Upselling in London (Or Palate di Merda)

July 10, 2009

by Claudia (venting her frustrations)

As many other students in London, I work part-time in a restaurant. Yesterday, I attended a compulsory training on „upselling”, which means, basically, to keep suggesting to customers that they need and want to buy more things — even though they are full or drunk, they could still get more. The whole thing lasted for 2 and a half hours, but it was, from my perspective (not that of the trainer, I am sure) deliriously funny.


There are so many objections I have to this whole idea of upselling and to paying a company (“Progressive Training”) probably somewhere around 1,000 pounds to brainwash your employees into thinking it is great for them and for the customers (and, of course, for the business to which they should feel some sort of allegiance) to sell more…

We were about 7-8 people in this particular session, waiters, porters, gym assistants, receptionists, each and every one of us, no matter which department we work in (even the guy who carries the luggage of the people coming into the hotel—I work in the restaurant of a hotel), can and should sell more!

We are all paid around 6.5 pounds an hour, little above the minimum wage. In this particular company, we are not being paid overtime if we work more, which they often ask us to do. Instead, we are given free time for the hours worked extra, which we never get to take, as they are chronically short of staff. So, you have basically a group of poor guys, who, on top of it, are deeply frustrated with how they are treated by their managers, to listen for close to 3 hours about how they can help make more profits to the company.

But, of course, they didn’t put it exactly in those terms. It is not profits you are increasing by upselling, rather, it is revenues for the company, which will later on mean more opportunities for you (in the same way, as we all know, that the benefits of capitalism eventually trickle down in society and will help to emancipate the poor). And how is that going to happen, how???

We were told that, by upselling, we would gain the following: skills, confidence, product knowledge, attentiveness, and feedback. Excuse me, what the hell are those? How are these a benefit for me, when all I really want from you is a better salary. I am not a waitress because I want to acquire confidence, for sure, I am a waitress because I need money.

Then they figured that explaining to us how the revenues and profits are generated through upselling would make us more prone to engage in the practice. Let’s take the example of a bottle of water, sold at the price of 3 pounds, when its actual cost is 40 p. The profit the company gets from selling just one of these bottles of water per day amounts to 900 pounds in a year!!! Just one little bottle of water. The best thing in the whole story though was the genuine reactions of the people at hearing the difference between the selling price in the restaurant and the costs of this bottle. Forgetting completely the context (we are, after all, in a seminar about upselling, paid for by a company which wants to increase its profits, and conducted by another company which makes loads of money by selling trainings on how to sell), the guys were commenting: “this is a rip-off”, “I can get this in the supermarket for 60 p”. Of course it is a rip off, but that’s why we are here, to learn how to better rip off the customers, and not even for our sake, but for the sake of bigger thieves.

The fact that this is a rip-off training seminar became more and more obvious with time. We moved on to discuss the various types of customers and which are more prone to overspend, therefore, good targets for upselling. What kind of people we get in the restaurant and at the bar? Families, groups of friends, regulars, etc Then the bartenders says: depressed people, I get a lot of depressed people. The seminar leader’s eyes gleam and she suggests, naturally, that these are good targets for selling alcohol. Not explicitly, she wouldn’t say this explicitly, she is, after all, a very polite and self-controlled person, but she lets us know that we know what she knows, that depressed vulnerable people are a good milking cow. After all, we are doing this for the good of the company, we are trying to overcome the selling targets, and, by the way, overcoming the selling targets is supposed to mobilize us, the employees, and give us a sense of purpose, thus making us better at what we do.

We were told that when we come to work and put on our uniform, we are like actors stepping onto the stage. We have to forget our personal troubles and “smile and sell”, “smile and sell”. On this point, the same trainer from “Progressive Training” has given us another seminar a few months back, on how to have a positive attitude towards the customer. The crucial point was to smile. And then she went really nuts and said: but, remember, this smile has to be an honest smile, otherwise the people will know (so, I gather, it has to be an honest smile even though you are in one of those days when you put on a mask to hide your personal troubles???). And, she went on, in order to smile honestly, what you have to do is engage all the muscles on your face, especially the cheek ones. “Progressive training” are so good at their job that they even know how to teach people to smile honestly!!!

Towards the end, we did role playing games in which we practised how to upsell. In the discussions, a girl from the reception mentions, with a genuine desire to contribute to our learning from the training, that when she used to work as a waitress they would sometimes…well…lie. If the customer asked about a product, say, how is your sausage and mash, even though she had no clue, she would say, “they are excellent sir, they are one of our most popular products”. The trainer was a little embarrassed, but finally pleased to admit that, indeed, lying is a good strategy, why not?

So, in a nutshell, the whole point is to lie to vulnerable people to get them to buy more things that they don’t really need, because, and this is a crucial point for the hospitality industry, “the customer doesn’t know what he wants, you know what they want, and you have to show confidence and tell him what he wants”.

Interestingly enough, the restaurant where I work is quite poorly managed. That means, supplies are often not there (even basic ones, such as bread, eggs, coffee), because they don’t do the orders properly. They also cut down on costs by working with only one chef which is not enough. Which means, you often do not really have what to sell to customers. Someone wants an omelet and we have to tell him “we don’t have it today, sir, I am sorry” (because someone forgot to order eggs!) And, in this context, they figured out that what we really need is for the waiters to learn how to upsell. And, that, for me, is very symbolic of how our businesses function today. It doesn’t matter what the product is, really, all that matters is how good we are at selling it. Companies exist only to teach others how to sell, and they use the same strategies whether the product is an egg, a book, or a show. And, yes, I would like to get out of this line of business, but looking at the job sites often ends up a frustrating experience: 90 percent of the jobs advertised in the media sector are sales positions; the same for social work and other sectors. After all, this is the most important thing, not what you do, but how you market it.

As my Italian friend would say, this is all “palate di merda” (meaning, scoops — or shovels — of shit; used first in reference to what the managers told him in a conversation about his role in the company; and then easily transferred to an adequate description of everything else that happens while we are at work).

One comment

  1. I’ll tell you what luv: That bloody Italian knows what He’s talkin’ about!!! Talk to him, I’m sure He’s contriving something to take control of the place the place…



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