Why You Need to Ask What’s Next

Episode #028: Sherif Mityas, Chief Experience Officer at TGI Friday's

It seems like every company and marketer is constantly talking about the importance of the customer experience and the overall customer journey. However, there seems to be few companies that have actually taken the time to truly map out their customer journey and put forth an action plan to improve it. There are even fewer companies that have thought about strategically realigning their organization to be extremely focused on the customer journey. And that’s why what TGI Friday’s is doing is so unique and helping them be first to market on numerous initiatives. In this episode of Mobile Matters, we talk to the Chief Experience Officer at TGI Friday’s, Sherif Mityas, about why the customer experience is actually more important than the product you sell, why you have to meet your customers on the channels they’re already on, and how to align your organization around improving the customer experience.

Stephanie's Strong Opinions

  1. Your product doesn’t matter as much as your customer experience.
  2. The best way to ensure there is an emphasis on your customer experience is by aligning your organization around it. Get rid of the silos and have a customer experience team that is all working towards the same goal.
  3. Small wins can create momentum if you share the success loud enough. Allow your small wins to turn into a customer experience movement.

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Episode Transcription

Stephanie Cox (VP of Marketing and Sales at Lumavate): I’m Stephanie Cox and this is Mobile Matters. Today I’m joined by Sherif Mityas. Sherif is a Chief Experience Officer at TGI Fridays with oversight for the brand strategy, marketing operations technology, and digital efforts. He has more than 20 years of experience in the retail and hospitality industries in both Senior Consulting and Executive Industry roles. In this episode Sherif and I talk a lot about how it’s less about the product you sell and more about the customer experience you create. Why it’s critical to meet your customer on the channels they are already at and how TGI Fridays is driving a rapid innovation for their brand. And make sure you stick around till the end. Where I’ll give my recap and top takeaways so that you can not only think about mobile differently, but implement it  effectively. Welcome to the show Sherif.

I’m really excited to talk to you about what you’re doing at TGI Fridays and just how you think about the landscape in general. But before we dive into those questions, can you give me a little bit of insight into how you got started in your career and ended up where you are today? 

Sherif Mityas (Chief Experience Officer at TGI Fridays): I have a bit of a different background than your traditional technology person. I really started out more on the retail merchandising strategy marketing side. I was really talking about and working within different retailers and hospitality organizations to create better engagements, more personalized engagement as it relates to consumers. And, very quickly, obviously, the connection between the engagement portion and the enablement portion, which is through technology, really comes to light. And so, as I grew in my career, it was really connecting the dots between marketing and merchandising and retail and technology and digital into basically the role I have today, which is the Chief Experience Officer. And, it’s really it’s connecting those dots within the organization and really being the voice of the customer within our four walls to be able to create the right touch points, the right experiences whenever and wherever our guests are thinking about, in our case, a Food and Beverage occasion. 

Stephanie Cox: So, one of the things I know about you is when you started at TGI Friday’s, you actually started in a different role. I believe CIO and CSO? And morphed into this Chief Experience Officer role. So how did that determination come up for you to take on this role and that that was something that you as a company and really want to focus on? 

Sherif Mityas: When I started more actually on the strategy side and picked up the technology team and the digital team and really, right off the bat. The understanding that almost everything you want to accomplish in a consumer-facing or really B2C organization today is enabled through technology. And more so than anything else, whether you’re talking about retail or restaurants or hotels, it’s less about the actual product. There’s so many places to buy a dress to, buy a hamburger. It’s really more about the experience. The experience differentiates whether a guest or a consumer is going to drive by a competitor and come to you. It’s that experience that generates loyalty. And so, after really connecting the dots here internally. Having a discussion with the management team and the board, we really wanted to think differently about how we organize here as a brand. And so, really starting literally at the top is creating a role that is truly just focused on creating the cross-functional requirements to be more experience focused. So, not having these silos of digital and marketing and operations, but having an organization that’s focused, first and foremost, on the guest and their experience. And so, my role really emerged from that to be able to create underneath me an organization that’s now connected. Where I have digital people sitting with my marketing people and I have ops people sitting with my technology people, because they’re thinking about customer journeys. They’re thinking about the experience more than they’re thinking about their individual function. And that really is the mindset change that this organization that we’ve created has really put into place.  

