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Officially launched in 2016, Wisely is an all-in-one CRM for restaurants designed provide insights and data on guest interactions so operators can deliver A+ experiences, time and again.
"If you just care... and you deliver a great guest experience" says Mike Vichich, Wisely's founder says, "everybody benefits." And of course, having a CRM that can go the distance certainly helps. Back of House spoke with Vichich about the Wisely's beginnings and future plans, how to "Moneyball" the restaurant industry, and why full integrations within restaurant systems is so essential to success.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Back of House: Let’s start at the very beginning with who you are and what you do.
Mike Vichich: I grew up as a server in restaurants — I did that throughout high school and college. I would say that was where I learned the importance of guest experience. I learned that if you take the time and put in the effort to know who the guest is, what their name is, what they like to drink, and their spouses’ names, people have a better time — and they end up tipping you more. Then they end up telling your manager, “So-and-so does a great job,” and then you end up getting the better sections on the better nights. It makes everybody happy and doesn't cost anyone any extra. If you, as a server, just care, and you deliver a great guest experience, everybody benefits. I never thought that would be a consequential insight in my career or in my life, but it turns out that it was.
After college at Michigan State, where I studied finance, I was at Accenture for five years in the corporate strategy practice there. I was a data nerd on all my projects. I was running Excel models and all the rest, but focused on data-driven projects related to marketing. We looked at customer profitability, customer lifetime value, and customer acquisition cost for a lot of different brands, like American Express, Microsoft, Cisco, and some medical device companies that made knees and hips. I did that for about five years, and saw that I wanted to build something, as opposed to just making recommendations. The work was fun and challenging, but I wanted to actually have the execution responsibility as well.
So, in 2011, I left and started a coding bootcamp in downtown Detroit where we taught people how to build iPhone apps. Then, in 2012, we started what has evolved into Wisely... the official launch of Wisely in its current incarnation was Labor Day of 2016. Our whole mission as a company is to help brands improve the lifetime value of their customers — really getting them to come back more frequently, getting them to spend more money, making sure you retain them, and then also helping brands understand who their best customers are and find more of them. So, think of it as a CRM. We tie into every different part of the data stack that houses guest information. We tie it out into one record.
Based on that data we are allowed, we are able to do different campaigns — email, SMS. We have a host stand product, a waitlist and a reservation product. Basically, any touchpoint with a guest, whether you're a full service brand or a quick service brand, that's what we focus on with CRM.
Our north star as a company is to help our clients improve the lifetime value of their customers, which means recency, frequency, spend.
BOH: Tell me a little bit about what drove the product roadmap for you. What did you start with versus where Wisely is now?
MV: CRM was always "the thing." As a server, I just knew if you had information on the guest, you were better able to make them happy. The biggest weakness [we saw] was there were a lot of brands that were consumer brands that wanted to own the data and didn't really do a great job of sharing it with the operators in real time. There wasn't much of a CRM that existed. We had a couple of clients that wanted us to replace their existing waitlist system that did not have a CRM, and that's where it started. That was the initial wedge, and then we just kept building and building from there.
BOH: Do you think this is a particularly difficult challenge to solve with regards to operating a restaurant? Why do you think that gap was there?
MV: Compared to rocket science, it's not difficult. [laughs] But, there are two dimensions that make it challenging. One is that the tech providers out there, a lot of times, had business models that did not create the incentive to do it. They were consumer businesses, and their interest was always in collecting the restaurant’s customer data and using it to drive their own objective. No one was on the restaurant’s side. With Wisely, our clients own all the data. That's written into our contracts — we are merely an extension of their teams, whereas, a lot of other consumer-oriented brands don't do that. They make money based on the number of reservations they drive or the advertising dollars that they drive, and that's not our model at all. So, one big piece of it is the business model. We actually take great care to design our business model incentives in such a way that it will result in a better product for our clients. We want our business model to be exactly aligned with our clients, because by doing our job, we do their job, too.
From a technical perspective, there are like 15 different systems that we integrate with — online ordering, point of sale, credit card processor, waitlist and reservations, feedback system, loyalty club, email club, pay at the table provider... There's a bunch of them. And a lot of times, no one's taking the care — because it is a lot of unsexy, heavy-lifting work to do those integrations — but we've taken time over the last three and a half years to do that. We've written all those integrations, we've done the hard work to tie everything out to a single customer record. I just think moving forward, that's going to be more important than ever. People are tired of guessing about who their customers are and tired of guessing what real estate they should pick, what menu items they should offer. CRM drives all that. It's not just a marketing thing. We've built our APIs in a way that allow the data to be pushed into every other system. My hope is in a few years, [the industry] will look way different than what it looks like now and what it has looked like historically.
BOH: Tell us a little bit about what you hope it looks like and how Wisely gets it there.
