Part 1 - Suggestive Selling Can be Risky
Bill Marvin
The Restaurant Doctor™

I realize that I may be trifling with a religious tenet of modern restaurant management here but we are squarely in the age of service and I must point out an unpopular truth - suggestive selling techniques can be dangerous to your professional survival!

(Take a minute to catch your breath and still your pounding heart!)

I know you don't want to hear it. I know you want to believe that the salvation of your restaurant will be assured if only your staff would get with the suggestive selling program and pull up those check averages. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the truth is that the emperor doesn't have any clothes on . . . and probably never did.

This obituary might be easier to accept if you didn't have so much time, energy, money and professional ego invested in pushing the idea of suggestive selling to your staff. But the clues have been there all along. See if any of the following strikes a familiar cord:

- You have invested at least 38,000 man-hours lecturing your staff about the importance of increasing the check average.

- You have held close to 1300 suggestive selling training sessions.

- You have put thousands of dollars in books, tapes and posters about suggestive selling.

- You have made detailed financial calculations showing how much your service staff can increase their tips if they would only sell appetizers to one party in four.

- You have changed everybody's job title from server to salesperson.

- You have kept track of check averages and rewarded those with the highest averages or greatest increases.

- You have given the best stations or the choicest schedules to the people with the highest check averages.

- You have run sales contests with fabulous prizes - a few people do well and everyone else ignores you.

- You have fired (or threatened to fire) people because their check average was too low.

- You have lamented to your staff that sales were declining and hinted that if the check averages didn't improve, you might not be able to stay in business.

What's wrong with this picture? You've put out all this effort and I'll bet 95% of your service staff are still digging in their heels and fighting you about suggestive selling! It's time to wake up! Your service staff are not dummies - if they thought suggestive selling was in their own best interests, they would already be doing it. But they are savvy business people and they see the danger. They are not going to cut their own throats. So what do they see that you may have missed? They realize that their money comes from serving people, not from serving food.

We are in the service business and that means that Job One has to be making sure our guests are happy. As an operator, I always knew that keeping the guest happy was one of the things I wanted to do, but it was on the list with repairing the ice machine, working out the new menu and the dozens of other things I had to handle! But it has only been in the last few years that I have come to realize at a very gut level that the ONLY job an operator should focus on is making sure the guests are happy. If the guests aren't happy, you are in big trouble! If the people leaving your restaurant are not thrilled, who cares what your check average is?

To put it into perspective, ponder this: if everyone who had ever eaten in your restaurant was so pleased that they couldn't wait to come back and couldn't wait to tell their friends about you, what kind of sales volume would you be doing? I will suggest that you have no idea what sort of volume you are capable of doing. But it has to start with your guests. If you take care of your guests, your sales will take care of themselves. If your sales are there, your costs will likely be in line.

You see, one of the dangers of suggestive selling is that it places the emphasis on the needs of the operator rather than on the needs of the guests. If Job One is no unhappy guests, then success requires that your primary focus has to first be on what the guests want.

Every foodservice operator wants to build sales. If traffic levels are relatively flat, the approach most people take is building sales is to try to increase the check by suggestive selling. I fully acknowledge that, done with sincerity and skill, suggestive selling can enhance the dining experience for some guests.

Unfortunately, building sales by pumping the check can easily backfire. Done poorly (and most servers do it poorly because they don't believe in it), suggestive selling comes across to your guests as insincere, shallow and manipulative. A number of operators have even confessed to me that they can tell when a server in a competitor's restaurant has "read the book" because they feel like the sales machine has been unleashed on them. They notice it in their competitors' operations but the same thing is happening under their own roof and they miss it. The sad truth is that, for most patrons, suggestive selling as commonly practiced does not leave them with a comfortable feeling or make them anxious to volunteer for more.

A second danger is that when you or your staff fixate on how much money people are spending, it can be a distraction that gets in the way of establishing a good rapport with your guests. You might get the big sale tonight and lose the guests' future patronage. If that should happen, then pushing the check average was not a smart strategy for maximizing long term income.THE ALTERNATIVE A safer way to achieve sales growth is to have your guests return more often. In this mode, your goal is to delight your guests rather than simply trying to increase sales (although the two are not necessarily incompatible).

Let me illustrate what I mean. Let's say your typical guest comes in twice a month and your average check per person is ten dollars. Let's also say that you would like a 50% sales increase (who wouldn't?)! What are your options?

Well, you could try to increase your average check to 15 bucks and hope that people would still come in as often as they did before. You might be able to pull this off, but most operators I have talked with understand that their guests have a certain amount of money they are comfortable spending in any given situation. The odds are that an increased check would result in lowered patronage, so raising the average check is not likely to work.

You could invest heavily in promotion but promotion can also be very expensive. Every cost you add raises the sales required to net out a 50% increase. Besides, the odds of coming up with a campaign that would produce a consistent 50% sales increase are also pretty slim. Promotion is usually not the answer.

What are the odds that you could treat your guests in such a way that instead of coming in twice a month, they would come in three times a month? Pretty good, I'll bet. Just one more visit a month would provide that 50% sales increase . . . without any increase in average check and without any increased pressure on the guests or your service staff!

You see how it works? A 50% sales increase seems impossible, but getting guests to come back one more time a month seems pretty reasonable. And it is. After all, your guests are eating somewhere, why shouldn't it be with you? Even if guests come in twice a week, one more visit a month still translates into a 12«% sales increase, again without any pressure to increase the average check.

Don't get me wrong - if a guest wants to spend more money, I have absolutely no problem in taking it with gratitude and a smile! But it is about time we started putting our energies toward building guest loyalty, not the check average.

In the next installment of this series, I will continue the exploration of alternatives to suggestive selling. We will look at some tested ideas on how to build sales without selling and how your service staff can help develop repeat business.

for further information, contact:

Bill Marvin, The Restaurant Doctor™
PO Box 280
Gig Harbor, WA 98335
(800) 767-1055

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