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Buffalo Wild Wings: Turning Guests’ Passion in the Moment into Meaningful Change

Ashley Sefferman  //  August 16, 2017  //  14 min read

Buffalo Wild Wings has always used in-restaurant experience as one of their main tools to drive satisfaction and loyalty. If something isn’t perfect, they fix it on the spot.

We had the great pleasure of hosting Brooks Goldade, Digital Experience and Innovation Lead at Buffalo Wild Wings, as a keynote speaker at our first-ever Customer Love Summit. The Buffalo Wild Wings digital teams bring their unique in-store philosophy to their digital guest experiences, driving a new kind of restaurant experience in the digital world, and had the opportunity to hear about what’s worked and what hasn’t from the expert. In his presentation, Brooks shares some of the experiences his focuses on and the tools that help them turn customers’ passion into meaningful change.

Brooks Goldade, VP of Digital Experience and Innovation at Buffalo Wild Wings

Specifically, Brooks’s talk covers:

  • Tips to understand your mobile customer by learning who they are, what they want, and what persona they fit into.
  • Four steps to a better mobile app, including gathering feedback, embedding two-way conversations, engaging customers, and measuring outcomes.
  • Insight into driving real-time feedback from mobile fans, from a restaurant perspective.
  • Discussion around mobile leading the restaurant industry’s digital transformation, and tips to get your mobile experience to deliver just like the real world.

If you prefer to read rather than watch, we’ve included the transcription below the video.


“Wow. Well, good morning everybody. It’s great to be here in Seattle. Thank you Robi and the team for asking us to participate in this first Customer Love Summit.

I have to admit, when I went to my team back in Minneapolis, which is where Buffalo Wild Wings is centered, and said I’ve been asked to speak at the Love summit, there was a lot of like, “Huh? What is that?” Of course, we’re from the Midwest, which is a little unusual because the Midwest is typically thought of as a pretty conservative place. But it is also the home of some really great brands like Seattle. So you think of Target, Best Buy, you think of companies like General Mills who makes food. And then amongst that are restaurant brands like Buffalo Wild Wings. So, excited to be here, excited to be amongst people who are also excited about customer experience, particularly in the mobile age. And we’re gonna try and get out of here this morning.

So I don’t know if I drew the long straw or the short straw, but I am gonna kick it off and we’ll see if we can keep you awake. We’re gonna talk a little bit about kind of the restaurant industry in Mobile and we’ll talk a little about how we’re trying to use that in at Buffalo Wild Wings to enhance our experiences. So, I’m pretty casual. If something strikes in the head and you wanna shout out a question, please feel free to do so. Otherwise I’ve been told I’ve got 25 minutes, then I got to get the hell off the stage and let somebody else come up and talk, so…

Restaurants are interesting. So I spent 10 years in the retail business before I joined the restaurant industry. And for those of us who have come out of the retail business, they went through their digital transformation starting in, let’s call it, the early mid 2000s. And when I was there we used to complain all the time that we were about 10 years behind the e-commerce guys, so we were looking at the Amazons and the Zappos and we’re thinking, “Oh man, well, they got started way before we did. Of course they’re farther along than we are.” Well, if that’s true, when I landed in the restaurant industry we were easily 10 years behind the retail industry.

A couple of unique things have come up that’s gonna be different for us than was different for them, particularly in terms of customer experience. One is we meet an audience that’s already been trained on how to do things, and we’ll talk a little bit about that today. But there’s some really inherent advantages in the restaurant industry, and that is the first one is that there’s lots of them, they’re everywhere. There’s over 1 million places that eat in this country. That’s an amazing start, because if you look at the top players in the restaurant industry they own less than 10% of those facilities. So most of the restaurant industry deals with very small micro areas.

I think last night I had some friends take me to a local place here called Poquito’s. I don’t know if that’s a local chef entrepreneur that’s got a few different places or if that’s a single operator, But those are the kinds of experiences that drive most of this industry. I also think of dining and taking out is a, what I call, real-time, full-contact experience, right? So I got up this morning and I was trying to get my coffee from the local corner Starbucks. I gotta be honest, I thought there’d be more of them here. A little disappointed. I had to walk a block. So I was kinda mad about that. But you know, I stood in line and the guy in front of me was like, you know, three attempts at trying to get his coffee just perfect, and I was reminded that, yeah, in this industry everything we do is in real time, and they’re all one to one experiences that get built out all day long. I’m not making a coffee that’s a finished good that you just walk in and swipe off the counter as you go by. We’re making your coffee just the way you like it, or at Buffalo Wild Wings we’re making the wings exactly the way you want them, not the way I thought they’d be good, so…and then that speaks to the real-time nature of it. So really, we think customer is our gain. This is restaurant’s heritage.

