May We Suggest…

Foodservice and Hospitality, October 2002. David Lipton

Would you find it hard to believe that within a one-year period it’s possible to increase your revenue per customer by $3, and realize a 300-per-cent return on investment? All operators are concerned with maximizing and increasing profits, something that will often be accomplished by increasing the average check, usually through a price increase or by switching to lower-quality ingredients. Those are good ideas – if you’re hoping to lose customers. After all, loyal customers easily become discouraged when a visit to their favourite restaurant suddenly requires a bank loan. Instead of paying a premium for the same meal they once thoroughly enjoyed, they’ll take their business to your competitor. The more effective way to realize a substantial gain in profits, and actually improve customer service without a price increase or skimping on quality, is to upsell.

Upselling, also known as suggestive selling, can be implemented quickly with minimal investment and will produce immediate results. Aimed at getting more money at the point of a sale, upselling is simply offering a suggestion to an already receptive buyer to enhance the value of his or her purchase. And most customers will appreciate a server’s thoughtfulness and honesty when they offer them suggestions to make their experience more enjoyable.

Wait staff should make suggestions to guests without being overbearing. Their suggestions should be helpful, without meaning to pressure. For instance, a customer who seems unsure of what to order may appreciate a server saying “That’s not bad, but it’s not what we do best. Can I suggest one of my favourites from the menu?” Other examples could include “Is there an appetizer/dessert you had in mind, or would you like a suggestion?” or “The apple pie is great here. Would you like some with ice cream or without?” These are key phrases in leading a customer to order something they may not have thought of on their own, but would still thoroughly enjoy. Honesty is important; servers should be sure not to lead the guest astray.

Proper selling techniques result in more satisfied customers, especially as suggestive selling helps to create customer awareness of the products and services available to them. A customer who enters a restaurant does so with the intention of spending money, so by making them feel comfortable they may be willing to spend more. The key is to suggestively sell, not oversell. Marketing experts have found that if offered to each customer, 30 to 70 per cent of them will agree to additional or alternate product suggestions.

To maximize profits through suggestive selling, you must first ensure that the environment supports the effort. To introduce upselling into your restaurant, consider hiring salespeople, not just order takers. After all, to effectively upsell a server must have the ability to sell. Good salespeople develop rapport with customers quickly by asking customer-oriented questions. For example, a guest who has trouble deciding what to order will appreciate the server asking what type of food they feel like eating, and then suggesting an appropriate item. The better the rapport, the more likely customers will trust the server and accept recommendations. Servers must also have a desire to help, and be able to recognize opportunities to upsell.

Operators can help wait staff sell by developing a chart of menu items and their interrelationships. For instance, provide servers with knowledge of what wine will go well with the fish, so that they will be able to recommend it without hesitation. Of course, servers must know the menu inside and out and be able to offer their personal recommendations.

Many servers may be reluctant to try suggestive selling because they’re uncomfortable with the idea. For this reason, staff training should incorporate upselling techniques aimed at improving staff skills, knowledge, and attitudes, while allowing them to practice their selling skills through role-playing. This way management can observe if the greeting is correct, that staff make eye contact with patrons, and that they do not simply spew out a rehearsed phrase such as “Would you like fries with that?” Providing recognition or rewards to encourage upselling is also effective, as is reminding servers that the higher the cost of the meal, the larger the tip they will receive.

There are also several marketing techniques restaurateurs can use to encourage upselling. Product bundling offers another opportunity to upsell. A prix fixe menu or daily specials that include a dessert so that the customer perceives added value, will increase profits. Visual aids will also boost sales. Props such as tent cards and blackboards can be effective suggestive selling tools. And wheeling out a decadent dessert cart after a meal may be just they thing to tempt guests into satisfying their sweet tooth. Merely seeing the enticing item set down before another guest often prompts a customer to follow suit.

Finally, remember that there’s a fine line between effective suggestive selling and obnoxious pushing. Suggestive selling should be a soft sell, with servers offering to help guests without coming across as pushy. The key is for customers to leave feeling their money wasn’t wasted. When done correctly suggestive selling not only prompts customers to spend more, but also conveys a high calibre of customer service, stimulating repeat business and ultimately increasing profits.

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