Knowledge, enthusiasm and a planned approach can turn servers into sellers

“Knowledge is the foundation of all sales success,” hospitality expert Bob Brown said during a presentation Sunday at the National Restaurant Association Show's BAR 17 expo in Chicago. In a session entitled, “Turn Your Staff into Beverage Sales Superstars,” Brown outlined strategies that restaurant owners and managers can use to boost check averages and increase customer satisfaction. Knowledge -- both of the menu and the customers -- is at the heart of each of the key takeaways that Brown outlined.

Don’t ask, suggest

Yes-or-no questions aren’t an ideal way for servers to interact with customers, said Brown, who recommends using a series of suggestions to guide diners through the meal. Instead of asking “can I take your order?” servers should suggest a variety of drink options after they greet a table of customers. Describing a few options -- such as a couple signature cocktails, a beer and a red and a white wine -- takes less than a minute but can provide enough information to help diners make a choice.

“Order-takers sell slower and less, sellers sell faster and more,” said Brown, whose guidance has helped brands including Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Disney, which increased restaurant sales by $66 million after adopting his methods.

The suggestion technique is also crucial at the end of the meal, when servers should avoid the cliched query, “did you save room for dessert?” and instead  aim to entice customers by describing a few dessert selections and other end-of-meal options like coffee drinks and cordials.

Take diners on a tour of the menu

In addition to suggesting beverages and dishes, servers should point out their location on the menu, taking diners on a tour of the menu section by section. This technique allows servers to guide the guests and help them design a meal. Simply describing one item from each section gives customers an overview of all the options and allows servers to offer advice on which dishes might be good to share amongst the group or what items pair well together.

“The most dangerous thing a waiter can do is leave the guest with the menu too long,” Brown said. “If you can get your waiters to be fluent enough to suggest beverages and food at the same time, they never leave the guest alone. If I...give a tour I get all kinds of feedback about what people like and what they don’t like.”

The power of “by the way”

Becoming an expert at upselling can obviously help servers boost check averages, but it requires finesse. Brown is a strong believer in the phrase, “by the way,” which he said can help servers upsell without seeming pushy. If a customer orders a vodka tonic without specifying a brand of vodka, saying “we have a great selection of vodkas which include Grey Goose, Ketel One, Belvedere, Absolut…” presents a range of premium choices but doesn’t make the customer feel as if he or she is being manipulated.

Also key to making customers feel at ease is a server’s attitude. Menu knowledge and savvy sales tactics need to backed up with enthusiasm, said Brown, who stressed the importance of speaking in a loud, clear voice and being mindful of body language.

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