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10 Things I Learned About Sales from Waitressing

Posted by Carole Mahoney on 3/28/16 8:00 AM

Throughout high school and college, I waited tables (I have done pretty much every job function you can think of within a restaurant- except own one.) And unlike popular opinion, I enjoyed it. It allowed me to be social, was fast paced and active, and it allowed me to have some control over my own pay. The better I was at my job, the more I made.

It’s ironic that I enjoyed waitressing, but used to hate sales. After all, it is all sales. Maybe it was because I didn’t view it as a sales job that required me to be pushy, aggressive, and manipulative. I saw it as a dinner party with friends, new and returning. I also didn’t see it as something I did until I found something better to do. (no struggling actor here.) A great waitstaff can make a restaurant the place to be.

So when friends who own a small, but popular restaurant called me and asked if I could help them on the weekends while they were short on staff, I thought- why not? I was feeling a little cooped up and in need of some social interaction, plus it is great exercise. I figured that waiting tables is like riding a bike- no matter how long ago you did it, it all comes back to you.

Halfway through the weekend, I started to realize how much I had learned about sales today from waiting tables for so many years.


  1. Develop rapport quickly.
    As a waitress and a salesperson, the ability to observe body language, tone, and how others interact with others is crucial to be able to develop rapport quickly. Can I joke with them, or are they reserved?
    What is their communication style, and how do I match that so it is easier for them to understand, like and trust me? As a salesperson, we need to be able to understand the personalities, communication, and learning style of our buyers so that it is easier to build rapport and trust.
  2. Know your product.
    This is a given for sales, but knowing your product means a  lot more than being able to memorize features and benefits. You have to know your product from the perspective of the person who is trying to use it. Mark Roberge, CRO at HubSpot once shared that part of his training of new sales reps is having them actually use their software to create a website, blog, etc so that they could empathize. For a waitstaff, those who can describe how the food is prepared, and what it tastes like are better able to recommend the right thing. I have even had customers come in and say, here is what I like, pick something for me. And because I have tried nearly everything on the menu, I can.
  3. Take responsibility.
    Both wait staff and salespeople know that
    when something goes wrong- it’s your fault, whether it is or not. You can’t blame the kitchen, the 20 other people that came in at the same time, the finance department that changed pricing, or the development team that phased out a feature, or the competitor who came in and stole your deal. Your customers will look to you to keep them informed and influence the powers that be on their behalf.
  4. Be transparent & set expectations.
    There is a lot of talk in the SaaS community of recurring revenue and how to get customers to renew. And much of the focus is on what happens after the sale. And yes, that is an important part of getting customer to renew. But even more important is the initial sale. Setting the right expectation and being transparent about it will prevent issues with customer service and renewals later on. You learn this as a waiter when the kitchen tell you they are backed up. “Your dinner is gonna be later than normal for us, we just had several large parties come in and the kitchen is backed up.” That goes a long way to uncovering whether they have a show to make it to that a delay will interfere with and you can handle it then, not when it is too late.
  5. Communication.
    Seems obvious that
    sales and waitressing are built on communication, but I am always surprised when people make assumptions instead of asking questions or confirming that they all understand the same things. Whether it is confirming the order with your customer, making sure that the kitchen has it right, or if their food and drinks are what they hoped for, or confirming with the decision maker everything that you have learned about their problem from the end users and influencers is true and reflects what is important to them- NEVER assume anything.
  6. Keep your cool.
    Both sales and waiting tables is a high pressure job. Its fast paced, with lots of demands pulling you in multiple directions. Add to that the fact that your pay is based on your performance, and it is easy to get emotional when unexpected things happen or don’t go as you had planned. Talk to anyone who has worked in a restaurant and ask them about their anxiety dream. Nearly all of them will share that dream they have where they are the only one in the restaurant and have it filled up with people yelling at them. Sales people who get excited about a deal that is about to close, or panic when obstacles are raised must
    learn to control their emotions to keep control of the sale.
  7. Create an experience.
    Upselling is a well known term in both professions and means pretty much the same thing- getting your current customer to buy more from you. But the mindset to being able to upsell is to create an experience, not push a product. For example, if you have done a good job of building rapport and trust, know your product and the wants of your customer, you should know where the gaps are to creating a total experience. Suggesting dessert isn’t just asking “Anything else that I can get you?” It’s “How about ending your Friday night out with a chocolatey treat?” For me, waitressing is like having a dinner party, I am looking to have some fun with my guests. My mindset makes it easy to create a fun experience for them. After all, if you aren’t having fun, you are doing it wrong. Salespeople who ask a lot of tough questions and dig deeper into their buyers problems will discover gaps in solutions and be able to recommend what buyers need, not just what they want. They become their buyers hero for knowing and seeing what they did not.
  8. No “empty hands.”
    This is a common phrase that basically means
    time management. Salespeople are 'always on' and have to manage their time between prospecting, travel, content creation, meetings just like waitstaff have to juggle greeting customers, taking orders, serving, and cleaning- for anywhere from 5-10 tables at a time. Every moment is spent doing something constructive. If you walk into the kitchen with something in your hands, make sure you are walking out with something as well. In sales, if you are not hustling, you are falling further and further behind. There is always something that you can do- whether it is another call to make, an event to go to, content to create and share- there is no reason to be standing around doing nothing.
  9. Teamwork and mentoring.
    Ultimately, wait staff don’t get paid to train or help the rest of the staff, but it is in their best interest to do so. Like salespeople, waitstaff are the first and lasting impression of the restaurant. They are ones who are the living, breathing brand of the restaurant. A bad experience with one means that customer is going to give a bad yelp review, and that means less people who will come to the restaurant- which means less tips (sales) for you. Salespeople have the same responsibility. The experience a customer has with you, or one of your peers, helps or hurts the company as a whole. Being a team player helps you in the long run.
  10. Referrals.
    Better service means repeat business and referrals. It takes a lot of work to get a customer, so that effort should be meant to delight so that they tell others about their wonderful experience and make it easier, less expensive, and faster to get a new one. People buy from people they know and trust. (Or the ones that give the most reviews on Yelp.)

Could you be a better salesperson? What would that mean for your company, your family? Do you have a compelling reason to excel, or are you just going through the motions to get to your real job?

Are you looking for ways to master your craft? Watch recaps of the #livesaleslab to learn how real people worked through their sales calls. 

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Topics: sales training