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The Lowdown on Upselling

Servers are a restaurant’s frontline sales force. They play a key role in building check averages and cultivating relationships that keep guests coming back.

One of the most powerful tools in a server’s arsenal is upselling, or “suggestive selling.” Done right, it’s a proven way to bolster profits and guide customers to items that enhance their experience. But there’s a fine line between selling and making customers feel pressured or manipulated. In other words, the technique requires finesse. Here’s how:

Start at the front door. “The greeter can take customers to the table and suggest a refreshing drink,” says Dan Longton, President and CEO of Florida-based TraitSet, a workforce-management service provider. “Before you’ve even seated them, you’ve sold a drink.”

Hold the water. Consider not automatically serving water. “Drinks like iced tea, at $2, add up to a huge number over the course of a year,” says Claire Crowell, Director of Operations for A. Marshall Family Foods Inc. in Tennessee.

Suggest upscale upgrades. For those customers who do request water, suggest bottled.

Encourage indulgence. Suggest dessert items three times during service. “Even if customers haven’t saved room for dessert, the suggestion makes them easy take-home sells,” Crowell says.

Emphasize the experience. “Good servers always recommend ways to make the meal more pleasurable,” Longton says. “Ultimately it’s about better margins and bigger tips, but it starts with the customer experience.”

Build on familiarity. Always ask customers if they’ve visited before. If a customer has a favorite dish, suggest ways to enhance it, or recommend other menu items.

Be genuine. Make personal recommendations. “One of our servers really likes the BLT, and she upsells it very well, explaining that she likes to add a fried egg and pimiento cheese,” Crowell says. “It’s amazing how many she sells and how much customers appreciate her enthusiasm.” Customers can sense when servers are just trying to “up the bill.” 

Upsell right on the menu. Put a symbol next to your specialties.

Set customer expectations. If you talk customers into adding cheese and mushrooms to their burger and those items cost a dollar more, let them know. 

Sell strategically. “A good server is able to suggest a better value that brings more profit—a positive for the customer and the business,” Crowell says.

Sell the sizzle. Use enticing descriptions. Make options—such as a specialty coffee after dinner—sound inviting to guests who have declined dessert. 

Motivate your staff. Sponsor contests and give prizes to servers who sell the most.

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