Customer experience is kind of what we’ve done from the very beginning, so it lends itself really well to this idea of customer love – excuse me, I’m gonna put down my paper – which is the heart of what we do. If we look at how often people do it, it’s a ton. So Zaget did this study last year in 2016, they have something they call an avid diner. An avid diner eats out four half times a week. Now as a quick sample, how many here… And when I say eat out, I mean either stop and pick prepared food and bring it home or stay and eat at the table. How many here think you do more than this? How many people think this is pretty reflective of you? And how many are way less than this? Okay. So for the last group, you’re just slow. You haven’t figured it out yet, right?

Life in this country is accelerating at rates we just can’t even express in words and the idea that we are gonna stop and make dinner is becoming more and more antiquated everyday. So we know that in the restaurant industry we need to supply this demand. And four and a half times a week is the national average. If you look at the study, at the very top was LA, they eat out almost six times a week. Now think about that. That’s six days out of the week you’re eating somewhere else. I don’t even know why they have grocery stores, right? Like, what are they gonna do with those? Counts everything. Yep, counts everything.

And ironically, when you survey those people you say, “What’s the number one irritant when you’re eating out?” It’s not food, it’s service. So food is actually number five on the list. So again just reinforcing the idea that the restaurant business for us, the food business, is really about service and food is what we provide as part of that experience.

So at the risk of having somebody who’s way more qualified than I talk about mobile, because I know all you are in mobile that’s why you’re here, I did bring a stat of my own and we use this around our office quite a bit. This is from the Pew Internet org. We all know mobile phone ownership in this country is way off the charts, 95%. I actually think it’s 100%, the 5% just couldn’t hear the question right. And of those 95% more than three quarters now are smartphones, which is amazing, right? That means smartphones are everywhere. Everybody’s got one. And if they use a smart phones, the mental models and expectations that are driven or that are expected in that environment is driven by the physical world, because unlike the traditional desktop being used in a chair on a desk, this is things we use as we walk around in the real world. So we want them to work just like the real world does, which means that customer demands are really high. And we had Buffalo Wild Wings hear about it all the time.

Now, we seat in our restaurants… Maybe a quick side note. We have almost 1300 restaurants. Last year we opened a new Buffalo Wild Wings somewhere in the world, once every four and a half days. Our latest opening was just in the Ho Chi Minh City. Turns out that chicken and beer and sports is one of those beloved things all over the globe. So we’re gonna take advantage of that. But we see somewhere between 50 and 75 million people a year in our restaurants. Now that pales in comparison to, say, how many people probably walk through a Starbucks or how many people might walk into a grocery store, but we think it’s a pretty good number, and that drives a lot of conversation. And in the digital world, now we’ve layered in Apptentive, as you might imagine, into our mobile apps and we hear things like this, “That chick is good.” Now, out of B-Dubs, we assume it’s for the chicken, but I don’t know, could be something else. But every now and then it comes through like this, “It won’t let me reset my password. I’m trying to order some food. Frowny face.”

Now I wanna take a minute to talk about the difference between the digital world in retail and the digital world in restaurants. So in the retail world we’re dealing with a lot of wants. I want my shoes, I want a new TV, I want a new couch, I wanna hang drapes in my living room, and it’s a long sale cycle. In the restaurant industry we deal with needs. Everybody needs to eat, so when you are trying to order food you need food. You’re not gonna delay it till tomorrow, right? And so when our mobile platforms don’t perform in the way that they expect them to, we’ve not only let them down emotionally.

In essence, we think we’ve let them down physically, like at their very core, right? If you do the studies on kind of how we choose where we’re gonna eat, they talk a lot about these glands up here and I know I’m gonna get a little weird here, but when you see something you’re hungry for, you kind of salivate. That’s a physical reaction. And so when you show up and you’ve looked at a picture of my wings or my burger or whatever it might be, your body is literally craving at that moment the thing that I’m trying to show you. And in that moment if I can’t deliver it to you, you’re not only mad your body’s let down. So we take this stuff pretty seriously, I guess is the point.

