Everybody sells: Let’s “Think Strawberries”

In many of our meetings with clients, the issue of cross-selling on the part of the front-liner always comes up. In our Customer Experience Measurement studies, we get to monitor if the personnel of an establishment gets to do this.  But really, how does one cross-sell effectively? The front-liner must first understand the customer’s needs, only then can he ‘sell more’.  Cross-selling is an art. A customer would surely know if the front-liner is simply selling their most expensive item on the menu to make the extra buck.

Successful cross-selling happens when the front-liner was able to offer additional products or services that the customer actually needs or wants, and feels compelled to buy it at once. The customer was not cheated in any way, because for him, he saw ‘value’ in the additional products or services offered to him.

So, how do you actually train people to cross-sell? Product knowledge mastery is the basic requirement. Confidence in the products and in his own self is second, followed by a genuine interest in what the customers need. This, I believe is the formula for successful selling. Sadly, not many of our front-liners have all these in place.

I was reminded of a famous speech I came across while I was in hotel school. While this speech was made in the 1973, the key message is still very relevant today.

The speech 

The speech was made by James Lavenson, then president and chief executive officer of The Plaza Hotel in New York City. His speech, entitled, “Think Strawberries!” may be specific to the hotel industry, but the idea that every employee within the organization should think of actively selling to customers, is definitely applicable to any service organization today.

Mr. Lavenson commenced his speech by acknowledging his lack of operational experience.  “I came from the balcony of the hotel business,” he said. “For 10 years as a corporate director, I had my office in a little building next door to The Plaza. I was a professional guest. You know nobody knows more about how to run a hotel than a guest”, he commented while on the topic of his lack of hands-on operational experiences prior to The Plaza. To bring this into perspective, Mr. Lavenson, was personally assigned to make The Plaza Hotel become a profit-making machine.

Prior to introducing his plan to turn the 1,100 employees of The Plaza into sales superstars,  Mr. Lavenson set out to personally assess how his staff would respond to common sales opportunities. “What’s going on in the Persian Room tonight?” he asked the bell captain. “Some singer,” was the answer. “Man or woman?” he went on to ask. “I’m not sure,” responded the bell captain, which Mr. Lavenson said made him wonder if he’d be safe going there.

Another instance, he called reservations to see what guests heard on the phone. He said it finally hit home how far The Plaza Hotel had to go when he asked reservations what the difference between the $84 suite and the $125 suite was, and they responded “$40, sir.”

Before setting out on an ambitious plan to retrain each and every staff member on sales basics, there was one more obstacle. “They had no idea what the product was they would be selling,” Mr. Lavenson continued in his speech. “The reason the reservationists thought $40 was the difference between the two suites was because they’d never been in one.”

Mr. Lavenson went on to talk about how his plans were met with resentment. “We started a program with all our guest contact people using a new secret oath. Everybody sells. And we meant everybody—maids, cashiers, waiters, bellmen—the works.” At first, the response was positive when it was announced at hotel-wide meetings, but the waiters “were quick to call-out the traditional negatives. ‘Nobody eats dessert anymore. Everyone’s on a diet,’” the staff told Mr. Lavenson. Relentless in his pursuit, the president answered back to the waiter “So sell ’em strawberries! But sell ’em.”

Selling strawberries became more than a training mantra, it was a profit center in its own right. It reminded the staff that they needed to offer upgrades and sell more services to grow the business of the hotel.

The strawberry sales literally increased, and as more desserts got sold, the wait staff were quick to calculate what that meant in additional tips for them. “Think Strawberries” was expanded to every department. Bartenders started asking guests if they would like another round of drinks, the housekeeping staff suggested room service to guests and even doormen recommended hotel restaurants. Eventually all employees at The Plaza started to think of themselves as salespersons. If sales opportunities are identified and the staff have been empowered to make decisions, additional revenue would be generated.

Mr. Lavenson measured the results of this training and shared the increase in revenue with the staff by increasing their compensation.  The success of the business became the success of each employee.

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