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Chili’s Tablets Dine on Data to Boost Service

Restaurant chain Chili’s Grill & Bar is betting on table-top tablets to entertain guests and encourage their feedback, which it is analyzing to improve service.

The tablets come amid an industry shift toward using technology, such as mobile apps with reward incentives, to increase engagement. But Chili’s tablets take the engagement deeper, into the actual dining experience, and allow the restaurant more opportunities to gauge customer feedback to improve operations, says Chili’s President Wyman Roberts. The implementation also should boost Chili’s appeal among millennial consumers, he said.

Chili’s last month rolled out 45,000, seven-inch tablets, which guests in the company’s 823 corporate-owned locations can use to read news, pay to play games, pay for meals and inform the restaurant about their experience. The tablets enable some light ordering, including alcoholic beverages, coffee and desserts. But the chain doesn’t want to replace wait staff, which it sees as core to the guest experience, said Mr. Roberts.

Chili’s also expects to boost the pace and volume of customer feedback with the tablets. The table-top tablets, which are made by Ziosk and run Google Inc.’s Android software, ask guests to fill out a survey on the spot, after they pay their bill. Ziosk’s computer systems analyze the data and assemble reports based on how guests said staff and stores performed, says Austen Mulinder, CEO of Ziosk. Every morning, Ziosk sends the reports to restaurant and corporate managers, he said.

Chili’s chief information officer, David Doyle, and the IT team worked with Ziosk to ensure its technology integrated with the chain’s point of sale, wireless capabilities and other infrastructure to support the tablet rollout, which Ziosk handled. Marketing led the vendor selection process and, along with IT and other business units, managed the actual implementation. Marketing departments have become increasingly involved in technology implementations. Kristin Kelley, chief marketing officer of global staffing company Randstad NA, says marketing and IT departments need to communicate their respective needs and capabilities, and work together to manage third parties. “The expectation that everything you want is something the IT department is going to be able to deliver is a stretch,” she said during panel discussion last week sponsored by the Georgia CIO Leadership Association.

Chili’s will use this information to improve store operations, such as adding more servers during busier shifts, training them better, or assembling teams of kitchen staff that perform best, based on satisfaction trends, said Mr. Roberts. Over time, Chili’s hopes this data will enable it to optimize the performance of each store, which could make the difference between a customer choosing Chili’s over a rival across the street. “We can see patterns of where consumers are having or not having a good experience,” said Mr. Roberts.

Although this data collection is fairly new, the immediacy of completing surveys on the sport is already resonating with guests. In roughly two months since Chili’s and Ziosk completed the implementation, customers have shown that they are 20 to 30 times more likely to participate in a guest satisfaction survey using the tablet over the traditional method of leaving feedback, says Mr. Roberts.

That traditional method included prompting, at the end of the bill, guests to fill out satisfaction surveys online. This approach hinges on guests filling out the survey on the Chili’s website from their home computer. The percentage of guests who left feedback was small enough that it would take one to two months to accumulate enough data to get a picture of how a restaurant was performing, Mr. Roberts said.

As challenging as the rollout of the tablets themselves, Chili’s has had to address the cultural challenge of training staff at using the tablets so they can serve as technical advisers to guests who require help.

These hiccups will be worth it, said Mr. Roberts. “We’ll see positive business results [using the tablets],” he said.

According to Clint Boulton reporter for  The Wall Street Journal on June 17, 2014

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