Sales Science: How to Gamify Restaurant Sales to Motivate Staff, Boost Checks

By Charlie Francus

How a piece of paper and a pen motivated two drive-thru attendants to sell an entire season’s worth of 32oz promotional mugs in 2 days.

How do you motivate someone being paid minimum wage to care about your net sales? It’s actually much easier than you’d think. If you’ve tried and failed in the past to get staff members to care about selling more profitable items and increasing average check, it’s probably because you’ve failed to frame the goals in ways that relate to them. Today we’re going to dive into intrinsic motivation and how you can create it to make selling more fun by challenging your crew, creating competition, and recognizing achievement.

The latest research into human motivation and psychology revolves around something called self-determination theory. I’m not going to bore you with the details but I am going to give the highlights and how they can (and should) be applied to motivating your restaurant team.

An important distinction to understand is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

In a nutshell:

Extrinsic motivation comes from external elements and pressure: the need to earn a salary, avoid punishment, etc.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within each person: everyone has a desire to learn and grow, to succeed and demonstrate competence, as well as connect with others (THIS IS IMPORTANT).

Needless to say, both types of motivation are useful, but the latter (intrinsic) is by far the most effective. When people are motivated to do something because they WANT to vs. they HAVE to you get entirely different results. An easy way to think about it would be consider the way someone approaches a hobby vs. a job. One is enjoyable while the other can be tedious.

So, how & why should you challenge rather than order your restaurant team?

As a leader, you need to keep both types of motivation in mind and employ each where appropriate. Let’s look at two examples of how you could motivate someone to sell more appetizers:

Approach 1: “You need to focus on selling our new appetizer tonight! It’s your job to sell to the guest and we expect you to sell at least five apps.”

Approach 2: “We have a new appetizer available. I think you guys can sell at least five, but I challenge you to try to sell 10.”

What’s different about these two approaches? They both are saying the same thing but in two very different ways. The first focuses very much on extrinsic motivation -- this is your job you should do it. While the second opens the door to intrinsic motivation -- do you have what it takes to beat expectations and show off your skills?

Competition harnesses intrinsic motivation & yields RESULTS!

Competitions take challenges one quantum leap further. Crew member competitions give individuals a chance to demonstrate their skill and ability in a social setting that results in immediate recognition. You’ll find very quickly that the prize for winning is usually secondary to the desire to win.

In a repetitive job like waiting on tables or working a drive-thru window, a competition can be a bolt of lightning. 

Some keys to running a successful and effective competition are:

  • Communicate. Clearly communicate the goals, scoring metrics, and timeframe.
  • Feedback. Provide feedback as often as possible. Keep everyone updated on their progress and where they stand!
  • Mix things up. Vary the duration and scoring metrics of competitions to give everyone an opportunity to shine.

Do you see how nicely a competition leverages intrinsic motivation? Staff can demonstrate skills, grow and learn, and connect with their peers in a fun way. The cherry on top is a bit of extrinsic motivation in the form of a prize for the winner(s).

Recognizing achievement is your most critical role as a leader

People can be motivated by competition for competition’s sake, but if you want to attain lasting motivation and results it is super important that you recognize your team’s achievements and growth.

Simply making a short announcement during a pre-shift, sending a text, or a pat on the back can have a profound effect. Do not underestimate the power and value that your acknowledgment can have.

This isn’t just theory from books.

I’ve seen (and participated in) it being applied in restaurants.

In 2004, I was working part-time as a drive-thru attendant. It wasn’t a glamorous or well-paying job, and the owner was more absent than present. The brand began a 32oz mug promotion without communicating any of it to us (the front-line staff). Out of the blue two giant plastic bags full of mugs randomly showed up and sat in the corner. There was no point of purchase materials and guests weren’t knocking down doors to pay $1 more to get their Mountain Dew in a big mug.

Then one day, when I arrived to work the evening shift, everything changed. The day shift drive-thru attendant had taped a piece of notebook paper to the wall and started keeping tally marks for every promo mug he sold. Not to be outdone, I immediately added my name to a column and began furiously selling mugs. Needless to say, an additional $1 mug upgrade added to a $6 combo meal was a MASSIVE increase in average check.

We sold both giant bags of those mugs in two days. There was no reward nor recognition from the restaurant management, but we thoroughly enjoyed every minute of our heated competition. Looking back at my time with that restaurant chain (roughly five years) those two days were definitely the highlight.