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.


But even when the speaker sounds great, the floodlights are shining, and the menuboard is hinting that fries would go well with a burger, many customers won’t purchase a large meal on their own. A friendly cashier suggesting a drink or side salad can increase an average ticket and boost the bottom line.

There are several strategies for getting the sale, and it starts with the people an operation hires. Gingrich says that for drive-thru workers, enthusiasm is especially important.

“You look for the most upbeat people who literally can smile through their voice,” Gingrich says. “You look for those people who really have good service skills and want to work in that position.”

Once a good group is hired, they must be trained properly. Bower says part of that training involves an attitude shift. While operators may see drive-thru customers as wallets on wheels, he says, it’s important to remember that upselling can also improve a customer’s experience. Cashiers do a better job selling if they feel they’re helping the customer, rather than trying to squeeze him out of his last dollar.

“What we try to explain to our folks is it’s about making sure the customer gets everything they need,” Bower says. “Whereas some people might get uncomfortable in that sales position, by nature of the fact that they are cashiers, they do like servicing customers. If you change the mindset, it becomes a lot more palatable.”

Helping the customer is one element. Another is friendliness. When cashiers act cheerfully, they prime the customer to be more receptive to suggestions. Bower says that while time goals are important, they should not get in the way of being courteous.

“The reason you want to be fast is so you can get your customers better service,” Bower says. “If you’re fast and rude, that kind of defeats the purpose.”

Helpfulness and friendliness are fundamentals of customer service, so they’re an obvious place to start. But truly successful upselling goes a little deeper. Every stage in the transaction is a possible place for entry. Gingrich says that even the greeting is a good place to slip in some upselling by mentioning an LTO or a new item.

“Hi, welcome to TacoTime!” the cashier might say. “Would you like to try one of our new steak grilled fajitas today?”

This gets them interested, and may even entice them to buy. Either way, the next step in upselling is to turn an entrée into a combo meal. Olafsson says it’s good for the cashier to take charge of the ordering process by bringing up this option proactively.

“One of the key theories is, you take the guesswork out of the customer’s lap,” Olafsson says. “You only have three questions before customers lose interest. You can’t waste them on clarifying the side orders.”

While cashiers might feel they’re being pushy at first, it’s more a matter of making things more efficient. By making it part of the standard script, it soon becomes part of a cashier’s routine.

“We’ll automatically try to sell them into a combo meal,” Gingrich says. “If they say yes, we’ll see if they want sour cream or guacamole in their burrito. Probably a good 20–25 percent will say, ‘Fine, put it in a combo meal.’”

One classic sales technique is visualization, where the salesperson encourages the potential customer to imagine how wonderful their life would be if only they had the product being offered. There’s obviously not enough time to paint a vivid scene in the drive thru, but operators can accomplish the same effect by using focused descriptions.

“We ask the cashiers to be laser specific when trying to sell an item,” Wendy’s FourCrown’s Schmitz says. “Instead of asking the customer if they want a drink, ask them if they want an ice-cold Coke. Or, instead of asking the customer if they want anything else, how about asking them if they want a hot fry?”

Finally, removing options can be just as powerful as adding them. Customers who have a choice between “yes” and “no” usually say “no.” Instead, Olafsson says, try phrasing the question as a choice between two options.

“You haven’t ordered a fruit or vegetable yet,” a cashier might say. “We just added a new fruit smoothie and a side of sweet corn. Which one could I tempt you with?”

Generally speaking, this kind of psychological positioning increases an operator’s chance of making a sale without offending the person on the other side. After all, if a customer wants to say “no,” it’s not that hard to do. However, customers who are shy or uncomfortable may say “yes” just to be polite. In this case, Gingrich says, it’s extremely important for cashiers to be willing to give them every chance to get out of the transaction.

“If you can sense in their voice, ‘Wait, I was expecting to spend $4, not $7,’ you retract as quickly as possible so that they’re not upset,” Gingrich says. “As soon as they’re questioning that price you know that you’ve gone too far.”

He suggests quickly explaining what the costs of each item are and assuring the customer that part of their order can be removed.

Your Upsell Check List

Is your crew following these basic
steps to improved check averages?

  1. Welcome drivers with a clear, friendly greeting that proactively guides their order to a specific menu item.
  2. Offer combo options once the driver places his order.
  3. Prompt the driver with specific descriptions to consider healthy extras such as fresh salads, ice-cold bottled water, or portable fruit cups.
  4. Never ask yes or no questions. Upsells should be phrased so that the driver is picking between two menu items.
  5. If a driver seems reluctant of the price of the upsells, review the order and offer to remove any unwanted items.
  6. Thank the driver for their business and ask them to come again.

While this makes sense from a customer-service standpoint, it can be a surprisingly difficult tactic to implement. If a brand’s store culture penalizes employees for canceling part of an order, they’re never going to do it. In this case, “customer first” thinking means giving employees the benefit of the doubt and encouraging managers to do the same.

Ultimately, upselling is a basic question of psychology. While drive-thru cashiers have pressures other crewmembers don’t face, the techniques end up being very much the same.

A clean, attractive drive-thru lane, good lighting, and clear speakers make a good first impression. A cleverly designed menuboard primes a customer to buy. And a friendly, helpful cashier with just the right suggestions can move an average ticket enough to make a real difference.

So even if you haven’t had much drive-thru success, it’s not too late. Olafsson says by putting the right behaviors into place, it’s possible to make the drive-thru a great source of profits.

“We had a client back east that called us up: ‘We’re just dead on upsells,’” Olafsson says. “We taught them ‘earning the right to sell’ and a few choice ways of doing it. Within 45 days they were up to 18 cents per transaction on add-on selling, [or] 900 percent.”

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