TGI Fridays adds in-store review devices to enrich customer ‘data lake’

TGI Fridays wants to appease disgruntled customers before they blast the restaurant chain on Yelp.

To do so, this week the restaurant began equipping guest checks with a device that resembles a smartphone and will ask for honest feedback on the dining experience. It asks customers to rate food items they’ve ordered and the service, and customers can also add comments on the overall experience. Managers are alerted as the comments come in, so they can thank customers for their business and discuss what might make the experience better.

It’s an effort to be more proactive about customer feedback. The casual dining chain wants to know what its customers are thinking before they leave the restaurant, so it can encourage them to return and deal with concerns during the restaurant visit. It’s also a data play. Customers have the opportunity to add their email address, which helps the company build digital profiles of customers based on what they order, which restaurants they go to, and their reviews.

“It’s critical for us to be able to engage with guests in realtime,” said TGI Fridays’ chief experience officer Sherif Mityas.

The reviews are one component of a centralized customer database Mityas calls TGI Fridays’ “data lake,” which incorporates information from point-of-sale devices, loyalty programs, and social media. Using this information, the restaurant can craft digital “guest personas.” The company then uses an AI platform that develops personalized marketing messages for customers who have opted to receive them.

The launch of the real-time feedback devices, built by U.K.-based restaurant data and analytics company Yumpingo, is the latest move for the casual dining chain to become a digital-first, data-driven business. TGI Fridays, which this week brought on a new CEO (Ray Blanchette, the former CEO of Ruby Tuesday), reportedly delivered $1.3 billion in U.S. system-wide sales last year. It said information from the feedback devices will be added to a bigger pool of data it’s collecting from customers from multiple sources to personalize outreach efforts.

Like all consumer-facing businesses, knowing the customer is a critical edge in a competitive marketplace. Mityas said the company is moving past targeting particular demographics to a focus on individuals based on what it knows about their preferences and behavior.

“We need to get past the point where we’re targeting baby boomers or soccer moms or millennials,” he said. “We’re targeting Mary or John — data is what allows us to get to the level of specificity to create a one-on-one engagement.”

Mityas explained that prior attempts to collect feedback were restricted to a link to a survey on a customer receipt or hiring companies to dispatch employee reviewers who pose as customers. These approaches offer comments that are limited in scope, and don’t let the restaurant use the information to improve the customer experience before customers have left. If customers offer their e-mail addresses, data collected from the reviews can also be used to build electronic customer profiles that can be used to target marketing messages and promotions.

According to Gary Goodman, CEO of Yumpingo, which currently works with U.K. restaurant chains Mitchells & Butlers, Wagamama, Bird and Harvester, 65 percent of tables equipped with its devices take part in the one-minute digital survey. He said some brands the company is working with have seen a sales lift as a result of the devices, including Bird, which saw 8 percent same-store sales growth at locations where the devices were being used.

Casual dining chains like TGI Fridays face declining sales and are increasingly adding tech innovations to keep customers; meanwhile, fast-casual restaurants like Panera, McDonald’s and Dunkin are growing capabilities for pre-ordering, mobile payments and customer data optimization. By focusing on “data warehousing,” TGI Fridays is making a bet that better customer analytics will fuel growth, said Aaron Allen, CEO of restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates.

“Casual dining is frantically swimming around in the water looking for some kind of lifeline; technology is one of those things that they want to use to swim over in that direction,” he said. “Data warehousing is one of those pieces — it’s strategic, it’s about ‘how do we improve on speed, convenience, and how do we get smarter as an organization.'”

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