Hungry customers hate being put on hold. But restaurant operators hate it even more when a frustrated caller hangs up and takes their business elsewhere.
To solve the problem, Wingstop, a fast-casual chicken wing franchise with a heavy emphasis on takeout sales, is testing an online ordering system designed to make it easier to handle crunch times.
After a successful pilot test last fall, the company, based in Dallas, has added 70 of its 300 locations to the test and plans to expand to more.
The effort is part of the fast-growing company’s goal of improving the guest experience, said Bill Knight, Wingstop’s chief operating officer. More than 75 percent of the chain’s business is from takeout sales, with about 60 percent of those orders placed by phone.
To place orders online, customers go to the Wingstop Web site and click on an icon that directs them through the process. They choose the participating unit closest to them, designate their pick-up time, and pay online via credit card. The order is automatically routed to the selected store.
At the restaurant, the orders are received at a dedicated fax machine. The order taker uses the information in the fax to write a ticket, and sends it to the kitchen just like any other order. When the customer comes in, they present their credit card, and pick up the food.
The online approach was sparked by negative guest comments about phoning in. They were frustrated by “the phone ringing and not being answered, or getting hung up on, or getting put on hold,” Knight said. That feedback came from a mystery shopping company Wingstop uses. The restaurants typically have two or three phone lines, and all of them can be busy during rush times, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, Knight said.
The company hired an outside vendor to create the online program. Knight said there was initial concern that the fax machines might not be reliable enough, and that the vendor might need to supply a back-up system like a beeper, or even a phone call. So far, the fax has worked, with 97 percent order accuracy.
Sales are soaring with the system, even without any advertising (plans call for a billboard campaign eventually). The average online order is $24, more than twice the average in-store or phone order. The web site is designed with “unobtrusive upselling,” said Knight. “It has a lot of pictures and descriptions and drives customers to make larger orders than they might have,” he said.
Knight said the investment for the system is modest. Franchisees must buy a fax machine, and pay a monthly fee to the vendor, plus a fee for the credit card transactions. The extra business the system brings in is expected to far exceed the outlay, he said.
Wingstop bills itself as the “wing expert,” and strives to keep its concept simple. But simple is not easy. Most of the food is cooked to order, and French fries and many sides, including potato salad, are prepared from scratch in each store. The typical location has a relatively small kitchen and seating for between 28 and 50 guests.
Because of the fresh production, managing crunch times is an art. In terms of equipment, the chain has increased the number of fryers from four to five. To manage expectations of guests, when a live order is placed, the expediter calculates how long it will take, and repeats that time to the guest.
It takes nine minutes to cook an order of wings, so that is the starting point of the calculation. The average quoted wait time is 14 minutes, Knight said.
To add an extra touch of hospitality, the order taker repeats the guest’s name three times during their visit. “We have developed a non-negotiable way we deal with guests,” said Knight.
There is no magic formula for handling rushes, said Knight, a veteran chicken chain operator. “You handle it one customer at a time. It is just as simple as that,” he said.