Ordering | September 2011 | By Robert Lillegard

One for the Road?

Upselling at the drive-thru is no science, but experts say it does take some careful consideration. These tips will boost your drive-thru profits in no time.

Upselling to customers in the drive thru can boost profit margins.
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If you haven’t seen the “Fast Food Folk Song,” it’s worth a look on YouTube.

Comedians Rhett and Link pull up to a Taco Bell drive thru, and when they’re asked what they’d like to eat, they launch into an elaborate folk song. Their song, which includes lines like “I’ll choose a chalupa, I’ll grab a gordita, and two taco salads for our senoritas,” ultimately tops out at 15 separate items and includes special instructions like “no diced tomatoes” or “extra sour cream.”

The song is funny on its own, but the real joke is on the two pranksters. When the cashier repeats the order back to them, he gets nearly every detail right. The comedians look completely astonished as they pull forward to pay for their order—all $42.69 of it.

Now, that’s customer service. Whoever hired that cashier is one lucky franchisee who knows how to staff a drive thru. But not everyone is so fortunate.

The drive thru is a tough environment for several reasons. Cashiers can’t use the same friendly body language they could if they were face-to-face with a customer, and they can’t read his or her nonverbal cues. The cashier may have a hard time understanding the customer, and vice versa. Finally, there are often strict time goals to contend with.

It’s no wonder some quick serves struggle with effective drive-thru strategy. Drive-thru sales already make up a significant portion of business for many chains (65 percent for McDonald’s, for example). But with the right strategy, couldn’t that number be even higher?

Oli Olafsson would say yes. He’s the president and CEO of Human Touch Consulting, an organization that specializes in sales and customer service. His strategy starts with “earning the right to sell,” which means operators have to lay a foundation for upselling long before customers roll up to their speakers.

“If you do the prerequisite behaviors, you’re five times more likely to upsell,” Olafsson says. “Psychology is everything.”

That’s because, like walk-in customers, drive-thru customers are not usually sure about exactly what they’ll get. Kimberly Schwank, senior marketing manager at the Coca-Cola Company, says that while some customers have favorite orders, many are willing to consider adding more if the atmosphere is right.

“They have an idea of what they want,” Schwank says, “[but] they are still considering their options.”

Appearance can be quite important. Tom Schmitz is the vice president of operations for Oakdale, Minnesota–based Wendy’s FourCrown Inc. With more than 50 locations, this franchisee has set a firm drive-thru policy. The first step, Schmitz says, is making a good first impression.

“Three out of four customers visit our drive thru,” Schmitz says, “[but] 100 percent of our customers evaluate the exterior of our restaurant.”

That means keeping it clean, but also well lit. Olafsson says that while bright white lights can help an area stay safe, operators would be better off thinking in terms of pastels.

“White big floodlights mean ‘We have to have this area well-lit because of problems,’” Olafsson says. “People connect those with burglaries. We see that bright colors affect customers positively. It’s more festive and celebrative.”

One more factor in setting the stage for upselling is the length of the drive-thru lines.

At Wendy’s FourCrown, every store has timers, along with preset time goals. Schmitz says these put pressure on the staff to get things moving.

At Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, speed is so important that the quick serve designed its entire drive-thru experience around it. The company has dropped more than 40 seconds from its average drive-thru time in the last 12 months, which gives customers less time to wait.

Shorter wait times serve two key purposes. First, they keep the customer in a good mood, which primes him to be receptive to a friendly upsell and makes him more likely to come back. More importantly, they expand the number of people you’re able to reach. Upselling is great, but ultimately an extra car is going to add more to the bottom line than an extra side dish.

“At the end of the day, it’s really just a math problem,” Popeyes chief operating officer Ralph Bower says. “If you can increase your concept of what max capacity is, that’s going to generate into dollars for the cash register.”

Once customers are in the drive-thru line, it’s time to start selling. As the customer’s first real point of contact with a quick serve’s offerings, menuboards serve an important role.

Beyond adding to the basic curb appeal (menuboards should be clean, well-lit, and not sun-bleached), they provide a place where brands can gently start to upsell. By emphasizing high-profit offerings and simplifying the board, operations can increase average ticket size and increase speed.

Tex-Mex chain TacoTime spent 18 months developing a new menuboard with the help of a design team and a photography studio. Its goals were to highlight both common items (which most customers are looking for) and high-profit-margin items (to steer purchases in that direction). Part of its new menuboard strategy is to emphasize the visual element with appealing photographs and only limited wording.

“People do not like to read the text,” says TacoTime brand president Kevin Gingrich. “A large-size picture makes it much easier for them to discern what the ingredients are and decide whether they like that or not.”

Of course, people tend to choose from what’s available. If every menu picture shows a drink and fries, well, that sends the message that it’s best to go with the combo.

“Communicating the complete meal [is] a great way to influence beverage purchases,” Schwank says. “You’ve made the ordering process easier for them.”

After viewing the menuboard, most operators assume the customer will talk with a cashier. Not so fast. While a customer will most assuredly try to talk with a cashier, a speaker that’s on the fritz can frustrate a customer and turn him off from buying anything extra. Olafsson says that nationwide, speaker quality tends to be a real problem.

“The vast majority of drive thrus in the U.S. have deficient speakers,” Olafsson says. “As soon as the quality goes down, you have to go out [and fix it].”

While Olafsson suggests that the manager check the speakers every single day, not every chain feels this rigor is necessary. Bower says that Popeyes evaluates its speakers three to four times a year during store visits. Gingrich says it usually becomes fairly apparent when a speaker is not working right, and when a TacoTime operator does notice, he has someone take a look. Either way, good sound quality makes drive-thru transactions easier and faster.

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