This will be relevant by the end of the post.

“Subtlety is the art of saying what you think and getting out of the way before it is understood.” –Anonymous


We as a society have really lost the power of subtlety.  It could be because we have lost the patience to unravel it.  We receive far more information on a daily basis than our ancestors a hundred years ago could even process.  Most of this information is not subtle.  It is blasted at us with bells and whistles to get our attention.  The news channels do not just report the news, they also tell us what to think about it.  Movies no longer imply that a couple is about to “make whoopee”, they show us the scenes in the trailer.  In a few generations we have gone from Marilyn Monroe standing over a vent to Britney Spears getting out of a limousine.

With all of these changes, we have forgotten what it means to be “suggestive.”  This is particularly true in restaurants.  A few decades ago, corporate restaurants determined that they wanted their servers to be sales people.  The also determined that they had no interest in paying for the training necessary to actually accomplish this.  Instead, they decided to teach their servers to use adjectives and “suggestive selling.”  One of the first posts on this blog was declaring my disdain for the overuse of adjectives.  I recently realized that I never discussed my equal dislike for the corporate restaurant incarnation of “suggestive selling.”

As with most great restaurant ideas of the last couple decades, this was based on “research.”  No one will ever accuse upper level restaurant managers of being scientists or sociologists.  When they set up this “research” they will generally have one group follow the protocol they want to introduce.  The other group will do nothing different.  When the first group produces results greater than the second, they view this as proof of success.  This result is then broadcast as fact and soon becomes conventional wisdom.  They seldom look for the actual mechanism that produces the result or how their hypothesis can be altered to produce greater results.

Before we go any further, I want to try an experiment of my own.  I will not claim it to be scientific, but I will use it for a point later on.  This is not a trick and there is no wrong answer.  In your mind, I want you to picture a glass of wine, a cocktail, and an appetizer.  Your first instinct is all that matters.  Try to remember for just a few minutes what each of those items are.  Is the wine red or white?  A particular varietal?  What appetizer and cocktail were your first responses?  Are these the ones that sound most appealing to you at this particular moment?  We will return to this point in a minute.

It is probably necessary for me to clarify what suggestive selling is and conversely what it is not.  Restaurants have inaccurately labeled any number of things as suggestive selling.  Suggestive selling is not asking a guest if they would like to add a salad or soup to their meal.  While it is making a suggestion, it is not suggestive selling.  Suggestive selling is using the power of suggestion to manifest an idea in the buyer’s mind of something they want.  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.

White Zinfandel, Margarita, and Chips and Salsa.  The law of averages tells me that because I picked the most common response to each of those categories I should have guessed one right for about a third of you.  Additionally, about one third of you would alter your answer because I guessed it.  Most of you I struck out on.  Let me follow up with another question.  Do any of you think my guesses are more appealing than the ones you had in your mind originally?

The commonly used statistic in restaurants is that suggesting a specific glass of wine, cocktail, or appetizer will increase the sales of that item by ten to twenty percent.  This is compared to walking up to a table and asking them, “what can I get you to drink?”  While I already discussed why the word “drink” kills sales.  I think there is a third option the “research” does not account for.  Using words that trigger a response in the minds of your guests.

When I asked you to think of those particular items earlier, you most likely picked the ones you liked most.  Just as the word “drink” produces an instinctive response, so do “wine”, “cocktail”, and “appetizer.”  While “drink” probably produces a reply of your favorite non-alcoholic beverage, the other words open up a new world of possibilities.  If when I said “cocktail” you started salivating for a Dewars and water, I would not produce the same results by recommending a top shelf margarita.  In fact a margarita was the opposite of what you were thinking and now I have labeled myself as someone who is trying to sell you something you do not want.

Suggestive selling is making subtle statements that lead people to decide on their own to buy things you want to sell.  It is not 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 salesperson.  Oddly enough the mark of excellence as a server who sells is the guest not being aware that you are selling them anything.  A good server provides their guests with what they want.  A great server leads their guests to want things that they did not even know they wanted.

Other articles on how to sell more as a server:

I Make A Mean Cherry Limeade

Using Words That Sell

The Most Important Phrase You Are Not Using

Selling Away and Selling Up

How To Sell More Desserts

Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips is the new book from the author of The Hospitality Formula Network.  It contains the 52 essential skills of the exceptional server.  This book teaches the philosophy to turn average service into an exceptional guest experience that will rapidly increase your tips.  This book shows how you can provide better customer service and dramatically improve your tips.  Enter the coupon code “squared” to receive 20% off your copy today.