Guess what? It’s not their fault.

Less than 5% of restaurant servers make recommendations to their guests. It’s a common struggle every restaurant operator deals with: How do I get my staff to be more sales oriented? If you’ve lost sleep at night trying to figure out ways to increase your sales, you know this struggle. Instead of beating a dead horse, try approaching the goal from a different angle.

To begin, you need to understand the paradox you are asking your staff to indulge in. Start by removing your perspective from restaurant operations completely. Think of any other business that sells products and provides customer support. That shouldn’t be hard to imagine because most companies do this. In most companies, the sales people have a goal – to sell more product. And the service departments have another goal entirely – to keep existing customers happy so they’ll continue to buy from the company in the future. Both departments serve the company’s best interest, but the service department more directly serves the interest of the customer by taking care of their needs in the short term, and only helps the business in the long term. Given they serve different interests, can you think of any business where combining the sales departments and customer service departments would be a good idea? Conflict of interest so probably not. Which is why it is common practice that most companies have separate, dedicated departments for sales and service.

Now let’s jump back into our world – the world of running a restaurant. The world where you probably speak out of both sides of your mouth. On one hand you tell your servers, “The key to providing great service is to treat your guests like they are guests in your own home.” I’ve always felt this was a great way to simplify the foundation of hospitality. But then you talk out of the other side of our mouth and beg them to “be a sales person, not an order taker.” Here’s the paradox: I don’t know about you, but when I have guests in my home, I don’t try to sell them something. The reality is being a sales person goes against the virtues of truly serving your customer. This explains why only 5% of servers make recommendations. It’s not natural to recommend something to someone you don’t know.

My point here is simple. Training your staff so they are knowledgeable and helpful when your guests need their help is vital. But asking them to use their knowledge to be “more of a salesperson” is counterproductive and goes directly against what it means to serve guests in the first place.

“So what am I to do?” you ask. Start by recognizing something you’ve taken for granted far too long – your menu, more than anything else, has the greatest impact on what people will eat, drink, and spend in your restaurant. Your menu IS your sales department! So make it great. Odds are, you might have some things working for you but a lot of things working against you with regard to menu design. Do you know the principles of menu engineering? What do you know about list order, readability, pricing strategy, what to emphasize and what not to emphasize? If you’re not up to speed on menu engineering, you better learn or get out of the restaurant business, because what you’re doing is equivalent to a non restaurant company under-resourcing its sales department or not having one at all.

Instead of holding your servers accountable for your sales, hold yourself accountable for failing to understand what your primary sales tool is in the first place. After you’ve done that, explore the many options now available to the modern, savvy restaurateur for menu presentation. Some things may never change – but your menu shouldn’t be one of them.