So we started down our digital journey two years ago. Amazingly enough, as I said in the beginning, the restaurant industry’s at least 10 years behind retail, which means that Buffalo Wild Wings didn’t even have a full-time employee working on digital until the robust year of 2015. I know, amazing right? People always go, “Huh? How could that be? How could a brand as large as Buffalo Wild Wings survive that long without a dedicated digital person?” I don’t know the answer, but we did. I joined them in 2015 and immediately started thinking about what do we need to do for this brand, and it’s guests, and we call them fans. So we don’t think of ourselves as a restaurant as much as we think of ourselves as the greatest place to watch sports in the United States, and soon to be the world. So we call them guests, we call them fans. We never call them customers. And we are the fan’s biggest fan.

So our mission is to provide you with experiences around sports that happen to include wings and beer and other people. But we had to change that a little bit because in digital there’s already plenty of places you can go get sports information. You can stream from ESPN and CBS Sports and NBC. So I mean, you name it, there is a plethora of things. Our job was more about fueling your experiences where you wanted to enjoy the sports, and so we cut against the grain a little bit here for the brand and we decided to focus on mobile.

So we use three pillars to try and drive this. The first one is we want to drive real-time guest feedback. So we wanted it to be just like it was in the physical world. If you go back to what we were talking about, which is if something is not right with that order of wings or the burger or the beer is not cold enough for you, I fix that in real time. I don’t give you a free shipping label to return it to me to then say that you want it back two weeks later, right? It’s like it’s gotta get resolved right away. And we wanted to rally around every guest. If you say to me in the restaurant, “Hey, there’s not enough sauce on my wings,” the server doesn’t stand up and yell, “Is there anybody here who doesn’t have enough sauce in their wings? I’m gonna go back to the kitchen now and I’ll take them all at once!” Right? No, I fix it for you in that moment.

We also knew that because everything we do has to be done in a restaurant, we had to build strong operational partnerships within the organization. Now I don’t know how many here are from large brands where digital still kind of lives on an island, but in retail what I learned is that they tend to do like, you know, hire a digital person give them a desk somewhere in the corner and then they just kind of went and did their thing. They’d build their team and everybody was like, “Oh yeah, that’s the digital team over there.” Not very integrated. So we from the very beginning started out by saying, “No no no, we’re not gonna do that, we don’t sell finished goods. We have raw goods that become finished,” and so we need to bring them along as partners from the very beginning.

So we focused on our primary apps. We have two apps. On the left is the B-Dubs ordering app, where you can go and… Well, has anybody used the B-Dubs ordering app? It’s okay if you haven’t. This is really centered on one thing and one thing only, and that’s ordering food. Its goal is to be as easy and convenient as possible for you so I can embed myself in the habits and the daily routines that you have. We actually treat this the same way that, say, Starbucks or Domino’s or other brands do.

Digital has a way of flattening everything, right? So I like to talk about the reason Best Buy could sell you a TV and Amazon could sell you TV and Amazon was actually just as good at it as Best Buys because on the Internet it all gets flattened, it’s all 2D. It’s very hard to differentiate experiences. And so in our world, when you’re trying to order food digitally, you know, opening a Domino’s up or opening a B-Dubs app, we think should be as easy and convenient. It shouldn’t look any different, even though there are some really important differences between those two food brands.

On the right is our loyalty app. And we were talking about this last night, we had some people got together and we were talking about, I think, a decision that if I could go back in time and change, this would be it. We have two apps and I know there’s kind of two sides of this coin. Some people think it’s great because then loyalty doesn’t clutter the ordering, and the ordering is really easy and convenient, you can get to it quickly and we’re not trying to force you into doing something you don’t want to. But I can tell you that when we launched the two apps, our guests had been through our platform Apptentive and other areas have been loud and clear. They don’t like it, they don’t like us taking up two spots on their phone, they want one. But we’ve got it, we’ve got a road map, we’re gonna try to bring them together, but in the meantime we’ve got two.

So we talked about in here we wanted to gather feedback during the experiences that count. So again going back to the restaurant analogy, I don’t ask you how your meal is before the food got there. I don’t ask you if your food’s right if I haven’t delivered it yet. So I need to inject the question “How are we doing?” at the right moment. I need to ask the question when it matters, not just somewhere along the journey. I need to embed that as a two-way conversation so I’m not just gathering. I wanna gather and I wanna send back, and then I’m gonna monitor and engage it. So we’re gonna talk to a real-life example here in a minute, but this means that we’re gonna monitor it in real time, as in like actually somebody’s watching those comments come in and then trying to do something about it. And then we’re gonna measure our outcomes because of course we wouldn’t be digital people if we didn’t measure what we were doing, right?

