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Options good, upselling bad

20 May 2011

Oisin Rogers, general manager of the Ship pub in Wandsworth, London, argues that customers should be guided on their choice, not forced into it

I was lucky enough to train as a barman at the Stag's Head in Dublin in the mid 1980s. My then-boss Peter Shaffrey had a vision. It was simple. It was ‘always give them plenty'. If any customer's glass dropped below the last two inches, it was our duty to ask if they wanted another. There was no script, we just had to ask. This was good for business as the customer had little opportunity to choose to go to the pub next door.

I then joined London pub company Taylor Walker in 1989. Around this time a senior marketeer presented to the board that she could achieve a 5% uplift in company sales if the pubs sold a bag of crisps with every round. Resulting strategy commanded me as bar staff to ask everybody, every time they came to the bar if they wanted crisps or nuts. Mental, but true. They sent people round to check. It's still a joke among ex-Taylor Walker employees how many customers we managed to annoy. The policy lasted about a year before the marketeer in question disappeared.

I have been thinking about the benefits, techniques and barriers to upselling, particularly in reference to the Ship. Our vision is to become the best pub in London. The first tenet of our mission is: "We are in the business of giving our customers great times." We can't give customers great times if we appear to be forcing them to buy something they don't want.

Any policy on selling cannot work if there's any possibility that it can lead to a negative or unpleasant experience for a customer. Of course customers need to be guided sometimes in their choice of what to have. Done well this emphasises the talent and expertise of a professional waiter or barperson.

Upselling policies are in great danger of highlighting cackhandedness and lack of product knowledge or customer knowledge. As in the Taylor Walker crisp debacle there are many restaurants who insist on offering ridiculously-priced Champagne before your meal or say things like: "We've got great olives, you want olives?"

Customers in our businesses are likely to be happier if they are treated as independent of mind. From feedback I have had, many do not wish to be told what they might like to add to their purchase. Giving options is good, pushing people to buy more is bad. If they're having a great time, they are likely to stay and buy more. More importantly, they are likely to come back and to advocate our business to their friends.

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