In my book, The Accidental Salesperson, I discuss how everything in life is sales, and how the basics of the sales process can be applied to any other interaction. This includes waiting tables.
One of the most important aspects of a professional sales interaction is the needs analysis. In other words, the salesperson finds out exactly what the prospect needs so that he can deliver a product or service that helps them achieve their goals. If a salesperson can deliver what their prospect is looking for, he has greatly increased his chances of making the sale. Even though you may not consider the servers at your restaurant to be salespeople in the traditional sense of the word, there are many benefits to teaching them basic sales techniques. By having your servers perform a needs analysis each time they’re in front of a new table, you will see that both the per-table revenue and customer satisfaction will rise dramatically.
Typical interactions in the business world allow the salesperson the luxury of having 30-60 minutes to meet with their prospect and conduct an in-depth discussion of the challenges facing their business, competition threats and success stories. In the restaurant world, your servers have 30-60 seconds. How does a server run an effective needs analysis in less than a minute? That’s the power of the questions “why” and “what.”
When a server approaches a table, they should welcome the group with some version of the question “Why have you come to the restaurant today?” That question could then be followed up with “What do you typically eat when you’re here?”
The key to a good needs analysis is asking open-ended questions. The ‘why’ and ‘what’ questions I suggested above cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That’s good for your business. Often when I’m at a restaurant, the server will say something along the lines of “Welcome to [restaurant], can I interest you in ___________ (names two products from the bar and two appetizers).” Years ago, when I waited tables, we were all taught to push certain menu items to raise the per table average. Of course, the profit margin on alcohol is huge and one appetizer could add $7-$15 to the bill. There are two problems with that kind of approach. The first is that the server is only giving the guests two choices of drinks and two choices of appetizers, obviously a very small percentage of your menu. The second problem is that more often than not, the answer to the server’s question is “no.”
With the more subtle needs analysis approach to sales, the server will not only be able to accomplish the same goal of adding items to the bill, but will relax your guests as they will see their server as someone who has the expert opinion as part of a collaborative dining experience.
Here is a conversation using the needs analysis approach to sales. Notice that the server only asks open-ended questions:
Server: “Welcome to [restaurant]. What brings you in here today?”
Guest: “We’re celebrating our friend’s birthday.”
Server: “That’s great. What do you typically drink when you are celebrating?”
Guest: “White wine is always good. What do you have?”
Server: “[gives recommendation]… also, our appetizers are great for a celebration. When you have appetizers, what have you liked in the past?
… and so on. Because the server didn’t approach the table with specific ideas that the guests might reject, he has proven to the guests that he cares about their restaurant experience and is a valuable resource if they have additional questions throughout the meal.
Regardless of the sales interaction, people prefer to buy from those they know, like, and trust. Remember to stress the importance of the needs analysis to your servers. By initiating a collaborative relationship, they are building trust and increasing the likelihood of the sale. By asking open-ended questions, the server broadens the scope of the sale by allowing the guests to state their preferences, which the server can then use to recommend specific menu items.