Stephanie Cox: So thinking about that change that you’ve made and what you’ve seen since, I mean, obviously I could imagine that was, there were always stumbling blocks anytime you make a big organizational change. And you try to shift the mindset. But has it really allowed you guys to accelerate what you’re doing in terms of impacting the guest experience? Because you’re all now working in tandem and focused on really creating an experience versus delivering a specific project. 

Sherif Mityas: Absolutely. And that’s half the battle. It’s about getting something out to the consumers that they want, not what we think they want. And doing it quickly. Again, there’s just so much competition in our space, being able to organize and bring different experiences faster to the market and to our guest is half the battle. And yes, with any change, change management. Right. It’s creating not only the why for the organization like why are we changing. But it’s getting into the nuts and bolts. It’s like, how is this going to work? How are we going to do things differently? And you know that’s not a flip the switch overnight type endeavor, but one that, in our opinion, every organization needs to go through that journey to really continue to refocus what they do and why they’re doing what they do, on behalf of their guests. 

Stephanie Cox: That’s so true. I think that’s one thing I’d like to see more brands do is really focus on the experience and thinking about that holistically and constantly iterating on it versus operating in the same status quo that we’ve done for years. 

Sherif Mityas: Absolutely. 

Stephanie Cox: So thinking about the customer experience at TGI Fridays, what role do you see mobile playing in that and how do you think about mobile strategically in your business?

Sherif Mityas: Mobile is clearly a key part of our strategy going forward. If you look at our guests and even our team members, our employees, everyone has a mobile device. Everyone is connected. 98 percent of the folks within our four walls in a restaurant have a device. And so, being able to connect with that guest, being able to connect with a team member, a general manager, whoever that individual might be, through our mobile strategies and platforms is critical for that engagement to happen. And so, from a guest’s perspective, people don’t think about just what they’re going to eat or drink when they’re inside your four walls right there they’re at home, they’re driving in a car, they’re moving around, they’re talking to friends. And being where they are when they’re thinking about an occasion, whether it’s where am I going to go for dinner tonight or where are going to have drinks on Friday after work. Being where they are and being connected to the platforms that they’re normally looking at interacting with is critical for any consumer facing brand. So, having a strategy that is very mobile driven and that involves all the platforms. So, it involves all the social, the text, the email, the voice. The ability to be on those different platforms and be part of the conversation whenever and wherever our guests are, is critical in terms of what we want to accomplish. 

Stephanie Cox: One of the things that you just said, I wanted to touch on for a minute. You mentioned for all the platforms and then you mentioned things like social, the web, et cetera. I think that’s such an important point that so many people overlook a lot of times when we talk about mobile, they think of mobile apps. They don’t necessarily think of literally everything you consume on a mobile device. Whether that’s your phone, your watch. Some people are starting to put things like voice or just really anything that’s a mobile product, into that category, as well. So thinking about all those channels, how do you figure out a way to communicate to all of them, on all of them, but also have a consistent experience?

Sherif Mityas: Yeah, that’s a great question because for us, again, mobile is very broad. And so, we connect with our guests when they’re on Facebook and Twitter and we connect with them when they’re just walking around and we push text to them or e-mails to them on their phone. We connect with guests when they’re laying on their couch and they talk to Alexa. They can order Fridays without even pulling out their wallet on their couch. You can even interact with Fridays when you’re truly mobile, sitting in a car and you’re interacting with something like the GM marketplace. And so, for us, again, it’s being where our guests are. And to your point, creating a consistent Fridays experience. So, when you talk to us in Facebook, that interaction that you have, the back and forth that you have with our AI-driven bots, for instance, is very similar to if you’re talking to Alexa. She’s a little irreverent, she’s a little cheeky, she’s a little Fridays. And so, that experience that we want our guests to have is not just some robotic Q and A, back and forth. It’s really an engagement that we have with our guests that is the essence of our brand, which is we’re a little fun. We’re America’s Bar and Grill. We want you to have an enjoyable experience, regardless of how you’re interacting with us and where you’re interacting with us. 

