BY DUSTIN SIGGINS
In his widely acclaimed book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Robert Cialdini profiled Vince the waiter. Vince is officially a taker of orders and a deliverer of food, but Cialdini explained that he is actually a sly salesman who earns trust through calculated menu recommendations. This trust allows Vince to later suggest more expensive menu items and, in the end, earn larger tips.
Whether you see Vince as creating satisfied customers or pulling the wool over their eyes, his sales strategy is clearly built on trust. However, he also knew his menu, its prices and how to tailor his approach to each table’s customers. Vince’s success is driven by his mastering both skill with people and the process of sales.
“To be a good salesperson, you need to have successfully worked as a waiter,” said 1 Million Cups Fairfax co-organizer Tony Barnett, who “grew up in the restaurant business” and has “done every role.” Barnett said waiting tables is the perfect sales training environment because “the skills to be effective and the processes are the same.”
“Waiters learn to promote, build relationships and manage the objections, stress and complaints from customers while maintaining composure and process for other customers,” he explained. They also “learn about hunger when they fail and rewards when successful.”
Here are the five skills Barnett calls essential to successful table-waiting and sales:
- “A waiter has to understand what they are serving,” from food preparation to how food tastes to changing menus.
- “A waiter needs to be organized and understand the back-end systems so they can place and track orders, and keep their flow of delivery accurate.”
- “Third, they need to be fearless,” always ready “to approach a customer with a genuine smile and friendly greeting.”
- “Fourth, communicate clearly and listen to the customer; nothing brings more frustration than getting orders wrong.”
- “And, finally, follow-up.” Barnett said waiters need to learn the balance of “when to check on their customer” without being “a nuisance,” and “how to ask for the payment at the right time.”
Many small business owners struggle to put this package together. They know what service or product they are putting into the market, but they lack effective back-end processes… and so a customer’s shipment arrives late or damaged. They are fearless but don’t listen, and so rapport is lost in misreading what a customer wants.
This is why Barnett separated “skills” from “process.” It is skill that often gets a small-business owner in the door, but it is process which turns opportunity into contracts and checks.
A successful sales process starts with the basics, said Barnett: “identify and acknowledge the customer.” It is the distracted person who “starts the relationship off on the wrong foot” and is stuck trying to fix a poor first impression.
The next step in success is what Cialdini identified in Vince: the ability to “qualify and advise” a customer. Barnett said waiters must ask “direct questions about what [customers] are interested in and [make] sound recommendations.” This step “is critical to the success of the short-term relationship.”
The final step to ensure a positive initial relationship is to “close effectively” and make the customer “feel they’ve made the right decision,” said Barnett. This step is critical—how many times do we sign a contract with an emotional high and then immediately feel trepidation and emotional uncertainty? The great salesperson reassures us that we’re on our way to success.
Delivery is next, whether it’s food on the table in minutes or a multi-year contract with many large orders. “The salesperson and the waiter must both track their orders and assure delivery in a reasonable time regardless of processing,” said Barnett. “No one likes to wait too long for their food.”
The final part of the sales process is handling payment challenges. “You would be surprised how often this step goes wrong,” said Barnett. “Complaints about accuracy, price and declined credit are a daily situation, and how they are managed dictates if the customer returns.”
From the first greeting to the last payment negotiation, waiters are the front-line soldiers for short-term restaurant success (Did the customer pay today?) and long-term success (Is the customer coming back, and will their Yelp review criticize or praise?). Salespeople are often reviled as tricksters and manipulators who put money ahead of ethics and honest dealings, but the best sales are created by mastering one’s craft and creating genuine relationships with customers.
“A waiter [who] has mastered these skills and processes… can step into any selling environment and be successful,” said Barnett. I’m convinced!
Author bio: Dustin Siggins is the founder and CEO of the publicity firm Proven Media Solutions. Previously a journalist published more than 3,000 times, he has also served as director of communications for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC).