Embracing the Upsell

“Selling isn’t in my job description! I was hired to take orders and handle complaints, not to sell products!”

“If I’d wanted a selling job, I would have applied someplace else!”

“I would feel uncomfortable and pushy trying to sell more products to customers!”

These are some of the strong comments catalog contact center managers hear from customer service representatives (CSRs) when they broach the topic of upselling and cross-selling.

In particular, the CSRs who have been with the company for a long time, who have had conflicts with management or other staffers, and who have generally resisted change will be those most likely to refuse shifting their mindset from service to sales. These reps may dig in their heels and try to undermine your efforts to introduce suggestive selling to the call center.

The key to shifting the CSRs’ mindset from service to sales is proper training — and reinforcing the training and the new mindset immediately and adequately.

About three years ago, I put together a training program for Chinaberry Book Service, a cataloger of children’s books and games in Spring Valley, CA. Before we started, Chinaberry president Gary DeMaine asked how we could guarantee that selling would occur and overall sales would increase. I told him that the one-day training with role-playing would educate and inspire CSRs to upsell and cross-sell immediately, but what the leaders of the team did afterward to reinforce the training was of greatest importance. If they followed through with the reinforcement, Chinaberry would reap not only increased sales but also improved job satisfaction among the reps and, as a bonus, extraordinary customer service.

To persuade CSRs to embrace selling as a function of service, you must be prepared to answer this question: “What’s in it for me?”

When working with Chinaberry, I conducted confidential one-on-one interviews with reps, asking such questions as “What motivates you to come to work each day? Do you see yourself as a salesperson? What would make you want to sell?” The confidentiality of the interviews enabled reps to speak freely. Working with the cataloger’s customer service manager, Patti Guthrie, we found that money was the greatest motivator, followed by positive feedback and accolades from customers, then contests and games for prizes such as dinner or theater tickets, and finally, feeling great about themselves.

To address the reps’ chief motivation, Chinaberry provided monetary compensation (a fixed amount of money for an upsell of a specific product) and various contests and games. Catalogers can also implement fun rituals to reward sales. For instance, you might have a cowbell in the call center for reps to ring after a successful upsell. When managers hear the bell, they can distribute prize coins to the rep; the rep with the most coins at the end of a given period win money or a prize.

To satisfy the CSRs’ need for positive customer feedback and self-satisfaction, the reps had to feel that they were helping customers rather than pushing products. CSRs — and indeed contact center managers — must understand that any suggestive selling will be difficult if the customer has not already received good customer care from the beginning of the call. It’s important for the rep to build rapport immediately with the greeting. Reps should pick up the call before the third ring (but not on the first ring if they’re not ready) and greet the caller with an upbeat inflection to their voice. A two-line salutation such as “Good morning, Chinaberry Books. This is Betty…” is fine, while four- or five-line greetings tend to slow down the conversation before it starts.

Reps must be prepared, focused, and consistent when they answer the phone; they also need to be able to demonstrate product knowledge. The customer must trust that the CSR knows the merchandise and that the rep is guiding him to the products most likely to meet his needs and desires rather than pushing the products that the company is most eager to unload.

At the same time, teach CSRs that the customer does not care how much they know about the merchandise until he knows how much they care about him. Only when the customer feels that he is in good hands with a CSR who really cares is he most likely to open up to suggestive selling. Then the CSR is more like a friend helping another friend through a problem by suggesting alternative solutions.

Incidentally, CSRs can still effectively upsell or cross-sell when a customer has called in with a complaint. Here more than ever, it’s critical that the rep present himself as a helpmate rather than a pushy or unconcerned salesperson. You must instruct CSRs how to shift from service to sales smoothly with the use of defusing phrases and statements to calm upset customers who are venting, such as “I can appreciate how that…” or “I understand how you were inconvenienced by…” The defusing phrases show that the CSR understands the customer’s situation and is empathizing with him before taking care of the problem.

As part of training, teach CSRs to become accomplished in using suggestive-selling words and phrases. They gain confidence as they practice the conversational way of bridging from service to sales with natural lead-in phrases rather than scripts for sales pitches. Transitions such as “By the way, we have…” or “You may not be aware that you can…” help introduce products or services that customers may be interested in. Proven vehicle words and phrases rather than whole sentences or scripts will enable reps to enthusiastically and confidently go beyond order-taking and service into selling.

Some reps have to hone their listening skills, rather than their selling skills, so that they actually hear what the customer is saying. In most cases, customers indicate why they are making their specific purchases within the first two sentences of their conversation with a CSR. And that’s all the information a CSR needs to be able to suggestive sell. Say a customer mentions at the beginning of the call that she is remodeling her kitchen. A rep could later say, “Mrs. Jones, since you are remodeling your kitchen, you may be interested in the decorative tiles we have on page 42…”

Practice makes perfect

I typically start training by teaching reps basic customer service theories and skills such as how to answer the phone and improve communication, attitude, and teamwork. Reps then have to put the theories into practice via role-playing and peer feedback.