MV: Our north star as a company is to help our clients improve the lifetime value of their customers, which means recency, frequency, spend. Retain them, get them to come back more frequently, get them to spend more money. Brands should do whatever drives recency, frequency, and spend. If that means spending two bucks more on your service staff and it drives recency, frequency, spend in a way that's meaningful, then you should do that. If it means spending more on your food cost or less on your food cost, then you should do that. I think that the unfortunate reality today is that CFOs are presented every day with 100 ways they could spend more money, and they have no way to actually quantify what matters. A lot of times there are so many factors, it's hard to know. As a CFO, I could spend more on my bacon, but is that gonna drive frequency? I don’t know, but I know what it's gonna cost me.
Running a restaurant, there's a lot of moving parts. It's a complex ecosystem. If you pull on one thing, you don't know what the consequences are going to be. Where I hope we get to as an industry in the years to come is: Brands are actually able to measure whether a change they made positively or negatively affected customer lifetime value. That will result in better decisions getting made across the board. Other industries do it: e-commerce does it, video games [companies do it] Amazon does it.
Every industry has gotten more data-driven over the last five or 10, 15 years. I think that is a trend that's not going to change.
BOH: What's the benefit of capturing and owning customer data for restaurant operators, as you see it? What's the value there?
MV: I hate having more reports. No one needs 15 more reports, so that's not what we're doing at all. And I think the need matters by size of brands — smaller brands need a point solution. They need to be able to take reservations, or they need to be able to send email campaigns, and Wisely does those things really well. If that's all you need, that's all we're going to talk to you about.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you're a massive brand with 3,000 locations, you have the exact opposite problem. You've got infrastructure all over the place. You put in best-of-breed systems, and you're trying to solve one very specific problem and push it into the rest of that existing tech ecosystem. In that case, Wisely would simply calculate lifetime value, and then feed it into the rest of your system and do nothing else.
In the middle, — and there's a huge middle, I actually think that's where most folks are, the 10- to 1,000-location groups — those are the folks that need simplicity. They need to have things talk, they need to have fewer tools, and they need the workflows to be simple and streamlined so that teams don't have to go into 17 different systems. For example, with some of our more recent clients like First Watch, we are their waitlist company. We do that. But we also power their mobile app. You can join the waitlist via the mobile app, and we take waitlist parties from their website. That flows into our CRM. We're tied into all their other parts of their tech stack, and we do the email campaigns. They can do text messaging, all those sorts of things to try to better engage the guests. For a brand like that, we are the end-to-end CRM. That was how they defined their problem — they needed something end-to-end that was an all-in-one.
So if you start small? Point solution tool. Then, when you get a little bigger, you go into the all-in-one. And when you get really really big, you're back to point solution, but in a really micro way, and it's important that you integrate with all the other parts of their tech stack. We would never try to sell something a client doesn't need.
BOH: There's a lot of conversation about how hospitality is a very instinct-driven practice, and that that culture is shifting because of the pandemic. What are you seeing in terms of appetite for these conversations that weren’t there before?
MV: I think folks that are reading this will expect me to say yes. They'll be like, “Tech guy says people are becoming more reliant on tech,” and write it off. And I might do that if I was in their chair. But I do have a couple of thoughts on it. What comes to my mind is the movie Moneyball. In baseball, that's how it used to be, and it wasn't until [the Oakland A’s] kicked everyone's ass with half or a quarter of the payroll that everyone else finally said, “Hmm, maybe we should think about that.” And so, it's natural — every industry has gotten more data-driven over the last five or 10, 15 years. I think that is a trend that's not going to change. What you are seeing is brands that are disproportionate winners, investing in this sort of way, and that's been happening for years. Look at Domino's — people called Domino's a tech company, and that was true before the pandemic.
I do think people are getting it. They're willing to invest in it because people see the results. The pandemic... really only accelerated that trend. There were some very acute pain points that came up, like, “Oh my god, I can't serve food in my dining room anymore, and I have to tell all of my customers what our online ordering situation is, or we will die.” That is a super acute pain, and we saw email delivery go up [about] 500% of what it was the month before the pandemic. Open rates and click rates didn't really go down, and that means guests want to know what their favorite restaurants are up to and how they can support them.
BOH: And that's a consumer shift as well as a client side shift.
MV: Yeah, and the other part of it too is folks that are getting into leadership positions of restaurant brands, increasingly, grew up with tech as part of how they live their life as a consumer. I think expectations are higher than ever on who was running the restaurant brands these days. They expect the tech to work.
This is something I'm excited about. With Wisely — granted, we've been at it for eight years — but like I feel like we are at a point where we have a surfboard and there is a wave. [laughs] That was never true — either we had the wrong surfboard or there wasn't a wave, and you just can't build a tech company like that. Now, since 2016, we've built a surfboard and now the wave is here. The next few years will be an exciting time for us.