NAPICS 2011: How to turn service into sales

Feb. 21, 2011 | by Alicia Kelso

Restaurant servers are more than just a bunch of college kids working to pay off student loans. According to industry consultant Robert Welcher, they are a perfect opportunity to increase  daily overall sales.

Welcher, president/CEO of Restaurant Consultants Inc., discussed tips on “Turning Servers into Sellers – Increasing Sales and Profits with Salesmanship Training” at the North American Pizza & Ice Cream Show (NAPICS) this week in Columbus, Ohio.

In a tough economic situation, effective server-salesmanship training programs are a necessity. These programs can yield suggestive, add-on and upsell sales, which can increase check averages by up to 10 percent. 

Types of sales 

Welcher said it’s important for servers to be knowledgeable about every sales opportunity at a restaurant. They include:

  • Suggestive selling – A sale of something off the menu by recommendation, for example, “If you’re in the mood for a burger, our mushroom Swiss burger is delicious."
  • Add-on selling – An addition to a basic item, such as a piece of cheese, extra pizza toppings, or a scoop of ice cream with dessert.
  • Upselling – The method of turning the consumer’s choice into a higher-priced item, such as top shelf liquor versus well drinks, premium beers versus domestic beers, or specialty salads versus side salads.

Too many times, too many opportunities like these are missed, Welcher said. Coffee is the perfect example.

“A server will sell coffee only 30 percent of the time. This number may seem very surprising, but this is where training can help. If servers are trained to use descriptive phrases when offering coffee, like ‘Can I get you a fresh cup of coffee’ or a ‘hot cup’ if it’s cold out, these subtle, but descriptive, differences can make a big difference,” Welcher said.

Selective phrases are best used for upselling. For example, if a guest orders a vodka drink, the server can ask specifically if they prefer Stoli, Absolut or Skyy, and avoid listing non-top shelf brands.

Add-on sales are the most difficult and least effective; however, when handled properly, they can net big gains to an average check.

Servers also need to be educated on how to avoid negative selling tactics. Phrases such as “You didn’t want an appetizer, did you?” or “Did you save room for dessert?” should be avoided, for example.

Additionally, server-to-seller training can turn an order taker (“What can I get you?”) into an order maker (“Tonight we’re featuring the lager special … Would you care for the lager special?”) 

These small changes can be the difference between $1 million in annual sales and $1.1 million in annual sales, with no additional marketing dollars spent. 

“It simply comes down to your service staff selling every fourth customer a piece of cake that would increase the check average by $1,” Welcher said. “Spread that across to appetizers, soups, salads, toppings, sides, desserts and beverages and check averages can skyrocket.” 

Training is necessary

Getting these check averages up does require a bit of effort, however. Training needs to be ongoing and there should be plenty of motivation for servers to participate. Welcher said there are a few components that are necessary to include in an integrated sales training program:

  • Set Standards. Be very specific about your operation and what you expect. Come up with a handbook that includes a comprehensive outline of training, monitoring and reward methods, and stay consistent.
  • Test. Expect servers to take written and performance tests. Role-play before the restaurant opens. Your servers need to be knowledgeable about every aspect of the menu, including preparation, flavors and ingredients.
  • Monitor performance. Use mystery shoppers. This obligates the service staff to perform their required procedures and put what they’ve learned to practice.
  • Reward. Your associates need incentives and motivation. Suggestions include establishing commission on high-margin menu items; using trade-out with other restaurants, which only requires you to pay the cost of food; recognizing performances to peers; and rotating sales contests.

“No matter how much your service staff cares about you and your restaurant, after training they will most likely resort to their old, ineffective selling habits, especially if they’re not motivated,” Welcher said. “Training is an ongoing process and should be done three to four times a year. Often, the difference in success or failure is dependent on the level of sales performance of the restaurant’s sales staff.”


Topics: Business Strategy and Profitability , Customer Service / Experience , Food & Beverage , Hiring and Retention , Operations Management , Staffing & Training

Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with, and has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, and Franchise Asia magazine.
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