CSRs making the shift from service to sales need to prove that they can upsell and cross-sell during training via role-playing in a no-risk environment. Most people dislike role-playing, but if participants understand that they don’t need to be good at it immediately, they can overcome their aversion to the exercise and actually enjoy the process. Role-playing lets CSRs make mistakes when it doesn’t count — before they get on the phone. Without this sort of practice, most CSRs will be reluctant to try suggestive selling on bona fide customers.

In the case of Chinaberry, we started with teaching or reinforcing upsell theory, then put it into practice with role-playing and honed the skills via training and peer feedback. At the end of the training session, we gave a homework assignment of “buddy role-playing,” in which teams of reps had three weeks to prepare and practice their roles. Customer service manager Guthrie had to follow up on the assignment and monitor calls regularly to give CSRs plenty of accolades and additional coaching when call for.

Guthrie learned to “feed and weed” her CSRs, providing reps with all the help they needed to be successful. If they wouldn’t or couldn’t upsell and cross-sell, she moved them to more suitable jobs outside the call center or let them go. Granted, you may find it tough to lay off employees who aren’t meeting your needs, but reps must be willing and able to grow and transition to a new level if your program is to succeed. In many case, reps weed themselves out if they find the upselling and cross-selling responsibilities don’t suit them.

Though Guthrie did have to weed out a number of underperforming CSRs, her new hires have been trained from the get-go to easily shift from service to sales. They’re taught extensive product knowledge. Many also have computer screen-pop technology to help prompt them on certain product specs. “The CSRs have learned that the more they know, the more they sell,” Guthrie says.

Reps also discovered it was fun to share product knowledge and suggest items that would better fit the customer’s wants and needs. The rapport they built with callers increased customer service skills, and before long, customers began singing their praises and sending fan mail to the CSRs. These letters were used in call center celebrations to give additional recognition and motivation.

A win-win situation

When I followed up with Chinaberry this year, the program was still paying off. Last year Chinaberry reps used suggestive selling to subtantially liquidate overstock inventory. Guthrie says that upselling the overstocks produced an additional $358,412 in revenue. What’s more, says catalog president DeMaine, “our customers are delighted with the additional service — and they purchase more of our products.”

As for Chinaberry’s CSRs, they enjoyed making their customers happier with additional or better product selections. The contests and incentives let them write their own paycheck, and the new positive and exciting call center environment with celebrations and accolades renewed their confidence and self-esteem. The CSRs were proud that they had increased revenue for their company, had fun in the process, and made money for themselves.

Expanding their duties to include upselling and cross-selling adds variety to the CSRs’ daily activities, because the reps are constantly thinking ahead for the customer. Once a CSR learns how to think of product suggestions from the first comment the customer makes, they are challenged to think on their feet and proficiently care for the customer, leaving little time for the job to become boring.

Los Gatos, CA-based JJ Lauderbaugh, CPCM, is an international speaker, trainer and consultant who specializes in customer service management.


In most cases, money is going to be the biggest motivator to get employees to do anything, and implementing an upselling/cross-selling program is no exception. But how do you come up with a compensation plan?

The best way to find out what to offer as an incentive and how to offer it is to ask your employees. If your customer service reps want money, for instance, how often do they want to be paid for their upsells: weekly? monthly? Do they want the commission to be included in their paycheck or paid separately?

As far as setting up a commission or prize structure, simpler is always better, such as offering a set amount of money for a specific type of product upsell. You can also provide higher incentives for selling certain products that you really want to move.

Cash is typically king, but some companies offer prizes such as free trips, dinners, theater or movie tickets, and stereos and televisions. You can offer such incentives instead of cash, or in addition to upsell commissions. Some companies use a system in which reps accrue points that they can put toward buying merchandise. You can even award points to buy items in your catalog, if appropriate.

Partner Content

Hincapie Sportswear Finds Omnichannel Success in the Cloud - Netsuite
For more and more companies, a cloud-based unified data solution is the way to make this happen. Custom cycling apparel maker Hincapie Sportswear has leveraged this capability to gain greater visibility into revenue streams, turning opportunities into sales more quickly while gaining overall operating efficiency. Download this ecommerce special report from Multichannel Merchant to more.
The Gift of Wow: Preparing your store for the holiday season - Netsuite
Being prepared for the holiday rush used to mean stocking shelves and making sure your associates were ready for the long hours. But the digital revolution has changed everything, most importantly, customer expectations. Retailers with a physical store presence should be asking themselves—what am I doing to wow the customer?
3 Critical Components to Achieving the Perfect Order - NetSuite
Explore the 3 critical components to delivering the perfect order.
Streamlining Unified Commerce Complexity - NetSuite
Explore how consolidating multiple systems through a cloud-based commerce platform provides a seamless experience for both you, and your customer.