In the current economic climate operators need to pull out all the stops to sustain business. Humayun Hussain learns how staff, with the right training, can help increase revenue
Making a sale in a restaurant isn't about launching an aggressive sales pitch it's about the gentle art of seduction.
It's about welcoming the customer with a friendly smile, making them feel at ease, looking after them and giving them what they want - which is, ultimately, what being in the hospitality industry is all about.
When customers are comfortable and feel like they're getting what they want, they usually spend more money than they had intended, which means a healthier profit margin for your business. And this crucial customer decision of what they do or don't order can be swayed by your waiting staff.
They are both your sales team and your eyes and ears on the sales floor. How they interact with your customers is critical, so slamming down the menu in front of diners and talking down to them in a bored and robotic fashion won't do.
But the right mix of warmth, an attitude to please without being too gushing, the correct advice on what to have, coupled with adequate knowledge and knowing how to impart it, along with gentle persuasion, certainly will.
Of course, not everyone will have the confidence to pull it all off, but that is where staff training, what you expect of them, what you tell them and how you reward them will all define them as good or bad sales people.
"It's essential that any staff we employ are personable and comfortable about talking to customers and making them feel at ease," says Tom Kerridge, chef-patron of the renowned Hand & Flowers gastropub in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, winner of the 2007 Newcomer Catey. "When you greet customers that way it creates a level of informality and lulls them into a sense of security where they know they will be well looked after. That in itself is a very good way of setting up a sale.
"After that, once customers have been given the menu, it becomes an exercise of the staff explaining to them what the dishes are and what they are composed of. It's also about asking what they may be in the mood for and recommending certain dishes that may gel with what they feel like having."
Sam Surl, proprietor of Rising Star Leisure, which owns south London outlets the Establishment and Iniquity among others, says that, as a good salesman, a waiter will champion your food rather than just serve it.
"The waiter will naturally exude enthusiasm and talk about a dish with passion," says Surl. "He will extol the virtues of a dish eloquently, particularly one which is complex and multi-layered. That will give the customer an informed view of what the dish is about and, hopefully, broaden his horizons to be receptive to all kinds of items on the menu, and not just his favourites.
"But staff enthusiasm about selling anything has to come out of them being given an incentive, and many restaurateurs forget that. If staff hit their targets, then we will sometimes give them a gift of some kind or even give them access to additional training."
Samantha Trinder, co-owner of the Bingham boutique hotel and restaurant in Richmond, Surrey, notes that rewarding staff can backfire.
"Giving incentives to staff," she says, "may not be always in the best interests of customers, because it can result in staff aggressively pushing a certain item on the menu rather then keeping in mind what the customer might want. The right training, though, is at the heart of the matter. Reading the customer and knowing what they might like to eat, as well as conversing with them, is important."
If staff push customers into ordering the most expensive dish on the menu - which might not necessarily have the highest margin - the customer will see straight through it, as Tom Martin points out. Martin owns several well-known gastropubs with his brother Ed, including their latest opening, the Botanist in Kew Green, Surrey.
"Tact is what's required, and to be able to play up any interesting aspects of the dish," says Martin. "Tell them how the ingredients may have been sourced, whether the meat is rare-breed or the fish is caught by sustainable means and so on. It's really down to the operator and how he or she trains the staff.
"We will not only make sure the staff taste all the dishes, but test them out on their knowledge with written tests, which, if they fail, they have to resit. Operators must get this aspect right, because if the staff can't get things right, they won't be able to sell, and that in turn can mean no return custom."
Chef-proprietor Chris Galvin takes this cultivation of product knowledge one step further by taking staff to meet suppliers. He recently took some of his Galvin at Windows staff out to Marseille in search of inspiration, and says that getting to know where a restaurant's produce comes from is important for the staff.
"Anyone can do it. Nine times out of 10 a restaurant's suppliers and farmers will be thrilled to have visits from staff," he says. "A day on the farm meeting your suppliers and forging an open and trusting relationship can be massively beneficial.
"When we were in France we went to an incredible artisanal vineyard called Pibarnon in the hills near Marseille and shared a table with them. When customers in our restaurant order that wine we'll be able to talk to them about where it came from. It's all about experiences and stories - customers love to hear the story behind their meal."
As Galvin points out, it's not just your waiting staff that can help maximise profits with the right guidance. Taking chefs to meet suppliers often teaches them respect for the produce, which leads to minimal wastage - saving your business money.
"The lesson I want to give young chefs is for them to really see the meat they're working with. When they go to the suppliers and see the hard work and care that goes into it they'll never waste a scrap again. They change as people and start to show a lot more care for the season and the product. Most chefs see ingredients arriving in polystyrene or vac-packed and therefore don't give them the respect they deserve."
How staff can improve sales
- Ensure that your staff are adequately trained and know your food menu inside-out. They should taste every dish on the menu and get to know the ingredients as well as where they are sourced from.
- While it's not essential for every member of the waiting staff to know everything about the wines, a basic knowledge is advisable, so they can engage a customer and recommend a pairing with the food. Otherwise, ensure that your sommelier or the head waiter can advise the customer.
- Test out your staff regularly to ensure that their knowledge and level of understanding are up to scratch, so that they can explain the benefits of the dish or the wine to the customer properly.
- Set targets for your staff for each service so they know what they need to achieve.
- Tell your staff what you expect of them, but don't pressurise them into giving the hard sell to the customer, as that can be counterproductive and customers are unlikely to return.
- Reward your staff. That doesn't mean that they just share in the service charge, but that they are occasionally given a gift, like a bottle of wine, for achieving a high sales target.
- Teamwork is essential, as individuals rely on each other, and there is greater motivation to do better. Don't single out a staff member just because they aren't doing very well. Speak to them and look into the reasons they aren't performing. It could be that they need to be retrained or have some issues that need to be brought to light.
- Listen to feedback from your staff. They might have valid reasons for what they are saying.
- Ask your suppliers whether they can help your staff in terms of training - and even if they'll receive your staff for a day at their premises. Increased sales are, after all, in their interests too. Some wine suppliers, for instance, will assist in getting your staff on to a Wine & Spirit Education Trust course.