Storytelling: A Better Way to Drive Sales

Upselling is evolving into something more inclusive that encourages guests to customize and participate in their restaurant experiences, increasing engagement and sales. And that something is storytelling.
Waitress talking passionately with her hands to customer

Full-service operators are under enormous market share pressure. Given this pressure and the highly competitive foodservice environment, they are looking for ways to drive sales using factors that are within their control, including guest engagement and experience. Focusing on and improving upon these two areas will create a point of differentiation in the market and sustain growth. To do that, operators are training their staffers in the art of storytelling, which is an evolution of upselling.

The link between storytelling and sales

There was a time when a server would come to the table and share a list of specials or talk about unique ingredients. As the marketplace became more crowded, operators were driving specific items to create a point of differentiation while solving operational needs, like profitability and execution. This push drove the birth of upselling, also known as suggestive selling. On the positive side, guiding customers in the “right” direction through upselling helped expand the guest experience. On the negative side, if it wasn’t done with finesse, customers felt more manipulated than informed, leaving them with a bad experience.
Courtesy of social media, today’s consumers are all about exploring and sharing their experiences. But their interest in sharing is driven by their ability to craft their own version of the story. They don’t want to replay a well-worn account. Rather, they want know all the details and so they can retell it using their own words and adding their own perspective. Today’s successful operators  have linked this need for exploration and social sharing, folding it into an overall guest experience. And in doing so, they are driving sales.

Why storytelling vs. upselling

Consumers now receive an enormous amount of information in real time. Being a downfield receiver of pushed information (info they didn’t ask for but were given anyway) doesn’t sit well with consumers looking to customize their experiences. It  impedes their ability to create their own story. For this reason, upselling can often feel contrived. Furthermore, the communication is so expected, it rarely resonates with guests. A server often starts by suggesting drink specials, then appetizers and finally the entrees. When everything is touted as “special,” nothing seems special at all.

Storytelling for today

Storytelling has been around, to varying degrees, for some time. Traditionally, it has focused on the operator’s story about their business. While that story is still an important one to create and share as a way of maintaining differentiation, operators should be looking to provide content so customers can craft and publish their own stories. By taking your storytelling efforts to this level, your customers can become advocates, multiplying and spreading your message, which in turn can build sales. Another benefit: the tableside engagement between staff and guest storytelling naturally lends itself to can increase check averages. The reason? A better experience is worth a higher spend.

4 Steps to building your story

Before your wait staff can execute a storytelling approach, the foundational elements need to be laid. This gives them something concrete to work with and helps maintain your story’s consistency. Follow these four steps:
1. Write out your story. Pull together a team of FOH and BOH staff to participate in creating your story. The goal is not a script, but to document key components. Allow each server to modify these components in whatever way works for them, as long they touch on each one. 
2. Build basic product knowledge. Work with your team on memorizing ingredients for every item on your menu, as this will be essential information to share with guests.
3. Enhance menu knowledge. The most emotive impact comes from the story behind a menu item—the ingredient sources, development history, execution, etc. Have your team take the time to document and memorize these key points.
4. Focus on hospitality. Storytelling is most effective in a culture of hospitality. The distinction between service and hospitality is that service is what you do and hospitality is how you make guests feel about what you do. Write your unique hospitality standards down and ensure those are driving every guest interaction. Focus less on selling and more on engagement.

3 Story elements to share

Part of telling a great story is knowing what’s worth sharing and what isn’t. Hone in on these three elements and you’ll give guests the right information for their storytelling needs: 
1. Origin and access. Today, servers should already know the features of each menu item (i.e.,  our beef is Halperns’ angus and has better marbling and texture). Now they should layer in where it came from and how it was sourced/harvested. Terms like “local” and “homemade” have become so common that they struggle to stand out. Sharing location specifics and availability sidesteps the ubiquity and enhances the story (i.e. Halperns’ angus beef hails from single-source in Colorado and only 1 in 10 cattle meet the specifications).
2. Development history. How an item is prepared is a critical story component. Speak not just about the equipment used in creating the item (oven-roasted, fire-grilled) but how the menu item came to be, including it’s ideation. This helps express your team’s attention to menu development while allowing guests to “share” in the item’s discovery.
3. Menu position. Clearly express your menu position as it relates to your brand, so guests understand what makes your offerings unique. For example, if you are engaged in global mashups, share that. If you put a simple twist on a classic, talk about it. By doing so, you reinforce your continued efforts to innovate, an important concept that keeps guests coming back to see what’s new. It also solidifies the idea that the experience had at your table cannot easily be duplicated at home, also a driver of repeat visits.
When tableside, encourage your wait staff to keep the conversation approachable and one-on-one. Avoid complex culinary terminology, lecturing and pretension. These things can overwhelm, and even intimidate, guests. Instead, aim for an open exchange of information and encourage opportunities for guests to ask questions and provide feedback. Remember, the goal is to create a shared experience, not one-sided information download. If you build your story right and share it correctly, you will create that shared guest experience, and they will come.

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