Stephanie Cox: Has that been hard to figure out how to do consistently across all of the channels? Just knowing that sometimes the audience that engages on each one can be slightly different. 

Sherif Mityas: Oh, absolutely and that’s really where the AI helps us. Because what we use the AI for is to basically learn how to engage on the different platforms. So, while we give guidelines and we obviously these are, they literally start out as children. You have to teach them. But they create and we test basically the interactions that they’re having. But yes, how we engage with a Twitter guest and the way and the vernacular that we use is very different than how we engage with a Facebook guest. It is very different than how we engage with an Alexa guest. And so, the types of, I say, dialogues have to change based on the platform but it’s still Fridays, at the end of the day. However you ask Alexa or if you ask Facebook, what’s your best happy hour? You’re gonna get that consistency of our favorite happy hour drink. It just might be said a little differently, based on the platform. 

Stephanie Cox: My first thought when you’re talking about that was and that’s probably the same type of personality I’m going to get from the team member at Fridays that serves me when I come in on Friday night.  

Sherif Mityas: That’s the goal. That’s exactly right. We want you to have that similar experience whether, again, you’re talking to one of our great waiters or waitresses or bartenders as you would with something on your mobile device. 

Stephanie Cox: I think that’s an important point around chatbots to is… And I’ve interacted with a few of yours. They don’t feel like AI. They don’t feel like a bot to me. They feel like a person. I know, as a marketer, that they’re not. But they actually feel like I’m having a conversation with someone and I think one of the things I’ve seen other brands struggle with is their bots feel very robotic, to your point earlier. And not authentic as part of your brand conversation and really an extension of that and I think that can be challenging for the overall experience. 

Sherif Mityas: Absolutely and thank you for noticing that! There was obviously a lot of effort that went into that and we continue to refine it. But that’s our continuing, basically, challenge and our goal is to really create very authentic interactions regardless of the platform.

Stephanie Cox: So, one of the things that I’ve seen happen over, really probably, over the last decade I’ve noticed at the most. But the industry that you’re in itself has changed a lot by technology. So, what has been the biggest impact that has really pushed your brand to have to think differently about the guest experience that’s not necessarily tied to your brand, but it’s more tied to just the changes happening overall in the industry itself? 

Sherif Mityas:It’s amazing how quickly I would say technology has been adopted in really an industry that was historically behind the times. But I think what we all collectively have realized is the gold mine we were sitting on, which is all our data. And so, we have all this information about our guests. We know when they order, where they are when they order, how they order. And we know basically preferences and we know where they are before and after they visit us. It’s just there’s so much data that we have now. And, it was really this understanding of how do we utilize this for the betterment of our guests? To make their experience better. And this really this adoption now of how do you continue to create a more personalized experience because the days of targeting millennials or boomers or even soccer moms from Atlanta are over. We know Susan now versus Mary. And being able to know that guest at an individual level, is really powerful and technology now allows you to not just know that, but to do something with that information and to do it at scale. I can’t have a thousand data scientists sitting behind computers trying to target individual guests, but I can have technology do that and automate that. And that allows really that what you’re sensing which is that authentic personal type of engagement, that’s now driven by technology. And to do that at scale. We serve half a million guests a day and so, being able to do that at all scale is really critically important. And I think everyone’s realized that. Restaurants, retailers, et cetera really utilizing this data to create a competitive advantage to create a stickiness or loyalty with your guests is really going to be who wins and loses going forward.

Stephanie Cox:  I 100 percent agree. As a consumer one of the things that I find myself judging brands on is, how much data do I think you know about me and how do all the interactions you have with me. Are they using that data or not? One of my personal frustrations is that I shop at a certain store and I just made a large purchase from you online. You know I made the purchase. I’m part of your loyalty program. Why did you just send me a coupon an hour later that I cannot use? Those sorts of things are super frustrating because they should know better. So, I think one of the things that I love about what you guys have done overall is really start, to your point earlier. I’m not trying to talk to the soccer mom in Atlanta. I’m trying to talk to Mary and I’m trying to talk to Mary about what we know Mary cares about. I think that’s really really a crucial differentiator. So, thinking about technology both from an industry perspective and just like a marketing technology perspective, as well. How do you determine what you need to try out and test and what’s really just another shiny object that’s not worth your team’s time to chase?

