3 Customer Service Best Practices for Upselling and Cross-Selling

Your Internet is down. After being on hold with customer service for 30 minutes, you spend a tedious hour going back and forth with an agent before the issue is finally resolved. Just as you’re about to hang up, the agent asks, “Sir, would you like to upgrade to our Turbo wireless package for only $19.99 more per month?”

Needless to say you decline, and make a mental note to switch providers.

Poorly executed upselling (offering a more expensive version of a product) and cross-selling (offering a complimentary product from the same category) attempts like this occur all the time, and yield unsuccessful, even detrimental results. A recent survey from AchieveGlobal found more than 40 percent of respondents get annoyed when employees upsell or cross-sell them during customer service interactions.

With the rise of online sales, a customer service call may be the only chance a company has to form a personal connection with a customer. This makes it even more important to upsell or cross-sell correctly by anticipating customer needs and actively listening for opportunities to provide value. What’s more, SmartMoney.com found that 15 percent of customers actually want to hear about upsell offers, if done properly.

Here, we’ve put together three simple best practices to avoid common mistakes and realize the benefits of integrating cross-selling and upselling into your customer interactions.

1. Listen for Cues and Respond Appropriately

Products and services recommended through upselling and cross-selling must be relevant to the customer’s needs. Charles Gaudet, a marketing expert and owner of Predictable Profits says that effective upselling should always come from a desire to identify and fill needs, rather than just trying to push a product without much concern for how it fits or is perceived.

“If I’m buying a computer for my child and someone tries to upsell me with business software, it frustrates me,” says Gaudet. “When you just try to sell someone unrelated items, you give the impression that you don’t care about my results, just money.”

This means going beyond relying on scripts and a customer’s past purchases to determine what they might be interested in. It means actively listening for customers’ unmet needs—what they don’t say, rather than what they do—and tailoring upsell offers to fill those gaps.

“Listen for the answer to the current question, and other ones too,” says Craig Harrison, a speaker and consultant with Expressions of Excellence. “Listen to the meta-message—the message within the message. What is being said? What isn’t being said? Listen for more opportunities to serve/sell.”

As Harrison points out, the customer service representative is trained to know the company’s full product line or full offering of services, while the customer may not.

“[The customer] may not even realize that what he needs is a different product with more capabilities or a different service package,” he says. “But because the agent knows the product line and is actively listening to what the customer is saying, the agent is well positioned to suggest the appropriate fix—and then make additional suggestions.”

For example, by listening to a customer’s complaint about a failing printer, an agent might be able to glean enough information to know that the product isn’t well-suited to the customer’s task. Perhaps it’s a basic model meant for occasional personal use, but the customer is using it for his or her business.

In that case, the agent would be well positioned to upsell by suggesting a more efficient commercial printer and, once the customer agrees, cross-sell by offering a special on ink cartridges.

2. Focus on Providing Maximum Value

To upsell or cross-sell successfully, you must be able to demonstrate value to the customer. Gaudet gives a simple example of an added-value upsell: you buy a medium popcorn, and the employee explains that for only a dollar more, you’ll get double the popcorn. “When you upsell for an increase in package like that, articulate it so they understand that you’re essentially selling money at a discount. It becomes a no-brainer,” he says.

“When you upsell, you’re promoting increased value in the form of convenience, prestige or something more concrete,” elaborates Claudia Parker, a sales professional with more than 20 years experience. “It’s saying, ‘For just a little more money, you’ll be so much happier—with a better rental car, or breakfast with your hotel room, or increased perks at the gym, or whatever.”

The best way to quantify this value is by helping the customer focus on the bigger picture, Harrison says. The best way to do that is by helping them understand that sometimes the value isn’t calculated just by the sticker price, but by depreciation, wear and tear, and/or reliability. For example, the customer could purchase Printer X, but it has a shorter lifespan, whereas the slightly more expensive Printer Y will last longer, providing greater value.

3. Pay Close Attention to Timing and Context

One of the most difficult aspects of upselling and cross-selling is knowing when to delay or even skip it altogether. Selling of any type should always take a backseat to taking care of the customer’s immediate needs. If someone is calling to complain or they’re obviously frustrated—or you don’t even know yet why they’re calling—an upsell should be the farthest thing from your mind.

In some cases, the best time to upsell or cross-sell is toward the end of a conversation. In this situation, an agent has had time to assess all of the customer’s pain points and can suggest a solution that addresses them. In other cases, the best time may be right after the agent has solved the customer’s problem and has built up their trust and goodwill. In yet others, it’s via an email after the call has ended, when enough time has passed for the customer to consider spending more.

The key, Harrison says, is to be able to read the situation properly. It all comes back to training agents how to actively listen and gauge how receptive the customer will likely be to a cross-sell or upsell offer.

Finally, don’t be negative—ever. Business author and speaker Bob Burg advises companies to never inappropriately pressure customers. “Not only is it unethical, but this will offend your customer, create ‘bad will’ and lots of negative PR about you and your company,” he says. “On the other hand, when handled correctly, your customer will be filled with thanks and gratitude, and positive word is even more likely to spread.”

And intention is key. As Brown explains, “If your intention is to make as much money as you can, that will shine through. If your intention is to make sure your customer is given everything they need, that will shine through.”

Karen D. Schwartz is a technology and business writer with more than 20 years’ experience. She has written on a broad range of technology topics for publications like CIO, InformationWeek, eWeek andGovernment Executive. She has also ghost-written many articles, white papers, case studies and book chapters for vendors in the technology sector. She resides in Potomac, Md. and can be reached at karen@karendschwartz.com.

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