Guests are a funny lot. They visit your bar or restaurant to buy something, yet usually they object to being “sold” anything. What they do want, however, is to be pampered, informed, complimented on their choices, and, ultimately, served what they’ve ordered, but never by a pushy server or bartender who they suspect is trying to pad the check.
That attitude alone is enough to give suggestive selling a bad name. And rightly so, when the practice takes on the robotic, lifeless spirit so often evident in restaurants today. Whether it’s monotonous combo-meal suggestions made at the drive-through or scripted salespeople droning on about add-on benefits of everything from pay cable upgrades to extended warranties and stain protection, American consumers have been worn out by the add-on pitch.
By the time guests reach your restaurant, most people are fed-up with fast-talking come-on pitchers. Which is why the suggestive selling of old tends to come off flat today, when customers are skeptical and wary of paying for something they don’t actually want. It’s time to refine the approach, directing your wait staff to guide guests instead of beguiling them, feature products instead of forcing them.
We call them tricks of the trade, some surefire ways to sell more beer, wine and spirits without making guests feel the pressure of a twisted arm.
The Power of What
For a server, assuming the sale is paramount to suggestive-selling success. The trick is to emphasize the persuasiveness, not pushiness, of server recommendations. Especially at the initial greeting, it’s wise to avoid posing questions that can be easily dismissed with a “yes” or “no” response. Yet guests hear it all the time: “Can I start you off with something to drink?” “Gee, I don’t know. Just water, thanks.”
A better choice may be: “What can I start you off with to drink.” The addition of one word — what — covers much ground in closing the sale.
Amplifying the opening sales pitch with specific product suggestions can seal the deal: “What can I start you off with — a cold beer, a glass of wine, a cocktail?” With this multiple-choice option, the guest gets to select from a series of options about what to order instead of whether to order.
Proficiency at service-oriented sales should be honed on a regular basis. At Stuart Anderson’s, Los Altos, CA, the wait staff receives something called “trickle training,” steady but not overwhelming doses of performance-enhancing instruction. “Every week new product information is distributed to the stores, including specifics that managers can share at pre-shift meetings,” says director of training Bud Everts. “The staff consistently gets a little bit of training always instead of too much all at once.”
Suggest Your Best
Once guests decide what they want, there are endless ways to upgrade: A pint instead of a small glass, a select varietal by the bottle or glass, a call spirit rather than well. “The better the product, the better it tastes,” says Rob Gage, who oversees training for Pacific Coast Restaurants. “So we always like to recommend premium pours.”
The wait staff at Pacific Coast Restaurants follows precise steps of service delivery. If a guest, for example, orders a gin and tonic, the automatic question is: “Do you have a favorite? We carry Tanqueray, Boodles or Bombay Sapphire. Which would you prefer?”
Just like that, two birds drop with one stone. The initial “Do you have a favorite?” guides the selection process toward the top shelf. “Which would you prefer?” assumes the sale without taking the guest out of the driver’s seat. This sales strategy suits wine and beer as well.
When guests don’t take the initiative to order wine on their own, wait staff should be prepared to act. Knowing when to bring up the idea and when to close in on the sale often means the difference between getting a sale or a rejection.
As many as four occasions during the meal present wine-selling opportunities:
1. When seating guests. The host or hostess should present the wine list immediately, pointing out specials and specific offerings. When the server visits the table a minute later, the seed for the wine sale will have been planted, increasing the likelihood of a taker.
2. When greeting guests. At the initial greeting, servers can pick up where the host or hostess left off, suggesting a premium varietal wine either by the glass or bottle, for instance. An effective approach is to mention wine in general at first, then become more specific at the end of the sales dialogue.
Example: “What can I start you off with to drink — a glass of wine, a beer, a cocktail? Tonight we’re featuring Asbury Hills Chardonnay by the glass and bottle.”
Notice how the recommendation starts off simply (a glass of wine) and proceeds into more detail (Asbury Hills Chardonnay.) This technique gets results because guests tend to remember the first and last things servers say.
Suggesting wine by the glass makes sense for guests who can’t agree on a particular wine, or who want to sample before settling on a bottle, or who may want to start with one varietal and switch to another. If guests are considering wine by the glass and they’re gravitating toward the same one, that’s a cue to suggest sharing a bottle.
3. When checking back with guests. Just because wine has been ordered once doesn’t mean the selling stops. When checking back on food quality, servers should always fill the glasses of those drinking wine. When the bottle runs dry, it’s time to suggest a second. Short-and-sweet tends to be the most effective dialogue here.
4. When capping off the meal. The last time to suggest and sell wine is near the end of the meal. Ports, for example, complement desserts containing nuts. Sparkling wines go well with fresh-fruit selections. Dry cabernets bring out the flavor in chocolate-based desserts.
Pair It Up
Beer drinkers love to guzzle and graze, which adds up to increased sales if servers and bartenders know their products. “Beer naturally pairs with our ribs,” says Larry Clark, director of training for Damon’s, Columbus, OH. “It doesn’t take a lot of convincing — just a pointed suggestion and a good description of the beer to back it up.”
Selling the first brew is a snap, but selling the second or even the third is what separates the pros from the one-shot wonders. A mistake often made, however, is to wait until guests have finished the first before suggesting the second. Servers and bartenders will be much more successful and perceived to be much more attentive if they overlap, suggesting additional rounds when glasses are one-half to two-thirds gone.
In doing so, servers and bartenders should avoid words that make the order seem excessive. “Would you like another one” can have a one-too-many ring to it. A better suggestion: “How about a fresh one?”
Whether it’s a tall, cold beer perfectly drawn, a flashy specialty drink or a glamorous bottle of wine, servers should carry it through the dining room at about guests’ eye level. By the time those drinks reach the final destination, they’ve more than likely tempted a number of onlookers. “When you see a tray of our Red, Green and Blue Martinis flying through the bar,” says Gage of Pacific Coast Restaurants, Portland, OR, “it’s bound to catch people’s attention.”
And catching attention, after all, is what the restaurant and bar business is all about.
Bill Asbury is President and CEO of Pencom International, a leading provider of Real World Training Solutions for the hospitality industry: He can be reached at 800-247-8514 or www.pencominternational.com.