The sales challenge in restaurants: How you can overcome it


The unique part about running a restaurant is that often you can hardly do any on-site selling.

That’s because your guests mostly come to your restaurant with a fairly good idea of what they’re going to have. Also, they come with a ballpark figure of how much it’d cost them to have a meal in your restaurant.

Since they’ve often pretty much made up their minds on the product they want to buy from you and their budget, more often than not there’s little wriggle-way for your team to do any sales.

That’s starkly different from, say, a clothing department of a supermarket where you can upsell the customer a coat and shirt when all they were looking for was a tie. Or a car showroom, where the sales team has all the opportunity in the world to upsell the customer a higher model or convince them for an extended warranty.

Marketing, and other factors like word-of-mouth, will bring customers to your restaurant. But the moment they walk in, there is very limited room for you to upsell or cross-sell.

Here’s how you can do some selling that adds value to the diner’s experience and also brings you more revenue:

1. Build Trust

The first thing to do is to make sure everyone on your team understands selling isn’t the same as running after the guests’ money. It’s about creating a better experience profitably.

That means your captain / waiter shouldn’t always look at the right side of the menu (the side where you print prices) when making recommendations to your guests.

Robert Cialdini, in his famous book Influence, cites an example of how a waiter won the trust of guests by recommending some low-priced items. By doing that, he had the guests on his side: they were convinced the waiter wasn’t making choices based on prices. So when later the waiter recommended something pricey, guests didn’t mind it because he had already won their trust.

There could be more than one ways of debating this illustration, but the message is clear:

Your selling, just like in any other industry, begins by winning the trust of your guests.

2. Train the staff about the menu

For some reason, training is not valued highly in the restaurant industry: 43% do not offer a training manual (Source).

What kind of training can help you sell more on-site?

Quick tips:

Train for the menu: Your team should understand the menu well. That means your team should be able to make the correct recommendations. They should, for instance, know what curry will go best with a certain biryaani or what dessert is best after a continental meal.

Train for very young guests: Your staff should able to understand kids. And it’s not just about prams for infants or a special ice-cream for the 5-year old. It’s about deeper needs.

May be you need to serve a dish a little earlier to a kid who’s getting impatient — before the kid ruins the accompanying guests’ experience. May be the kids’ dessert needs one more cherry. Understand the kids and you’ll have their families come over a lot more often.

Train for young couples. To young couples who are on a date, nothing matters more than privacy. Serve them well but stay out of sight. Make sure you serve promptly but inconspicuously. Let them enjoy their time where they can be with each other.

Treat them with extra respect, give them the right privacy and you will have a loyal customer.

3. Take time designing your menu

Your marketing and promotional activities bring customers to your doorstep. Your reputation makes people trust the food you serve.

But it’s your menu that begins the selling.

An unimaginatively designed menu can make people order less than they’d like to; a well-designed menu make guests order better.

Remember, your menu is more than your calling card; it’s your virtual sales assistant.

Your restaurant menu should make people feel hungry.

It’s difficult for a plain-text menu to do that, but a menu with descriptions and select photos can do it much more effectively.

Quick Tips: While menu design is itself a big area, here are three things you’ll want to pay attention to.

1. Keep the names of your dishes exciting and descriptive… Compare “Punjabi Malai Kofta” with “Paneer and potato koftas dunked in thick, creamy sauce, cooked authentic Punjabi style”. The former gives you the name of just another dish; the latter wants you to order Malai Kofta right now.

2. …But leave some room for discussion. Not all your dishes should be fully explained on the menu. It’s a good idea to keep a few descriptions a little vague, especially exotic or unusual items. That encourages discussion between the guests and your waiters. This tactic can payoff even more if the guest are millennials — data suggests millennials are more experimental than others.

3. Use photos. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen enough menus without photos. I’d strongly suggest genuine photos rather than stock photos. Give your guests the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) experience!

4. Develop inbound marketing

Ok, so one part of the selling exercise is working on the menu and training on staff to skillfully upsell. Let’s call it outbound marketing, because you go out to the customers and try and sell.

Can there be inbound marketing within your restaurant?

Is it possible to draw customers on their own, not because you’re selling something to them?

Yes, you can make them your brand ambassadors.

Our own experience

In the restaurant of my resort in Dwarka — Goverdhan Greens — we’ve built a different system and it met with great success.

Almost all restaurants keep their kitchen off-limits for guests.

We do the opposite; we invite our guests inside our kitchen.

This simple exercise so strengthens our guests’ confidence in us that it regularly fetches us great reviews and feedback — and repeat business.

Because they see we take hygiene and cleanliness so seriously, they kind of become our brand ambassadors. That makes it inbound marketing for us.

5. Give them a reason to return

I’ll keep this short, because if you’re into this business, you’re probably already doing it by some kind of loyalty program.

In case you’re not doing it, you should consider having one.

A loyalty program isn’t about discounts; it’s about telling guests you’d like them to visit you again.

6. Network with local influencers

Unless you’re a part of a chain of restaurants that share the same brand name, national level celebrities may only matter so much. It’s often the local influencers who matter more.

While local influencers cannot do the inhouse selling to your guests, they could certainly make your task easier.

When a local influencer says that, for instance, the mousse you serve is worth dying for, your waiters have to work that much less in convincing guests.

7. Help them have fun

“Got over 500 followers on Insta? Great! Share your photo having dinner at my restaurant and you get a dessert free!”

A year back, I read about this tactic somewhere. And before long, I met a restaurateur from Bengaluru who was actually doing it.

I’m not too keen on offering freebies, but I realize the underlying message: leverage the new generation’s love for the social media.

Because we’re a resort, we have a number of spots that are excellent photo locations. So we’ve kind of designated them selfie spots.

We encourage our guests to capture great moments on their cameras or cellphones on that spot. And being out there in the open air whets their appetite.

If you have the advantage of a good outdoor location (e.g. a rooftop restaurant), you can leverage it to help your guests enjoy the time they spend there.

Parting words

Selling is not about pushing your guest to increase their spend; it’s about helping them have great time.

And this kind of selling takes patience, understanding guests’ needs and the willingness to keep improving.

As a business, you need to make money to sustain and grow. This means you’ll need to know how to sell, but what I’ve learnt is that if you take care of your guests and genuinely try and create a wonderful experience for them, most things take care of themselves.

What do you think of this article? I’d love to hear from guests, restaurant owners and managers, and foodies!!!