The pitfalls of verbal selling in restaurants

I’m on another mission — the logical manager is about to clash with the sensitive artiste yet again. I keep coming across restaurants that are still following the fashion of having waiting staff come to the table and verbally present the daily specials. This is fine when there are only one or two items, but when there are more than two, the procedure often defeats it’s own purpose.

American research tells us that the average person’s ability to absorb a verbal message composed of familiar words is not very good. The facts are interesting — the average verbal comprehension of a person is twenty five percent — so we only absorb a quarter of what we hear. People listening to a verbal message tend to remember the first and last things they hear and will confuse or forget the center parts. I find myself struggling to remember the choices presented to me in restaurants quite often — and when I do, I default to the written menu.

Verbal suggestive selling can be hard on staff and customers

It’s hard on your staff and the customers

It’s hard on the staff as well as the customers. I’ve seen the embarrassment caused by a memory lapse and have felt for the person concerned. On one memorable occasion when a mammoth feat of recall was performed flawlessly — some seven specials, complete with detailed, flowery descriptions — the young waiter received an ovation from the table, and then was called back to repeat the lot when we found we couldn’t remember what he’d said.

Special menu items have several advantages

The provision of special menu items allows you and your Chef four main advantages: it allows you to use produce that is only available for a short season; it presents you with an opportunity to push high margin items; it gives you the opportunity to do something different; and it provides you with a mechanism to clear items before they exceed allowable shelf life.

Specials, like any other menu item, are better presented visually rather than verbally. The eyes will buy more than the ears. I learned this years ago in the fast food industry. When we changed from simple written menus to pictorial menu boards sales rose considerably, so I studied the psychology of selling to make sure I understood why — it’s a very interesting subject.

The eyes buy more than the ears

Verbal description is an ineffective way to sell

The least effective way to sell is a verbal description, for the reasons I’ve described. A written description is better, but not the ultimate. When a person reads something they actually speak the words in their own mind and then comprehend the message in a similar manner to the spoken word. The best way to create a buying response is by using an appealing picture or image. Pictures or images are processed by a different part of the brain in a different way to verbal communication, and are far more powerful persuaders.

Use of jargon will lose sales

Filling your selling tools with obscure language will not your help sales

You further defeat your sales efforts when you compound the problem of customer comprehension with the use of culinary jargon, or the bizarre ‘pidgin French’ which seems to get invented when a Chef wants to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. The writer Luciano de Crescenso put it well; on the subject of jargon he said: ‘ . . . it makes people feel important and increases the power of whoever uses it . . . the problem is that experts are always afraid that the use of simple language may be mistaken for ignorance.’ From my perspective, it’s simple — if your customer doesn’t understand what the menu item is, they won’t buy it.

I guess this is where artistry and sensibility clash once again. I can see that a restaurateur wishing to create ambience and sophistication may want their staff to put on a bit of a show at the table and ‘gild the lily’ in the menu descriptions; but what has a greater priority here — art or business? If you’re making a fortune, feel free to dismiss these as the views of an unfeeling Philistine. I have a personal dislike of obscure or foreign language in menu descriptions of any kind, and feel that clear, emotive English tells it best.

After all, the aim of the exercise is communication, not self indulgence — menu presentation of any kind is simply internal advertising. After all, you’ve paid through the nostrils with your hard earned marketing and advertising dollars to get people into your restaurant; it seems a shame not to separate them from the contents of their wallets and purses while they’re there.

The traditional descriptive menu is becoming obsolete

Example of an interactive tablet menu that uses visual merchandising and eliminates one trip to the table.

I think you should use the best sales methods available to you. For most restaurants this would be by the use of a pictorial menu (as distinct to a descriptive menu), supplementary menu board; or to apply modern technology, a tablet. The customers can digest the message at their leisure and not be forced into trying to comprehend a rapid message in unfamiliar language, delivered by a waiter. Besides, relieving your waiters of this task will speed up service and assist front of house productivity. How much time does it take your staff to deliver a sales speech at each table?

If you really want to get sophisticated, new technology is rapidly making the pictorial method of menu presentation quite feasible. Easy to use digital cameras and high quality colour printers are quite cheap. It’s not that difficult to produce high quality, laminated photographic tent cards or menus — quickly, cheaply and easily. Imagine being able to put a pictorial tent card on each table within an hour of the Chef first producing a new dish, or the wine company delivering a high margin special.

I still see restaurants rather dispassionately. To me they are food factories with sales offices attached. Often the factory part gets the blame for the poor performance of a product, when it’s not the product that’s at fault, it’s the way its sold.