Sherif Mityas: Good question. And there’s a lot of shiny objects right now. And so, what we look at is really we answer three things. One the first question, is what we’re doing to deliver or thinking about delivering. Is it going to improve the guest experience? If it doesn’t pass that gate, it doesn’t go any further.  Is it going to do something to make that guest happier, make it easier for them, make it more frictionless, convenient, something. Is it impacting the guest in a positive fashion or eliminating a pain point? If it does that, then we ask a second question which is can we execute it? Best laid plan, if you can’t do it, it’s meaningless. So, can we do it consistently across all our sites, across every guest that we interact with? And then if it passes that we say OK, third an equally important question can we make money at it? Does it have ROI? So there’s nothing that we do that doesn’t have predefined metrics assigned to the effort. We look at what are we trying to move? What’s the needle we’re trying to move? And for us, it’s got to be  am I getting one more dollar? Am I getting one more item in the basket? Am I getting one more guest to come in one more time per month? What’s that plus one from a metric perspective that this effort, this technology, this initiative is tagged to create? And if it does that, then it goes forward. Then we roll it out past the pilot and we drive it. But everything we do has to have a return on investment. 

Stephanie Cox: How do you balance in that situation potentially like technology that is so new that don’t necessarily know what the ROI might be. You have a hypothesis of what it could be, but there’s not enough data or enough examples out there that show you here’s 25 case studies that prove that this will work. Is that something that you guys like to get a little bit more to wait and see on a little bit more and so you felt confident in it. Or is that something that you’re like hey, I feel so strongly that I want to go out and test this new technology because I think it could enhance the guest experience and I’m going to have my metrics tied around it for the pilot based on what I think from a hypothesis standpoint? 

Sherif Mityas: We are all about testing lots of things. Because we like to be first in a lot of these technologies, as a brand, because I’ve pushed my team to always ask the question of what’s next. I have them pushing the bleeding edge. And so, we test a lot of things. We control those tests. We obviously try to make them very manageable from an investment and from a resource perspective. But we test a lot of things and a lot of things don’t work. But those that do really hit the needle hard and then we figure out how to roll them out as quickly as possible. But if you can’t, especially in this new world, especially with a lot of new technologies. If you can’t test, if you don’t want to test, you’re really going to be behind the eight ball. You’re really going to be disadvantaged, because there are going to be new things that are going to be put out there that you’re going to be late in the game and you’re going to miss first mover advantage and you’re going to be out of luck. So we’re big fans of test, test, test, fail fast, keep going. 

Stephanie Cox: It’s where my favorite things to hear people talk about, because I find a lot of times when I talk to a lot of other marketers when the things I hear is, well, we evaluate new technology, we’re innovative but we like to see case studies or examples of where this has worked in the past. And I just am like well, that’s all great. But you do realize that by the time you get to a point where there’s 25, 30 case studies available for you to read, there are probably hundreds of companies that have actually used it and seen results from it. And so, you’re way behind. But if you’re not trying to be first which I love that you guys are. Because it does help you differentiate and that makes complete sense. But the real movers and shakers that are going to drive the experience and really drive, I think really phenomenal brand conversations are going to be the ones that are doing things different. And they’re changing the conversation themselves. So, you’ve talked a lot about technology and how that’s a really crucial role. How do you think about what I like to think of as, there’s the technology component, there’s the strategy component, because the technology is worth nothing without a strategy behind it. But then also one of the most overlooked components I think a lot of people forget, is the actual human capital needed to implement the technology and the strategy together. So how do you bring all that together for your team?

