Raghu Sagi, chief information officer at Inspire Brands, will offer an overview of the technology platforms that drive the guest experience across more than 32,000 restaurants during a keynote at the Self-Service Innovation Summit. Following are some excerpts from a recent interview.

It’s no secret: Brands and retailers on the leading edge with technology weathered the pandemic better than their competitors. Some have experienced their best years ever.

Inspire Brands, which owns Arby’s, Baskin Robbins, Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic Drive-In, Rusty Taco and Jimmy John’s restaurants, has deployed technology on several fronts in the last two years, with self-service as a recurring theme.

Raghu Sagi, chief information officer, will offer an overview of the technology platforms that drive the guest experience across more than 32,000 restaurants during a keynote presentation at the Self-Service Innovation Summit, Dec. 14-16 in Hollywood, Florida.

Sagi recently sat down with this website to share his thoughts about the challenges and opportunities technology offers brands and retailers seeking to engage today’s technology savvy customer. Following are excerpts from that interview.

Q. What is the greatest challenge facing brands today?

A. The greatest challenge facing brands today is that guests’ expectations have changed regarding how they want to interact with their food and our team members. For example, many consumers no longer want to hand someone their credit card or order in person. Instead, they prefer a contactless experience that allows them to order ahead and pick up their food quickly. This shift has required brands to adapt, innovate, to accommodate these preferences rapidly. As it relates to our team, we were able to quickly scale our direct and third-party e-commerce channels, third-party delivery, curbside and in-store pick up solutions.

Q. What has been the single most important customer experience technology Inspire Brands has introduced in the last two years, and why?

A. Contactless service has proven to be an essential innovation over the last two years. While all our brands have contactless capabilities through things like mobile order ahead, pick-up lockers and third-party deliveries, one of the most exciting solutions our team designed is the Buffalo Wild Wings Choice Model. This digital dine-in model enables guests to start, continue or end their dining experience by interacting with their mobile devices or restaurant team members.

For example, guests may place an initial order with a server and continue their dining experience by adding to their order via their mobile device. They also can leverage contactless payments, a feature released in 2020, to close and pay their check when they are finished, without needing to ask a server for the check. Choice Model improves the guest experience, allowing for quick turnaround time from order to table delivery and increased team member efficiency.

Q. Sonic Drive-In was part of a pioneering test for a voice assisted and personalized dynamic menu in 2019. What did the company learn from this initiative?

A. Voice ordering is an emerging technology in our industry. Testing these capabilities in select markets allows us to evaluate whether we’d like to refine, scale and invest in the technology. Sonic has made significant investments in technology across web, mobile and on-lot, including mobile order ahead, which is now driving more than 10% of sales. Moving forward, we have many opportunities to learn best practices and enhance the guest experience at our drive-ins.

Q. What do you see as the most dynamic customer experience technologies today?

A. Loyalty-based experiences and digital menus have great potential for dynamic change and innovation going forward. As mobile ordering platforms expand across our portfolio of brands, opportunities like geospatial recognition in mobile order ahead, voice ordering and more are becoming possible. Our data platforms and analytical capabilities work in tandem with these technologies to further personalize the guest experience.

Q. What do you see as the most dynamic customer experience technologies today?

As we look ahead, digital technologies will be more critical than ever in creating an exceptional guest experience that attracts new guests and drives frequency. In addition, consumers want fewer touchpoints in their ordering journey, so the need for digital menus and mobile ordering will only continue to create boundless opportunities for innovation.

Q. Inspire Brands has engaged on several technology initiatives in the last two years. How does a company create a culture that enables multiple technology initiatives simultaneously?

A. Inspire Brands fosters a culture that encourages team members to take risks, test and learn. A phrase that exemplifies our culture that I frequently use with the team is “fast fail, fast learn,” which serves as a reminder to take risks, not be afraid to fail, and quickly learn our mistakes to improve our solutions.

A fantastic embodiment of our innovative culture was when we launched the Inspire Brands Maverick Den earlier this year. The Maverick Den allowed technology team members to participate in a Shark Tank-inspired event to pitch innovative ideas to enhance the guest experience, streamline business functions or further our mission. The finalists of the competition received mentoring and funding to bring them to life. The series was so successful that we’ve recently expanded the Maverick Den to the whole Inspire system in what we’re calling the Ignite Innovation series.

In addition, we have also brought together a team of talented global digital, data and platform engineers propelling technology innovation across the portfolio. Our team is designed to enable cross-functional and brand collaboration by scaling capabilities and sharing best practices.

Lastly, we are making deep investments in technology-related capital to build critical tools for our brands. We take an agile mindset to develop and deploy new technologies, enabling better test and learn speed to market and brand collaboration. Our ability to deliver multiple technology initiatives concurrently directly results from our highly collaborative and agile environment.

Q. Many observers would point to the automated convenience store concept pioneered by Amazon Go as having the potential to dominate everyday commerce. Do you see the automated c-store as a competitive threat to your business and if so, how are you responding?

A. Dunkin’ also launched a digital-only concept earlier this year in Boston. The location is designed only to fill orders placed through the Dunkin’ mobile app or at one of its two in-store kiosks, so our current focus is on testing, learning and enhancing these capabilities.

Q. Facial recognition technology at retail has become controversial and is beginning to become a political issue. Given these concerns, will this technology be part of the retail landscape?

A. While we currently do not use facial recognition technology in our restaurants, we explore other ways to leverage AI/ML and video analytics to make our back of house operations smoother, such as automating inventory ordering.

Q. How can a retailer or a brand that does not already use automation to improve the customer experience prepare itself for introducing the technology?

A. When introducing new technologies, I think asking the right questions and gathering feedback from leadership, team members and guests is essential to understand where to go next. In addition, a strong team is critical to fostering a winning culture and organization that enables retailers to attract, retain and grow top talent. With these components in place, the sky is the limit for retailers looking to move into the automation space.

Q. What employee skills do you see as the most critical for brands today?

A. Technology skills in programming, data and analytics are all key to driving growth across our portfolio. Key specializations we look for are in AI, machine learning, data analytics and e-commerce. We also look for people on our team to have industry training and experience in industries that are further along in the digital transformation journey, such as the hospitality and retail industries. We are also highly focused on developing young talent through our career development and internship programs. It also helps that our support center is located in Atlanta, which has a robust intersection of startups, scaling companies, corporate innovation centers, top universities and creative talent.

Q. Can you give us any idea what innovations Inspire Brands will be introducing in the near future?

A. Our priority is to improve the experiences of our team members and guests. We have many exciting technologies we are currently testing, refining and enhancing at the Inspire Innovation Center and the Alliance Kitchen, our ghost kitchen. We are excited to scale them and roll them out across our portfolio.

To register for the Summit, click here.

About Networld Media Group

Founded in 2000, Networld Media Group is a leading business-to-business (B2B) media communications company specializing in digital media, associations and events in the tech, banking, retail and food service industries. Online properties include ATMmarketplace.com, DigitalSignageToday.com, FastCasual.com, KioskMarketplace.com, FoodTruckOperator.com, QSRweb.com, PizzaMarketplace.com, RetailCustomerExperience.com, VendingTimes.com and BiblicalLeadership.com. Annual events include the Fast Casual Executive Summit, the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit, the Bank Customer Experience Summit (BCX), the Interactive Customer Experience Summit (ICX) and the Self-Service Innovation Summit.

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