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CIO interview: Richard Tallboy, CIO, Wagamama

Richard Tallboy, CIO of pan-Asian restaurant chain Wagamama, explains why the firm adopted “pay by walking out” technology

As consumers become increasingly fickle, retailers are doing everything they can to make the customer experience as seamless as possible.

For Wagamama, the most recent step to offer a better customer experience was adopting “pay by walking out” technology so that customers don’t have to wait for their bill before leaving a restaurant.

Richard Tallboy, CIO of the chain, says the industry average time between customers deciding they want to leave and being able to pay and go is 12 minutes, which sounds like a short time but can make a huge difference to the customer experience.

“The best thing to do for a truly painless experience is the ‘Uber experience’ – so how do we replicate that in the restaurant environment?” he says. “That’s where the idea came from.”

The 12 minutes between finishing a meal and being able to pay and leave can be the “most annoying part of eating out”, says Tallboy.

“It’s the last thing the guests experience and therefore remember about their restaurant experience,” he says. “It’s not the biggest issue for us to solve, but we realise it is a big issue for guests, so we do want to make sure we have an excellent solution in place for it.”

To address this, Wagamama partnered with Mastercard to develop an application, Wagamamago, which includes a feature whereby customers can walk out when they have finished eating and payment is taken from them automatically.

Once customers have registered for the app and added valid payment details, they can use it to check in at the restaurant, order what they want, and then pay through the app, via a team member, or simply by walking out.

The restaurant was already using the Mastercard Qkr platform, which allows customers to pay at their table using their mobile device. This will still be available, but the firm has used Qkr APIs (application programming interfaces) to build the pay-by-leaving capability into its own app and integrate the Masterpass digital wallet.

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Tallboy says the reason for Wagamama using its own app rather than continuing to offer only Qkr was to make the experience as “frictionless” as possible.

The restaurant’s new iOS and Android app gives customers one place where they can find the nearest restaurant, view the menu, find information about the menu, order food, split the bill or order a takeaway.

As technology has enabled retailers to offer services to customers via several channels, including online, offline and on mobile, consumers have come to expect a seamless experience across all channels.

When customers visit a Wagamama hoping to use the walk out to pay feature, they can give a four-digit code to a team member which allows the restaurant’s system to associate the customer’s phone to the table where they are sitting, then it is up to the customer whether they use the app to order.

Customers can also choose to have a more traditional experience while cutting out the wait to pay, or some items can be ordered via the mobile app to further cut the waiting time.

Giving customers this choice makes the experience more seamless, says Tallboy.

Importance of team members

In some cases, technology has made it easier for customers to avoid interacting with employees in shops.  

Tallboy says Wagamama has intentionally made sure that its waiting staff are part of the experience of visiting a restaurant.

“We have deliberately kept in the experience where your first touchpoint will always be with a team member,” he says. “You cannot start ordering on the app until the team member has taken the first order from you. We’ve kept that because we believe the engagement with team members is really important to the guest experience.”

Instead, the technology is designed to make the experience of both staff and customers easier.

Tallboy’s team chose not to include main meals on the app so that customers are encouraged to interact with team members.

The idea is to ensure the right balance between a good consumer experience and giving consumers a level of control over how their experience goes.

“You get the experience that you want, but we think it’s really important to have the team members engaged in your experience,” says Tallboy. “So that will always be part of it, but if you want to order a second drink, that’s up to you now. You can either do it on the app or you can call over a team member.”

Many have commented on the shift in the retail industry caused by technology – where once retailers were in control, customers are now able to influence what retailers do as technology allows them to vote with their feet.

Tallboy says of the Wagamamago app: “We have tried to give everyone as much control over their experience as possible.”

Since launching its app, the restaurant has seen a mixture of people who have downloaded and signed up for the appn before arriving at a restaurant and those who have seen it advertised upon arrival and want to try it.

Smaller IT teams – less legacy?

Some retailers have been around for a long time, creating huge legacy systems by bolting new technologies onto their existing custom-built systems.

Tallboy says that because his team is small, the firm relies on partnering with IT service providers and implementing software as a service (SaaS) to develop its technology offerings.

“Because the team is so small, it’s all around outsourcing when we can, cloud, SaaS, and finding experts to run these platforms for us,” he says.

To develop the Wagamamago app, the restaurant worked with software development and mobile engagement firm Altaine, which built the app and used Mastercard and Oracle APIs to integrate the Masterpass wallet and the point-of-sale (PoS) system into the app’s capabilities.

In this way, Wagamama has developed fewer legacy systems than other companies, says Tallboy.

He says this helps it to keep pace with technology change as its partners handle new versions and upgrades, which would not be so easy if all the systems were bespoke.

“We are keeping things as ‘vanilla’ as we can,” says Tallboy. “What we try to do is use the tools out of the box and modify them, so we can take a competitive advantage rather than develop bespoke where we can.”

Developing the Wagamamago app is what Tallboy calls “phase one” in a major roadmap for the company.

Next, the restaurant is considering adding feedback to the app so that diners can rate their experience through the app as well as via traditional channels.

Feedback also plays a part in deciding whether or not Wagamama implements technologies – the restaurant asks customers what they think about potential ideas.

“We are constantly talking to people and trying to get feedback on what we should do next,” says Tallboy.

But he emphasises that his team does not develop technology for technology’s sake, making sure it adds value to both the customer and the staff experiences. “Some technology would be fun to do from an IT perspective, but unless it’s what our guests want, then we’re not going to do it,” he says.

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