Sherif Mityas: That’s kind of the three legs of the stool, right? I think we’ve got a pretty good strategy, in terms of what we want to accomplish and the means by which we want to accomplish it. And to your point, some of the best technology, if you can’t execute it, if you can’t embed it, if you can’t operationalize it, it’s pretty meaningless. And so, I like to use for our organization, really a blend of my internal team, as well as really smart people externally. I think always having a good mix of an external and outside perspective, especially in some of these newer technologies is critical. Again, we’re not hiring MIT doctorates here, we’re a restaurant chain. And so, being able to connect with new folks, smart folks out there, entrepreneurs that are really pushing the envelope. And then helping and creating that bond between them and my team how do we operationalize this? How do we execute? How do we integrate it into the systems we already have? That is really half again, half the issue because being able to create that right instance of this new technology for us helps us be successful. So, one of the things that we do every quarter is hold a SharkTank competition. We bring in five to six new startups. Folks that are still in stealth mode in certain cases and they come in and pitch something new. And we pick and choose sometimes one or two of those and we, again, we test, test, test. And it allows us to stay really relevant, really leading edge again. But allows more importantly, my team to get exposed to some of this other great thinking and human capital that’s out there, outside our organization on a pretty regular basis. And, to me, it makes my team stronger going forward.

Stephanie Cox: I love the SharkTank idea. I think that’s really brilliant. I’ve heard of companies doing it with internal teams and coming up with different projects and things are initiatives that way. But I’ve never heard of someone doing it with external companies. I think that’s a really interesting way to think about it. So, obviously you guys are doing some really incredible things TGI Fridays. If you think about things overall that you’ve tried. I know you mentioned hey, we’ve tested a lot of stuff, some stuff has worked, some stuff that hasn’t worked. What’s a story you can tell me about something that you’ve tried and it didn’t go as planned and what you learned from that initiative? 

Sherif Mityas:One of the things I’ve been trying to do is, how do we create more of this technology support into the running of our restaurants? And so less guest facing, more very internal. And, really, how do you get right the right connection between the technology recommending different opportunities, different ways to run the business with, obviously, our management teams that reside in these restaurants. And so, we’ve had a lot of trial and error, to be honest with you, in that space. In terms of trying to create and find the right balance. It’s an ongoing effort for us, again, being able to find the right mix. Between what should I be using from a technology perspective to create and better decision making, but by still allowing the, basically, the experience and the talent of our store teams to still run the restaurants. We’re not going to ever have an AI tool take over the running of a restaurant. But it’s finding that right blend that we continue to work through, because we haven’t got it solved yet. 

Stephanie Cox:I think about something similar with how I just manage my team here is, I like to think of it as guardrails? Like how do I give them the guardrails to be successful and the tools and resources, but also let them have the creativity and the ability to do what they were hired to do and at that they’re best at. So, thinking about overall brands in your industry and just really any consumer facing brand, what do you wish more brands would get onboard with doing?

Sherif Mityas:I really think it goes back to, again, all brands need to stop thinking as functional entities. I think more folks need to really think about and organize and plan and develop and execute across customers. Across customer journeys, across customer occasions. And really think about what you’re bringing out to the market and the experience, the total package. Not just the product or the service, but everything that that guest is going to experience and interact with your brand. How do you think about that in totality versus in individual steps in the journey? Because you can’t just have the marketing team say well, I’m going to go acquire a guest and then I’m going to throw that over to the operations team to go deliver or fulfill that good or service for that guest. And then, I’m going to have customer relations figure out how to deal with that guest once they’re outside. That will get you killed because the guest doesn’t think of it that way. A guest thinks of your brand and the interaction they have with Starbucks or with Nordstrom or with Fridays, they think about the interaction in totality with the brand. And so, every organization needs to think about that as their guiding principle. As the, what is the overall journey you want that guest to have? And you have to do the work behind the scenes to connect the dots. Don’t make the guest do it. 

Stephanie Cox: So let’s say that I agree with you, which I 100 percent do and I’m at a consumer-facing brand and I want to make this type of change in my organization. And I have the ability from a leadership perspective to make that change. What would you recommend I do to get started? Like what should I be thinking about, how should I think about organizing my team? Change management, really all of those things. What recommendations would you give me? 

