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Buying Mode: The Psychology of the Upsell

People like to buy, but they don't like to be sold to. Once they're in buying mode, use these upselling techniques to sell them a little more.

  • Buying mode takes place in the emotional right half of the brain. Answering questions is a left-brain activity. Instead of asking questions, make upsell suggestions to boost restaurant sales.
  • Upselling should not increase the original purchase by more than 25 percent. Customers have a mental limit as to how much they will spend.

Editor’s note: According to an October 2021 study by PYMNTS and Paytronix, 42% of adults surveyed reported that, in the prior three months, they ordered food by dialing up the restaurant and actually talking to someone. As important as digital ordering is, every time you talk to a customer on the phone, you’ve got an opportunity to turn on the charm, build a personal relationship and—let’s not forget—upsell them. In this past article from Kamron Karington of Repeat Returns, a former columnist for PMQ and author of “Gun to the Head Marketing,” there’s an art to upselling food—or, at least, there’s some psychology behind it. And it can work just as well for your waitstaff as for the person taking phone orders. Here, we’re reposting an edited version of Karington’s original story from a past issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine.

By Kamron Karington

It’s a clinical and statistically proven fact that 30% to 67% of all people can be upsold at the time of purchase. Of those, ticket increases of 15% to 25% are commonplace. They have already picked you. Their money is on the table. They are in “buying mode.” They are hot!

But many restaurant professionals offend customers by being too pushy, or they take the wrong approach and leave money on the table—money that customers would have willingly spent. Both options are costly.

Here’s the secret: Buying mode takes place in the emotional right half of the brain. Pondering questions is a left-brain activity. Why is this important? Because asking an upsell question like, “Would you like to make your pizza an extra-large?” will kill the upsell. Why? Because you’re asking a question. You have interrupted their pattern; now they will switch over to a different “state” of mind to process the question and answer you. You have unintentionally snapped them out of “buying mode,” and any chance of upselling has been greatly diminished.

Buying mode is similar to that trance you go into on the drive home from work every day. You arrive home fairly unaware of the details of the drive unless someone honks or swerves in front of you. For this reason, restaurant waitstaff should avoid rousing the guest from that trance state by asking the typical upsell questions. It’s the same as honking your horn during the buying process. Instead, be suggestive. When people are in buying mode, they are highly suggestible.

People like to buy. It’s fun. They are in control. But people do not like to be sold to. The minute a person perceives that they are being sold to, they put up their defenses. However, you can sneak past those defenses by avoiding words that raise the caution flag.

Here’s the exact technique. The customer calls and says, “I’d like to order a pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers.” That’s the time to say, “Extra cheese on that?” Raise the pitch of your voice on the word “cheese,” and speak the words as an assumption that they want extra cheese rather than as a question.

If your server says, “Do you want extra cheese on that?” it causes the customer to stop, consider and make a decision. This interrupts the buying sequence. Now their thought process is, “Do I want extra cheese? What will it cost me? Is it worth it?”

A confused mind always says no.

“Extra cheese on that?” creates the impression that everyone gets extra cheese—it’s perfectly normal and natural. And it flows without creating a pause in the order-taking process.

Note that this customer did not specify a size. So let’s take the conversation further:

Customer: I’d like to order a pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers.

Server: Extra cheese on that?

Customer: Sure.

Server: That’s a large?

After the order has been placed and the upselling has been done, you may now ask a very profitable question: “What else can I get for you?”

This question often causes an automatic “mental movie” to play. The customer visualizes the experience they are about to have and searches his mind for any “missing” item. Here, you might find the guest blurting out, “Do you have root beer?” or “What kind of salads do you have?”

“What else can I get for you?” can generate additional sales. “Is that everything?” will generate no sales at all!

With the above in mind, here are three rules for upselling success:

1. “Tell, then sell.” Do not attempt to up-sell until you have the main sell. Many people start talking about the add-ons before the customer has even made a commitment to the original purchase. Don’t make that mistake. Let them get into full buying mode, and then do your upselling.

2. Upselling should not increase the original purchase by more than 25 percent. People do have a mental limit as to how much they will spend. So, just because they are in “buying mode” doesn’t mean they’ve gone insane.

3. The upsell item must have a direct correlation to the item being bought. Some shops have a pretty extensive menu. If the customer is ordering pizza, don’t try to upsell a hamburger. Keep it to pizza-related items.