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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Chick-fil-A Mobile App Enables Customer Connection

At TDWI's recent Executive Summit in San Diego, Chick-fil-A's Justin Winter talked about his company's hugely successful mobile app, which is both a product of advanced analytics and a vital source of marketing and customer data.

Chick-fil-A's Justin Winter spoke at TDWI's recent Executive Summit in San Diego about his company's mobile app, Chick-fil-A One. Shortly after its release in June, Chick-fil-A One briefly shot to the top of the Apple App Store leaderboard, displacing giants such as Facebook and Snapchat.

As Winter explained, Chick-fil-A One is both a product of advanced analytics and a vital source of data for Chick-fil-A's marketing and customer engagement efforts.

Successful Restaurant Apps Are Uncommon

It's a rare mobile app success story.

They're surprisingly elusive. On paper, apps such as Chick-fil-A One are win-wins for customer and vendor alike. Customers get free food, perks, and other special offers. Vendors get a chance to learn an enormous amount about customer behavior, sentiment, and demographics.

Not surprisingly, most of Chick-fil-A's competitors have also launched mobile apps. The problem -- which Winter and Chick-fil-A recognized -- is that comparatively few of these have been successful . For every Starbucks success story -- mobile app sales accounted for more than one-fifth of Starbucks' revenues in Q1 of 2016 -- there are dozens of failures.

Winter's presentation focused on this problem: how do you design a mobile app that customers will actually want to use? The company used a combination of customer sampling, market research, and development trial and error to identify the core attributes of a successful mobile app.

Balancing the Customer Experience

Chick-fil-A had one advantage relative to most of its competitors, an advantage shared by Starbucks: its customers were extremely loyal. True, the company has had its share of negative PR -- e.g., it had made contributions to groups that opposed marriage equality and LGBT rights -- but for all that, its existing customer base was and is extremely loyal.

That was both an asset and a danger. Chick-fil-A needed to find a way to give customers a mobile app experience that activated their engagement with its marketing efforts -- without turning them off. That's harder than it sounds.

"The main thing was mobile ordering, free food awards, then mobile payment ... [although there were] other aspects, [such as] providing nutrition [information]. Honestly, I think we were one of the earlier [mobile apps] to hit all of these," he told attendees.

"We spent a year and a half [to] two years working on how to build a business case [for this]. We kept iterating. A big part of that iteration honestly was getting leadership comfort that this was a good idea -- getting our operators to say, 'Yeah, actually, we really want these tools; we want customer engagement like this."

As is so often the case, the executive go-ahead came quickly and without a minute to waste. Very suddenly, Winter says, he was told that Chick-fil-A wanted a full-scale marketing test -- with launch planned for three months after that. "Two years [of] very slow [development], then suddenly urgency. The catalyst was just continued conversations with the senior leadership, and finally it reached the tipping point and they're like, 'Yeah, let's do this!'" he said.

"It wasn't one single point; it was just this continuous conversation. We just kept talking about it. Fortunately, we were largely ready; [the go-ahead] didn't come from this one great breakthrough."

App Benefits Are Still Growing

The success of Chick-fil-A One promises to radically change how Chick-fil-A designs and manages its marketing efforts. It likewise has the potential to help the company transform its day-to-day business operations, particularly with respect to its supply chain, Winter said.

"I've never had visibility into marketing promotions from a supply chain standpoint. If marketing wants to launch a big promotion, I need to know that before they launch, not after," he said. "We're not all the way there. It's not [yet] integrated into our processes. That availability exists, and we're able to start [moving toward that]. It requires a level of trust between departments."

Chick-fil-A One has had a snowballing effect too, says Winter: the availability of new types of data -- or more precisely, the insights extracted from that data -- suggest fundamentally new use cases and initiatives.

There's always that fine balance between catering to and benefitting from customers, Winter concluded. Ideally, this should be a fair quid pro quo. That's what he and Chick-fil-A are focusing on, he says. "We've had a lot of great progress," he told attendees. "The challenge is how you continue to integrate [what you're doing] into the customer needs and the customer journey."

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