Sherif Mityas: To really step back and understand what you are trying to deliver. If you understand your guests, your consumers well enough to understand what you need to deliver to engender their loyalty to your brand. And then let everything flow from there. So you say OK, if that’s the customer journey, the experience I want to give and there’s multiple ones. What do I need to do internally? So, what are the pieces within the organization that need to work together better? Who do I need to physically put in the same cubicle because they have to be connected at the hip to make that experience happen? And then, how do I think about the efforts. And then you start small. You pick off one journey and pick off one segment of guest and you say, I’m going to look and fix this. I’m going to make this piece better. Because what you also need with a change of this magnitude is you need some small wins and you need some early wins that you can really shout from the mountaintops that this is not just another, we’re gonna change boxes or change processes on a PowerPoint slide. This has real impact. This is really going to move the needle and so, create some small use cases, get some early wins. And that will really create the momentum that you’ll need, as an organization, to make this more widespread and really more of a way of thinking and a way of doing versus just another corporate initiative. 

Stephanie Cox: I wish more companies were thinking like TGI Fridays around their customer experience. There truly putting the customer at the heart of their efforts and it really shows. One of my favorite comments that Sherif made during our conversation was about how he likes to ask – What’s next? It reminded me of West Wing when Jed Bartlet is always asking his team. What’s next? Asking that question truly helps you set the stage that no matter what you accomplished or what challenge you saw there’s always something that’s next and how crucial is for all of us to be thinking about it. More of us need to be looking to the future and trying to determine what’s ahead so we can start tackling it as quickly as possible to make sure we’re not getting left behind.

There are so many great insights to my conversation with Sherif that can really help transform how you think about mobile marketing. Let’s dive into my top three takeaways. First, if you want to drive the customer experience fast, then you’re going to need to likely realign your organization to get the right people working together. And now I know that’s really hard and I know it’s easier said than done. It’s going to seem overwhelming at first because it’s different than how most organizations are typically structured today. But it really can help you accelerate innovation around the customer experience just like TGI Fridays is doing. Think about it for a second. What Sherif’s primary role is, is to connect the dots within the organization and be the voice of the customer to create touchpoints at the right time. That type of initiative requires a large number of people from a variety of areas to work together to make it happen. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s possible for cross-functional teams within an organization to work together. I’ve seen it happen, but what typically tends to happen in those situations is it’s not fast. It’s usually a huge project that ends up going along slowly because there’s a varying priorities within the whole group and there’s not a single person that truly owns it and can make decisions. Where as the structure that set up a TGI Fridays, puts one clear person in charge of the vision for the customer experience. They can set that strategic vision for everyone else to follow. It also ensures that the team executing the division is highly aligned and focused on the same thing and it’s putting the customer first in their company.

 Next, when you’re thinking about improving your customer experience. Make sure you consider what your customers actually want and not just what you think that they want. Sometimes it’s easier for all of us to get caught up in what we think our customers want and not take the time to take a step back and say is that actually what they really want. For example, perhaps they don’t want you to make an improvement in your existing process. They complain about all the time and instead the solution they really want is a better process. So think about talking to them and staying connected with them because that’s so important to find out what they really want. It’s also important to not overlook the impact that momentum can have on your customer experience initiatives. Even small wins are a big deal. You should shout them from the mountain tops and get the entire organization amped up about the impact your team is having. That’s how you get multiple small wins turn into a true movement really quickly. 

Finally, we talked about the importance of testing before on the podcast, but I think what TGI Fridays is doing regarding their Shark Tank days is really taking it to the next level. And personally, I think it’s brilliant. I’ve heard of company’s doing Shark Tank days where different groups in the organization get together and pitch an idea or an initiative and they choose one. But I’ve never heard of a company doing that with startups to find new ways of thinking about their business. It’s really a phenomenal idea because it’s not only exposing their team to different ways of thinking – new technologies ,new concepts. But it’s also giving them an opportunity to test out a new concept before any of their competition. And we all know there’s a significant advantage to being the first to market with a new technology or concept. Now, here’s my mobile marketing challenge for the week set aside 15 to 20 minutes. I know we’re all busy but you’ve got a 15 to 20-minutes people and ask yourself. What’s next? What are you currently not doing today in your efforts that you should be doing? Because it has the potential to impact your business down the road what technology or concept should you be implementing now, because I could give you a competitive advantage. What do you need to think of next? You need to constantly be thinking about what’s next for your business? That’s how you’re going to end up winning.

I’m Stephanie Cox and you’ve been listening to mobile matters. If you haven’t yet be sure to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast until then be sure to visit lumavate.com and subscribe to get more access to thought leaders’ best practices in all things mobile.