How Applebee's uses gamification to retain staff, boost sales

One of the restaurant chain's largest franchise owners was suffering from high staff turnover rates, so it launched a custom gamification system that uses competition, recognition and awards to motivate its staff.


Retaining staff and preventing constant turnover are two of the most significant challenges in the restaurant business. For the second largest franchisee of Applebee's restaurants, turnover was a costly problem. At one point, the franchisee experienced 120 percent annual turnover, and it cost $400 to $10,000 to replace individual employees, depending on seniority. The franchisee also didn't have any sort of modern rewards and recognition program to motivate its largely millennial employee base. 

[Related: Gamification tools motivate workers — but not as much as money]

"We needed a program that allowed us to do that," says Robin Jenkins, communications and employee engagement manager at RMH Franchise, owner of 173 of Applebee's roughly 2,000 U.S locations. "It's not just about money but an opportunity for employees to earn status, more power and motivate them to have short term goals."

Applebee's taps Bunchball for gamification

Starting in 2013, Applebee's implemented a gamification system from Bunchball. The company's Nitro product aims to help servers and staff sell new and supplemental menu items, as well as learn about workplace rules and safety, and then earn points and win prizes for making progress. Employees access the cloud-based system via a Web browser on their smartphones, tablets or computers. Large flat screens located in the back of each restaurant show leaderboard details. Roughly 7,000 of the franchisee's employees use the gamification system at 140 of its restaurants and, on average, it registers 1,800 logins a day.

applebees gamification iphone Applebee's

Servers and staff see a variety of tasks to complete when they log in. For example, servers might be challenged to sell certain menu items on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. (Applebee's adds new menu items every eight weeks.) When they sell special menu items, they earn points or badges. Servers might also be asked to take quizzes or watch video about ingredients in Applebee's all-day brunch burger, for example, or other menu items, such as beverages, that might pair well with meals. Back-of-house employees, including cooks and kitchen staff, might be asked to complete quizzes on the appropriate times to wash their hands during shifts.

Managers can integrate PoS data into the gamification system to see the most and least popular items and make informed decisions about the meals to promote to boost sales of certain items. "We are targeting items that we see an opportunity to sell more of," Jenkins says. "Some stores might sell a lot of this item and some may not, so we want to bring the lower stores up to the average."

Some tasks carry more reward points than others, and when employees rack up a certain number of points and badges, they become eligible for prizes. Prizes include Applebee's-branded merchandise, such as hats and key chains, which are awarded for around 350 points, as well as Kitchen Aid mixers, PlayStations, Xboxes and iPads, all of which go for about 6,000 points.

RMH Franchise also shares its experiences using the gamification system with other franchise owners, as well as Applebee's corporate branch. Jenkins says so far, the top 50 percent of the franchisee's locations have seen improved customer service ratings, and it plans to roll out the system to 33 newly acquired locations.

Corporate gamification challenge and pitfalls

Samantha Searle, senior research analyst at Gartner, says Applebee's and others should be cautious of the negative effects that can come from the lure of cool prizes. "A best practice for gamification at work is to run an experiment or proof of concept to check that the designed game really is driving the desired behaviors, rather than creating unintended behaviors and side effects as employees are tempted to game the system to get their rewards."

[Related: 3 enterprise gamification success stories]

Applebee's also uses gamification to challenge employees. For example, if a restaurant has a special menu promotion on Wednesdays and kids eat free, they can create a challenge that tasks servers with upselling specific desserts for families with children. If the servers deliver, they are eligible for special prizes on the spot.

Andy Petroski, corporate faculty member of learning technology at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, says points and prizes are effective as short-term motivators, but Applebee's should strategize about long-term rewards for employees to make its gamification program more effective. "There are ways to use game mechanics and data to identify potential managers or franchise owners," he says. "There are even ways to give opportunities to college students who are looking to build a portfolio of skills."

Petroski says Applebee's could, for example, let servers earn points based on how well they perform in terms of customer service and then encourage them to add accomplishments to their LinkedIn profiles, which could help with future career prospects. "The challenge with gamification is the long-term impact. It's about how you are going to retain employees past that stage where they would've left without gamification," he says.

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