The Lost Art Of Suggestive Selling

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This will be relevant by the end of the post.

“Subtlety is the art of saying what you think and getting out of the way before it is understood.” –Anonymous

We as a society have really lost the power of subtlety.  It could be because we have lost the patience to unravel it.  We receive far more information on a daily basis than our ancestors a hundred years ago could even process.  Most of this information is not subtle.  It is blasted at us with bells and whistles to get our attention.  The news channels do not just report the news, they also tell us what to think about it.  Movies no longer imply that a couple is about to “make whoopee”, they show us the scenes in the trailer.  In a few generations we have gone from Marilyn Monroe standing over a vent to Britney Spears getting out of a limousine.

With all of these changes, we have forgotten what it means to be “suggestive.”  This is particularly true in restaurants.  A few decades ago, corporate restaurants determined that they wanted their servers to be sales people.  The also determined that they had no interest in paying for the training necessary to actually accomplish this.  Instead, they decided to teach their servers to use adjectives and “suggestive selling.”  One of the first posts on this blog was declaring my disdain for the overuse of adjectives.  I recently realized that I never discussed my equal dislike for the corporate restaurant incarnation of “suggestive selling.”

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The Rules of Serving: Rule Five

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Rule Five: Always recommend what is in the guest’s best interest, not yours.

(Note: There are many hyperlinks today that will send you to posts were I have previously addressed specifically issues that I address in this post.)

This is the second time in two days I have sat down to write this post.  Yesterday, I got caught up in a tangent which I think serves as an important preface to this post.  It even inspired a comment immediately that proved its accuracy.  In the preface, I discuss how restaurant companies have encouraged servers to focus on upselling and thus significantly damaged the relationship between servers and their guests.

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Selling, Upselling, and Integrity

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I sat down today to write about rule five.  As I did so I realized that a preface was in order.  This morning I sat on my patio drinking coffee and reviewing the outline that I have scribbled on a legal pad. I began thinking about why this post was even necessary.  It should be common sense not to try to rip off your guests.  “Always recommend what is in the guest’s best interest, not yours” should go without saying.  Unfortunately, it directly contradicts what many servers are being encouraged to do.  So much so that even the guests know it.

I experienced this yesterday.  Waiting on a large group of teachers at lunch, I offered recommendations off the menu.  I suggested the sockeye salmon the chef was offering as his daily special.  I mentioned the flavor difference of wild caught salmon.  I discussed the life cycle, diet, and high levels of omega 3.  When I took the order, most of them chose my recommendation.  The last one looked up at me and said, “you are a great salesman, so I will have the salmon too.”  I was taken aback by this statement.  My description was more reminiscent of a teacher or a food critic than a salesman.  I did not use a “close” or try to appeal to their emotions.  I tried to sell them the best item by educating them and allowing them to make an informed decision.  My response to her was, “The difference is I will be here for the entire time you have the plate in front of you.  That is a guarantee no salesperson can make.”

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Three Ways to Describe Dishes

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One of the biggest stumbling blocks to servers when trying to make the jump from casual dining to nicer restaurants is describing nightly specials.  Learning to describe the dish in a way that makes it sound appealing without tasting or possibly even seeing the item can be difficult.  Many restaurants offer multiple specials on any given evening, which only serves to make it more complex.  Add to that the limited amount of time you have to learn it before your first table and you have a very stressful situation. It is imperative that you have a system in place to learn and recite information about the items you offer in a way that makes them appealing to the guest.

We have already discussed the importance of offering a recommendation and what words to use in it.   The skills discussed here are particularly relevant to servers who have to recite specials nightly, but can be employed by all servers.  When you offer a recommendation off the menu, you need to be prepared to describe the food in greater detail than the menu provides.  Describing food, whether it is on the menu or a nightly special, must be done in a way that makes the food appeal to the guest and paints a mental picture for them.  Ideally you want to create a mental picture of the entrée in their head while describing the flavors that make it exceptional.

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Wine Descriptions That Sell

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I was recently having a conversation with a group of co-workers including one who I had trained the week before.  The topic of Mezcal came up.  I gave up drinking years ago and well before the current Mezcal craze hit the Midwest.  The new server, with an impressive bartending resume, began to describe it to me.  He discussed the “minerality” of it.  He noted the hints of leather and iodine it contained.  As a former Scotch fan I knew what he meant, but was not the least bit tempted to try some.

As servers we are tasked with not only being able to describe food and wine, but also describe it in a way that is appetizing.  Too often servers will fall in to the trap of letting their knowledge and jargon get in the way of describing wine in a way that guests can relate too.  As a server, you should never let your expertise overwhelm your ability to describe wine in a way the guest can understand.  While you should never be condescending to your guests, you should start with a very basic description and give more details as requested.  If you start with the technical, you run a huge risk of turning off the guest or sounding condescending when following up with a more simplistic description.

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I Make A Mean Cherry Limeade

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If my tombstone was written by coworkers, guests, or bartenders it would read, “Here lies Dave, he made a mean cherry limeade.”  I have declared this to every table I have served in the last three years.  When you order a cherry limeade at my restaurant, the chit prints up at the bar with simply my name.  Guests who I have waited on before recognize me from the line.  Perhaps no one other than Sonic has done more to increase awareness of cherry limeades in my town than I have.

Here is the initial drink pitch:

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Using Words That Sell

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In nearly every training manual, at nearly every restaurant, there is a section on using adjectives to sell.  This is often the extent of the sales training in them.  They encourage you to use words like “awesome” and “incredible” to sell the food to guests.  The authors of the manuals picture an army of servers bounding to the tables talking about how “awesome” the nachos are or the “incredible” margaritas.  They envision the guests will be overcome with curiosity and order these items in droves.   The new server fresh out of training goes to the table confident in this finely tuned sales pitch, only to be met with an eye role from the guests.  Discouraged, they decide eventually to just take the order.

The idea of using words to sell is important, but most companies do not take the effort to adequately explain how to do it.  This leads to poorly crafted and obvious sales pitches that are more likely to alienate a customer than convince them to buy.  The use of generic adjectives like “awesome” or “incredible” is so overdone that it can actually put guests on the defensive.  It can create an adversarial relationship with the guest that is the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.  The key to avoiding this is to use words that inform guests, paint a picture, and emphasize qualities they are looking for in their meal.

Here are some guidelines to think about when selecting your words:

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