Situational Selling is Key to Better Tableside Service

By Jim Sullivan Copyright Sullivision.com

Server-to-customer menu merchandising is a complex art that is commonly misunderstood, hastily taught, and challenging to master. And contrary to popular belief, selling inside the four walls is neither a single thing nor a simple process. It is a skill, and a challenging one at that. Let’s take a closer look at the why, when and how of an effective internal server sales program.

First things first; driving additional revenue and gross margin every shift is a non-negotiable fundamental of business. And you can drive additional revenue in a restaurant one of two ways: 1) increase customer traffic, or 2) raise the guest check average. You achieve the former through effective marketing. You achieve the latter through situational selling.

I would advise that if you have a choice, invest first in better marketing (advertising, promotion, signage, service) since it’s a surer way to raise sales; if you increase customer traffic you simultaneously build check averages. Getting a new or repeat guest to come in one more time increases the average spend (with that person) 100%. And besides, marketing is much easier to measure and manage than training a server crew to sell. To paraphrase researcher Malcolm Knapp, selling is simple, but simple is hard.

Most operators think of server-to-guest menu merchandising one-dimensionally, but there are, in fact, at least three kinds of pro-active selling that servers can do (actually four, if you count doing no selling at all):

  • 1) suggestive selling, which means pro-actively recommending food or beverage (“Would you like to try our Brownie Ice Cream Shake?”)
  • 2) upselling, which means suggesting a larger size with a higher price point (customer says “Brownie Ice Cream Shake” and server says “Large?”), or
  • 3) situational selling, the preferred method of the three that combines menu merchandising, timing, logic and customizing the experience to each patron’s expectations.

In QSR or fast-casual operations, where time is money, options one and two above may be reasonable. But in tableside restaurants, situational selling is the only acceptable alternative for exceptional customer care in 2009. Customizing the service experience for every guest is the key to repeat business in today’s foodservice arena. “Any canned patter is not guest friendly,” says Paul Bolles-Beaven, a partner at the Union Square Hospitality Group in NYC. “Servers should read each party instead, figure out how much suggestion, if any, they want, and leave it at that.”

Not fully understanding the nuances of the three menu merchandising processes outlined above—much less how it should be taught to and used by servers–operators took the easy route. They focused on higher sales, not necessarily repeat business, and so their managers rote-trained and drilled servers to memorize scripted suggestive sell responses. They should have patiently taught servers how to effectively “read” customers and make suggestions appropriate to the situation instead. This penny-wise, pound-foolish philosophy may have saved training time but it caused many a waiter to sell first, serve later, and unfortunately view customers as Very Important Pocketbooks instead of persons. “Suggestive selling” and “upselling” were not as offensive a decade ago, when customers were less sophisticated, or rather, less inured to scripted servers echoing identical recommendations across the dining room. Many customers now find this process abrasive and crude in tableside service operations.

In situational selling the server first assesses the overall situation—factoring in daypart, wait list, kitchen throughput, and most importantly, customer expectations. Good servers don’t burst in to a party’s conversation at tableside restaurants with a harried look and a hurried suggestion of drinks or appetizers. They begin by taking the “experience order” first; greeting the guest with a smile and asking questions that determine the kind of experience the guest is looking for. They will then customize (or minimize) suggestions to meet or exceed that expectation. It’s a difficult skill to teach and so it’s often left untaught.

So how to best train your servers to understand and use situational selling? Well, first, teach them how to think before you tell them what to do. This will be the hardest part but well worth the effort. Here are four other basics:

Adopt the guest’s perspective. Always think this first. What would I value if were the customer? What would wow them? In QSR and fast casual, it may be as simple as getting the order out accurately and fast. In tableside restaurants, the best type of menu merchandising is always dependent on the situation. Rehearse and role-play potential scenarios during server orientation and training.

Overhear and then adapt. Great servers learn to discreetly eavesdrop on their (or their colleague’s) tables throughout the meal to gain insight about potential recommendation opportunities (and more importantly, problems). Customers will often share disappointments about food or beverage with one another without telling the server.

Search for models of great service and selling. Find the crew members who do it best and find out why. Which competitors do you admire most relative to tableside menu merchandising? Find out what they do that you don’t and figure out how to replicate it and do it better.

Teach servers to pay attention when they’re the customer. What kind of selling do they appreciate or react most positively to when they shop in person, on the phone or even online? Discuss it with your team.

Bottom line: the first thing servers should be focused on “selling” is value and a great experience. The secondary “sales goal” is a repeat visit. Everything else is gravy.