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Why service is dead and when upselling is wrong

Jim Sullivan is a popular keynote speaker at leadership, franchisee and GM conferences worldwide. This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Nation’s Restaurant News. 

I’m waiting to order breakfast at a chain restaurant near San Francisco on a rainy Thursday morning. The hostess pours me a cup of coffee and, nearly seven minutes later, after considerable neck-craning on my part, a surly-seeming server saunters by, her face quite possibly the inspiration for the Whiskey Sour. I close my menu.

“I’ll have the Country Omelette, with wheat toast, please,” I say.

Without looking up, the server asks, “Would you like some orange juice or a 6-ounce New York strip steak with that?”

I pause and, just for fun, ask, “Is that extra?”

Her tone is colder than the other side of the pillow.

“$5.99,” she says. “The juice is $1.89 or $2.49, depending on the size.”

I decline.

“They make us ask,” she mutters with a shrug, pulling the menu from my hand and exiting stage right.

Three days later, I’m sitting in on a server meeting at a large casual-theme chain’s Charlotte, N.C.-area unit at the behest of the VP of operations. Midway through a lengthy monologue and rambling agenda, the GM exhorts the waitstaff and bartenders to improve “service” because customers “want it,” it’s “important,” and “our scores have dropped.” Next topic: selling more appetizers.

The staff, hearing the words “service” and “selling” once more, but lacking specifics in either desired behavior or corrective action for each, begins to check text messages and waterskiing squirrel videos on their smartphones.

The meeting was chockablock-full of what to do and lacking specifics of why we do it and how to do it. The biggest blunder on the manager’s part was framing this discussion as if the service shortcomings were solely the crew’s fault.

“Maybe if we had enough people, we wouldn’t have a problem with ‘service,’” grumbled the bartender seated next to me.

Two incidents a continent apart paint a cautionary tale for operators: the concepts of “service” and “upselling” have become both meaningless in tone and hazardous for repeat business when deployed sloppily and explained poorly.

How many of you reading this would say that your customer has changed in the last five years? I’m guessing most of you. And since that’s true, doesn’t it logically follow that if the customer changes, the meaning of customer service also changes?

We need better strategies for the modern workplace. Here are two: 1) focus on situational selling not suggestive selling; 2) provide hospitality, not service (and have an operational bias for doing so).   

I prefer the term hospitality to service because service has become a vague, generic, difficult-to-define term. Service differs from hospitality thusly: service fulfills a need; hospitality fulfills people. You can get service from an ATM, AI, vending machine or even Flippy the hamburger-flipping robot. But you don’t get hospitality: smiles, sincerity, warmth, connection.

Welcoming behavior is the goal for any foodservice establishment relative to the guest experience. In tableside restaurants, servers should always take the “experience” order first: gauging the party’s personality, circumstances and constraints (time-rushed, celebrating) and then tailoring the experience to fit the guests. Offer helpful, timely suggestions, not call-and-response menu merchandising scripts that treats customers as if they’re a face with a pocketbook attached. The goal is not to sell each customer more, but to get each customer to come back. 

Situational selling makes the meal taste better, but pre-scripted and pushy menu merchandising simply annoys the guest. Operators agree.

“Canned patter is not guest friendly,” one told me. “Instead, servers should read each of their guests or the party as a whole, figure out how much suggestion they want and leave it at that.”

Training teams in the art of situational selling is more challenging than teaching traditional upselling, but it builds long-term patronage instead of short-term check-building.

The customer is why. We’ve all been to places where the employees are friendly enough, but they seem to talk to and connect with their colleagues more than their  customers. And customers notice this, like maybe you just did, too.

Servant leadership is job one. “Where we have the highest level of employee satisfaction, we have had the highest increases in sales and market share,” said Stephanie Skurdy, McDonald’s director of communications. No surprise there, so make a big sign for your HQ that says: “If you’re not serving the customer directly, you’d better be serving someone who is.” The way we treat our team members determines how they’ll treat our guests. Teach everyone on your team something new every day. We can’t expect our crew to add value to our customer experience if we don’t first add value to their experience as teammates.

Ask the right questions. If you’re serious about improving your hospitality delivery, Lee Cockerell, consultant and former executive VP of operations at Walt Disney World, suggests posing this question to your staff: “What do we want to be famous for with guests?” Continuous improvement starts with being self-competitive: “How could we become the kind of company that would put us out of business?”

Embed hospitality in your culture. Here are three of my favorite hospitality company mission statements: “Every guest leaves happy,” (DeRosa Corp.); “Be loose and have fun,” (Great Harvest Bread Company); and “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” (Ritz-Carlton). Value clarity and brevity over complexity.

Attack the microgaps. You don’t improve service in general; you improve service in specific. And, as I’ve advocated in this column before, the goal is habitual consistency in process, procedure and behavior, because the guest favors consistency over everything and anything else experience-wise. Identify the chronological touchpoints your guests experience when they interact with you (social media, parking lot, entrance, ordering, delivery, quality, cleanliness, follow-up) and then specify what excellent, average and poor service/hospitality looks like at each interaction. Now work on eliminating the microgaps in crew and manager behavior that characterize “average” and “poor,” and identify and scale the behavior that generates “excellent” feedback.  

Service and hospitality is the invisible product. The majority of a restaurant leader’s time and effort should be spent evaluating, coaching and building a team’s confidence and competence relative to hospitality-giving and situational selling. Smart GMs continually upgrade their team. Make a difference where it makes a difference.

Jim Sullivan is a keynote speaker, author and consultant whose customers include Panera Bread, Chipotle, Starbucks, The Walt Disney Company, McDonald’s, Dunkin Brands, Olive Garden and The Cheesecake Factory. The fourth edition of his best-selling book “Multiunit Leadership” is available at and

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