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What is a Sullivan Nod?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The Sullivan Nod is a sales technique which is designed to encourage people to purchase a particular item with the power of subconscious suggestion. It is most commonly used in the food industry, although it pops up in other industries as well, ranging from boutiques to car lots. When well-executed, a Sullivan Nod is so subtle that the consumer doesn't even notice it, making it a challenging thing to watch out for.

This technique was developed by Tom Sullivan, a consultant who works in the restaurant businesses. Sullivan designed the technique as a way to increase sales of appetizers, drinks, and other items which can quickly drive up the overall price of a tag in a restaurant. This makes the Sullivan Nod popular with waiters and waitresses who want to up their tags for higher tips, and it is also common among bartenders, who sometimes receive bonuses for selling more high-end alcohols.

The mechanism of a Sullivan Nod is fairly simple. As someone recites a list of items, he or she nods slightly, around 10-15 degrees, when a particularly desirable item is reached. The nod should be subtle enough that it doesn't stand out, while still being visible to the consumer. According to Sullivan, customers respond to the nod around 65% of the time, purchasing the indicated item regardless of its cost.

Studies on the Sullivan Nod have shown that it works best with lists of five or fewer items. For example, a bartender might respond to a request for a scotch with “Would you like brand X, Y, M, or Z?” If Brand M was the desired brand, he or she would nod slightly when reaching it, and if the customer was suggestible, the answer might be “why, Brand M, of course!”

Sullivan claims that his sales technique even works over the phone with room service orders, suggesting that tone of voice may also play a factor in subconscious suggestion. If you work in service or sales, you might want to try giving the Sullivan Nod a try for yourself. If you'd like to be scientific about it, see if you can get other waiters or bar staff to participate in a controlled study, with some of you using the Sullivan Nod on various shifts while others don't, and comparing notes at the end of a month or so.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon55136 — On Dec 04, 2009

Also... the nod can be used backward. You simply ask the question in a negative turn. Like "You didn't want dessert did you?" and slightly shake your head no or furrow your brow. Of course they'll say no and you can get the heck out of there. Some days tips don't matter, you just want to go home.

By ravenov — On Dec 04, 2008

Okay now I have to go to lunch tomorrow just to see if I happen to see the Sullivan Nod! However we use to kind of do similar things in car sales. IT amazes me how suggestible humans are! Yours truly included! I am a marketers dream. lol

By anon22399 — On Dec 03, 2008

I know a waiter that does a "crop duster" to get rid of stingy, rude and overly demanding customers. I know a lot of waiters that employ a technique of squatting down to talk to the "guests" at the table which assures him a bigger tip. P.S. Speaking of squatting, a "crop duster" is a silent but deadly long fart placed strategically used on his victims. Lucky for you and I, dear reader, that I forgot my posting log in for this site. And you thought that waiters only spit in your food, their mod us operand i is to be more "creative."

By Flywheel1 — On Dec 03, 2008

What a great question and great answer!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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