Why suggestive selling works

Having dealt with restaurant front of house managers and their teams for over 25 years, I’ve concluded that the most common hesitation people have in using active sales techniques comes from the fear of being perceived as pushy. Earlier in my career I had limited success in dealing with that hesitation by bluntly saying, “your job is to sell food and drinks, so you’ll just have to do it”. I later discovered that a better way of dealing with the fear is to explain how suggestive selling works.

I’d start by using the analogy of a dinner party. The conversation would go something like this:

If you were having a dinner party at home and money was no object, wouldn’t you offer your guests drinks and snacks before dinner? And wine with dinner? And how about desserts? Of course, you would. Will they always accept your offer? Probably not. Should you offer anyway? Of course, you should! That’s what being a good host is all about.

The psychology of suggestive selling

Once a server understands that suggestive selling is ‘soft selling’ not ‘hard selling’, they are far more likely to give it a shot.

Suggestive selling means helping guests make decisions that are good for them. It’s recommending what’s good on the menu, asking questions about what guests are in the mood for, and then helping them choose the food or beverage they’d like. Suggestive selling is nothing more than recommending (not “pushing”) specific dishes, extras, sides, desserts, drinks, and other items.

Suggesting specific items shows guests they’re worth your time; it’s perceived as better service. Think of suggestive selling as providing a service, rather than a money grabbing exercise. The service being the instructions on how to have the best possible experience while the guests are in your venue.

Suggestive selling is using the power of suggestion to manifest an idea in the buyer’s mind of something they want. Many people have a negative reflex towards being sold something. They, on the other hand, will gladly buy something that they determined on their own that they wanted. The art of suggestive selling is to create the idea in their mind while allowing them to take credit for the idea.

How it works in practice

So, when trying to sell drinks on arrival, instead of asking: “How about some champagne to start with?” . . .

. . . You’ll likely get a better result by making some broad suggestions like: “What would you like to start off with? We have some wonderful cocktails, wine and bubbles by the glass, some icy cold beers, what takes your fancy?”

Suggestive selling is about making subtle statements that lead people to decide on their own to buy things you want to sell. It is not always about pushing particular items on them. Letting the guest have the thought on their own makes them feel like they are in control. It also prevents you from looking like a pushy salesperson.

The takeaway

If front of house team members can step into the role of ‘dinner party host’ every time they go to work, guests will be more satisfied, spend more and become loyal customers. Profits increase as a result.

The mark of excellence for a server who sells is the guest not being aware that they are being sold to. A good server provides their guests with what they want. A great server leads their guests to want things that they didn’t even know they wanted.


Chris Lambert