Business First, Technology Follows

To speak to him, Wasdin offers a jovial mix of southern hospitality (both Church’s Chicken and Wasdin call Atlanta home), and business savvy. In an exclusive interview with HT, Wasdin outlines a promising roadmap for technology at Church’s Chicken. The company has a digital initiative and a global standards technology solution guide on the docket for 2015, both in various stages of development. Wasdin admits he’s also excited about the potential of The Internet of Things — so while he may not have the “syndrome,” there’s still an IT guy inside him somewhere.

Top Projects: Global Standardization plus Digital Determination
Keeping more than 1,650 quick-service restaurants technologically in-sync across 23 countries and international territories is no small task, particularly when nearly 1,000 of the U.S. locations are franchised. To provide guidance, Wasdin and his team are leading the development of a Global Technology Standards Guide. The guide will include recommended technology platforms certified by Church’s corporate. “We’ve gone through the rigor of testing these technologies in our 270 company-owned locations,” says Wasdin. The guide will cover both front- and back-office, including POS, digital menus, PCI compliance, chip-and-PIN, Internet connectivity, and the company’s mobile app, among other areas. It also lays out tips for how to optimize the solutions based on the footprint and volume of the individual restaurant.

“We want to make sure we’re providing as much support as we can to our franchise partners,” says Wasdin. “With the rapidly evolving pace of technology, we need to give them the guidance they need to conduct their businesses, and make it as easy as possible for us to take advantage of new technologies.”

For a younger brand, this type of deep technology guidance may be more common. But for a company with a 60-plus year history, a global standard guide is no small feat, evidenced by the all-in effort required to develop the material. “My group did most of the content creation for it. The operations team was heavily involved, the finance team provided support around credit card processing and PCI standards, and even our digital media team was involved,” explains Wasdin, stressing the importance of a digital roadmap as a part of the guide.

Indeed, like most brands, digital media is a growing focus for Church’s Chicken, and one that’s personally exciting for Wasdin. The scope of digital programs at Church’s includes not only social media, but a mobile-optimized website, SEO and, digitally-driven loyalty programs. “Being founded in 1952, a lot of our guests have grown up eating our food, and today they bring their children into our restaurants. We have a multi-generational relationship with our guests.” If you spend much time in a Church’s Chicken, you might see the manager refer to guests by name, and ask how their kids are. That relationship, according to Wasdin, has been fostered on a one-on-one basis. Now, digital media is allowing Church’s to engage its audience on a broader platform.

While the company has 1,200 restaurants in North America, Church’s doesn’t place national media and there are some markets that don’t get much exposure from traditional radio or print advertising. “Now, with digital media, we’re having a much broader dialogue.” Wasdin shares the story of a customer who posted a photo on social media of his father’s tie tack and tie bar with the Church’s logo, an award given for exemplary service when dad was employed by the company more than 20 years ago. “To see that photo of a tie tack and tie bar from 20-plus years ago is really neat — and it’s because of new digital tools that we’re able to see that.”

What’s Next: An Internet of Restaurant Things
The dialogue around mobility and digital media is rapidly evolving to a broader scope that includes The Internet of Things (IoT). While the details of what will be networked and how data might be used have yet to play out, Wasdin is bullish about the potential impact of IoT applications on restaurants. It’s an impact he sees happening sooner rather than later. “Whether it’s a sensor on a fridge or fryer, or a monitor that tells you how many times a bathroom door has been opened so you know when it needs servicing, IoT is exciting for the restaurant space,” he asserts.

As for when, Wasdin points to evidence of IoT already happening; and predicts that we could be just six to 12 months away from a full application explosion. “I’ll tell you why. We already have some things that monitor how often our fryers are filtered. This helps us provide quality products to our guests. We have other sensors that show us what’s going on with the refrigeration in our restaurants. One day soon, we’ll be able to predict when a fridge needs servicing before the service light comes on. I think there’s a fair amount of thought and care that has to go into it, but there’s a lot of potential, and it’s already happening,” he says.

A technology-impacted customer experience comes in two forms, explains Wasdin. There’s guest-facing technology such as digital media that can change the conversation from one- to two-way and build new relationships; but there’s also an entire army of behind-the-scenes tools that create a guest experience. The latter could include sensors on doors, quality-of-product inventory solutions, and food procurement, prep and thaw, solutions. This is a realm where IoT can make a notable impact. “While it’s technically feasible to do it, we don’t yet know the cost or the impact. We’re closely monitoring the innovations in the space and the associated costs.”

The Strategy: Not the IT Guy
As he evaluates IoT and new digital tools for Church’s Chicken, Wasdin is adamant about taking a business-first mentality. “Technology is prolific; it’s found in every part of the business such that you can’t really talk about one without the other.” What sometimes gets in the way, however, is a knee-jerk reaction to resolve oneself to being the IT guy.

“All the folks I interact with on a regular basis are so smart and brilliant, but every once in a while I’ll run into someone who will say, ‘That’s an operations issue. I’m just the IT guy,’” explains Wasdin. Instead, Wasdin advises that IT leaders embrace their role as problem solvers, and from that make the best business decision. If it’s appropriate, the technology will follow. In fact, sometimes technology isn’t his chosen solution. “Someone may come to me and say, ‘I think we can use technology to solve this,’ and we’ll talk through it and find a process change or tweak that’s an even better solution than technology.”

Wasdin adds one caveat: being on the lookout for emerging technology is central to his role.  “That’s when it’s imperative to think from a technology perspective first.”

How to Spot & Remedy IT Guy Syndrome

The majority of technologists that Church’s Chicken CIO Marcus Wasdin meets are smart, effective decision-makers. Every once in a while, however, Wasdin encounters someone who has succumbed to IT Guy Syndrome. Here, Wasdin identifies the symptoms and offers a remedy.

HT: What is “IT guy syndrome?”
WASDIN: I see “IT guy syndrome” as when someone knows a lot about their business, and has a tremendous amount of skills to share, but they default back to believing they’re just the IT guy. There are a lot of valuable skills that traditional IT guys can bring to the table outside of technology know-how — project management and integration, for example. Logic and critical thinking is a quality that a lot of IT people have. They’re good at trouble shooting. They’re great at seeing a challenge, identifying the inputs to that challenge, and investigating them one at a time to solve that challenge. This skill is incredibly applicable to other parts of the business. Sometimes peers in other business units will come into my office and share a challenge that has nothing to do with IT. It’s my charge to help them pursue a solution. Even if I don’t know much about the content, I can help spot the hole. Technologists are problem solvers.

HT: What are the symptoms that an IT executive might have this ailment?
WASDIN: Sometimes they’ll just outwardly say it: “I’m just the IT guy.” But one of the indicators you can look for, especially if you’re in a technology leadership role, is to ask when was the last time you went out into the field, or to a status meeting for a group that wasn’t yours. I have to fight this even in myself. We all get busy and have tons to do. I have to constantly remind myself that it’s been a few days since I’ve gone over to marketing, to new restaurant development, or to finance to see what’s going on.

HT: What can a technology executive do to help remedy this pattern?
WASDIN: I’m a huge believer in creating relationships with my peers and other executives here at Church’s. I do this on a daily basis. I will get up and make a lap around the hall. If I see someone I haven’t spoken to in a little while, I’ll say, “Hey, what’s going on in your world.” You have to be careful with it because you can end up burning up time, but reversing this pattern starts with the relationships you build.
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