So let’s talk a little bit about what we’ve learned so far. One is that in the mobile environment we can’t always know what’s happening before our customers. Now, I’ve got lots of engineers who’ve said, “Oh, I got a tool that could, you know, an agent that could run on the server and it could ping this and it could synthetic that,” right? They have this dream that somehow robots will always be able to catch before the customer the thing that’s wrong before the customer does. That day may be coming, I tell them I have no idea, but it’s not here today.

Today in our world at Buffalo Wild Wings, the customer often knows way before I do if something’s going wrong. So we want to give a real experience of how we use this tool, Apptentive, to monitor and engage in real time and then make changes. So the scenario is we created what’s called a virtual service manager role. You might have an actual service manager, ours is a cut-out of, I think, Yoda that sits by the desk, and then we all have access to this inbox and we take turns, the roles trade off, right? You kind of take a shift and you’re watching for messages coming in on the platform, and the inbox on the 7th of July came in with this one singular message, “Delayed and stops working.” Now if you’re a digital person you know that’s not good, that doesn’t sound right. And you might have, “Oh I’ll see, maybe there’ll be a few more that come in, maybe there’s something going on, maybe it’s just the dumb customer that can’t figure out how to use their phone,” right?

Well again, remember we rally on every customer, every single customer, so this one actually kicked up some dust with that. Wow, that’s interesting. Now a little setup for you. We want a highly complex environment, or high complexity as I like to call it. We connect to every restaurant in order to fulfill your order in real time, and you’ve been in restaurants. Our restaurants are full of beer and wing sauce and who knows what else that’s been spilled on servers and keyboards and all kinds of things. But with 1200 locations, each one with its own unique kind of tweaked menu, I sell avocados in California, I sell old base seasoning in New England, right? I don’t sell any of that stuff in the Midwest. I need to know which restaurant you wanna go to, which Buffalo Wild Wings you are gonna come and eat at. Then I have to look at its raw goods, I have to know do I have it in stock, can I make it, do I have the people to make it and when do you want it, am I available to have it piping hot, sitting in the window when you arrive. So we rely on a lot of first and third-party infrastructure to handle all that zing and back and forth. And we deal in high-conversion platforms. So we run regimented day parts, that’s kind of a fancy way of saying everybody’s gotta have lunch and everybody’s gotta have dinner. We don’t serve breakfast except for a few locations, which means that my conversion rate during those periods of the day go way up. Now in retail I think I was happy with a conversion rate somewhere between 1-3%. At Buffalo Wild Wings we’re well over 50%. High need. Remember lunch, gotta eat, body salivating, “love those wings, I need to eat them right now.”

So what did we do? We reacted to the first message, not the second, the third or the fourth. We kicked up on the first one and we rallied around that one guest so we had people involved. We reached out to our third parties, our first parties, everybody kinda suddenly gets an email or walks to their desk, we said, “Looks like there might be something wrong. Can you check it out? Turns out yeah there’s a big problem happening. There was this component within the third party infrastructure. It hadn’t failed yet, but it was starting to fail, it was slowing down. And actually if you were to come back an hour later, there were like a dozen messages that it wasn’t working. And this problem wasn’t an easy one to solve, it took us a few hours but we were able to solve it.

So the first message came in. This little GA chart, I know. It wouldn’t be a digital presentation without GA charts, but you can see the yellow line is what my day is supposed to look like. The blue line is what was happening on the 7th. The first message came in from of 10 at about 10:40 in the morning. It took us a few hours to resolve it. We lost our lunch day part, that stunk, mostly because that means a lot of unsatisfied guests on the mobile app, also means we didn’t hit our e-commerce goals. But we were able to save it and you can see at dinner hour we recovered. So by the time we went home, this is the message we were looking at as we walked out the door, “I like the food,” all right?

So again, we brought this kind of perspective that says we’re gonna monitor in real time, we’re gonna engage it, we’re gonna act on the first message, not the later message and we’re gonna make changes in real time. So where do we go from here? Well, we talked about in the mobile environment we can’t always know, before the customer does, what’s going on. So we’ve kind of decided that we’re gonna embrace the customer, we’re gonna make them a part of our team. And as opposed to creating an environment where it’s kind of them and us and we’re working to try and prevent them from knowing that anything’s wrong, we’re gonna embrace when they know it, we’re gonna engage them. And we’re gonna continue to build out these robust platforms that allow us to do it in real time. That’s it. Thank you!”

About Ashley Sefferman

Ashley Sefferman is Director of Marketing at Apptentive. A digital communication and content strategy enthusiast, she writes about multichannel engagement strategies, customer communication, and making the digital world a better place for people. Follow Ashley on Twitter at @ashseff.
View all posts by Ashley Sefferman >

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