a third of all its bookings.

“With theatre bookings, people tend to choose the show and then search local restaurants,” he says.

“We’ve spend a lot on PPC in this area, trying to make sure we’re top of pre-theatre searches. We’ll use that route to talk about pre-ordering services.”

Wilson is a unique finance boss in that he gets closely involved in many aspects of technology deployment. It was the same at his previous company, Eat, where he project-led a demand forecasting initiative with Blue Yonder aimed at improving sales accuracy and reducing food waste.

He also introduced Anaplan, which helped the company manage its financial analysis processes more efficiently, providing a one-click view of its branch opening plans and investments, as opposed to using multiple spreadsheets.

At Cote, there is no dedicated technology department – there is a reliance on working with trusted suppliers, and nearly all in-house processes are cloud-based. As is the case with his Quandoo partnership, Wilson likes to work with start-up technology companies and build tailored solutions in unison.

“Because we don’t have an IT department, we like to build deep relationships with our software providers,” he notes.

“We meet regularly and we have high-level discussion about projects and future strategies, which builds a good rapport. We need these guys to work for us and prioritise our development pipeline over other companies’ because we have no other capability to do it.”

The latest fruits of this labour are set to emerge across the restaurant’s full estate when the new booking function goes live after Christmas lockdown comes to an end.

“It’s a much more elegant solution we have now, enabling nicer experiences in the restaurant,” Wilson explains.

“We’re good to go on 2 January, sitting here quite excited. We keep testing the test till, which works – and now we just need to get it into restaurants.”

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