From diners settling in at social distancing-friendly configurations to hostesses swapping QR codes for physical menus to the pain of seeing one’s favorite haunt close down, the past few years have brought a great deal of change to the restaurant experience. For patrons, owners and operators, the impact on the routine and ritual of dining — whether eating in or taking out — is something that has materialized in manifold ways over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.
And, as restaurateurs had to set a course through new waters, thinking outside the box also became the name of the game for team members at Chicago-based Rewards Network — whose platform aims to help restaurants engage potential diners through incentive programs.
“Rewards Network became even more restaurant-centric, if you will,” said Director of Marketing Strategy Elliott Ames, who came from a restaurant background prior to joining the company. “We really took a step back and said, ‘What does the local restaurant owner in the community need to succeed?’ While we very much care about our member base, the members are being served an offer for restaurants, which means the restaurants are really our true customers.”
Identifying ways to help customers early on included measures like shoring up digital-friendly offerings, offering a complimentary first month of membership in May 2020 and writing a how-to for restaurants navigating Paycheck Protection Program loans.
“I think restaurants saw us as a partner in that we’re willing to put them first. As small business owners, restaurateurs go through a lot. They have a lot on their plate, and we show that we’re there for them,” said Client Success Team Supervisor Krysta Mardon.
As they continue to work on projects across strategic, customer-facing and technical capacities, Rewards Network team members detailed to Built In Chicago how they’re ultimately able to impact both customers and members.
“After I’d worked at Rewards Network as a consultant, I was like, ‘I’m going back there,’” said Senior Software Engineer Kara Kelley, who has now joined the company full time. “It made me feel good to have a direct impact on the local economy. Personally, I always want to make a difference. I really felt like I was able to do that here on a daily basis. It makes coming to work exciting every day.”
Now, the team is focused on what’s around the corner. As Ames said: “We’re growing at a really exciting speed with a lot of agility, and we’re always ready for what’s next.” Below, Ames, Kelley and Mardon explained how the work they’re doing across different areas of the business resonates with their professional pursuits.
How do the current projects that your teams are engaged with fit in the broader Rewards Network strategy?
Ames: On the marketing side, we’re finding that building unique life cycle engagement journey touch points for our members, as well as prospects or restaurants not currently on the program, is huge. We accomplish this by finding people who have taken certain actions at certain times and giving them more rewards to dine out or incentives to fill out reviews or engage with our user experience online and by email. On our restaurant side, we’re continuing to push touch points such as our portal.
Mardon: My team is working on implementing a scheduler system with Calendly. We understand restaurant owners are very busy, so we’re trying to make appointment scheduling more automated. We want to make it seamless for a restaurant owner to reach us at their convenience and improve the amount of touch points that we can have with that restaurant owner.
Kelley: Our team just wrapped up a huge effort to replatform our reviews. It was a legacy system that had been in place for a decade or more, which is very, very old in the engineering world. We’re still doing some last-minute integrations on our dining sites, but it’s already a better experience for merchants and our members. It allows us to reduce a lot of our tech debt on the engineering side, which lets us move quicker and deliver more features.
Fans of Their Product
How does purpose-driven work manifest in the company culture and enhance the employee experience?
Ames: We work with small business owners on a day-to-day basis. Our culture here is really built on looking at the business from the eyes of an owner, both the businesses that we’re supporting and this business in itself. I’ve not been in a situation where someone said, “That’s a bad idea” or refused to hear something out.
Mardon: Everyone is thinking together as a team with the overall goal of supporting restaurants and bringing more members to them. That really helps motivate everyone: knowing they’re going to make a difference in this restaurant owner’s business and support their passion.
Kelley: The ability to have that level of ownership is really empowering. No matter what department you’re in — but especially engineering — we can make decisions and come up with these ideas. People are like, “That’s awesome. Go for it.”
When’s a time that you saw the benefit you’re providing to customers?
Mardon: Recently I reached out to a father-and-son restaurant in Florida. We put together what we call supplemental marketing, which is essentially an extension of their marketing in the dining pages. One of the owners followed up with me again a couple of months later and noticed a difference in the members that we were sending in. You could feel the appreciation in that he saw what we were doing and he engages with our portal and he loves that he can reply to members and reviews. When someone reaches out — even a year later — and they’re still singing the praises of what we’ve done, that’s just so awesome to see.
Kelley: Since 2018, I’ve been working on our portal, which is where our merchants are able to log in and see various analytic statements. Before 2018, that didn’t exist; there was no central place for a merchant to see what kind of value we’re providing them or see their bills. It has really blossomed and improved our customer experience.
Ames: During the pandemic, I wrote the Paycheck Protection Program blog. We distilled the information into a how-to to send out to all the salespeople. They were able to pass it off to their restaurant clients. We had a ton of positive feedback via email. We also did a webinar about it, which had a few thousand people watching in real time. It was just a fun and really impactful project.
Appetite for Growth
What’s ahead that you’re excited about?
Ames: On the technical side, we’re making major upgrades to systems and building many new features. On the service and sales side, we’ve built a strong customer acquisition and retention strategy that we’re executing on. On the member side, we’ve built a powerful reason for members to come use our product, which gives us the ability to continue to double down on what works and grow in a very rapid way.
Mardon: There will be more opportunities for our company to grow as our restaurant base gets larger. For my team, there’s the opportunity to have more touch points with restaurants and continue to make a difference in their business and their passion.