Are You Upselling or Just Upsetting Your Customers?

Last Updated Feb 3, 2011 10:45 AM EST

Upselling is a tactic that's as old as marketing itself and on the whole, it's effective. Yet I suspect that when we are on the buying side, most of us find upsell tactics uninteresting, unwelcome, or even annoying.


Properly and effectively done, upselling (or cross-selling, or the common catch-all "suggestive selling") can have dramatic top- and bottom-line results. So how do you improve your odds of increasing a sale (and typically your margin) without compromising the customer's experience or relationship with your business?

It's been reported that only about 15% of customers actually want to hear additional offers. In other words, more than 8 out of 10 people are not initially receptive to your upsell pitch, which means you've got your work cut out for you. Start by testing your plan with the questions below. As always, put yourself in the customer's shoes and be honest with yourself when you answer:

Is it truly likely to benefit the customer? As with most good business and marketing practices, this really should be the first and last question. Obviously the goal is to sell more. But are you offering something that you'd honestly be interested in -- or at least receptive to -- if you were on the receiving end?

If you're letting the customer know that he's just $5 short of qualifying for free shipping (as Amazon does so well), that's a potential benefit, likely to be well-received, and I suspect with a higher-than average chance of success.

Are you offering something at the right time and place? Your upsell should clearly relate to the business at hand, and it should be "situationally appropriate" (unlike this incredibly inappropriate example my fellow BNET blogger Geoffrey James experienced). It doesn't take a genius to know when and where it's OK to pitch someone on something. Use your head.

If you own a clothing store and a customer is buying some dress shirts, it's absolutely appropriate to helpfully mention that ties are on sale. It is not, however, a good idea to bombard the customer, as so many stores do (What about some shoes? A sport coat? Can I show you our new sweater collection?). Pick a sensible sales opportunity, present it professionally, and always stop if the customer is not interested.
How are you delivering the offer? Is your upsell passive or aggressive? Respectfully brief or obnoxiously excessive? Believable or BS? Are you obviously reading from a script with a hard-sell gun to your head, or are you really connecting with the customer, taking cues from her demeanor, and using your own judgment and common sense?

My own all-time pet peeve where this is concerned is the credit card activation pitch: You get your new card with the toll-free number on the sticker, and when you call, you're connected with a representative who says (usually with feigned sincerity) "I'll take care of this right away, and while your card is activating, I'd like to tell you about..."

While my card is activating? Does this company really think I'm that stupid? The card is activated instantly, in a millisecond -- we all know that. This is one time I don't want to speak to a human being, and I get one instantly. Go figure.

Some card companies have stopped this practice and are using technology to efficiently and quickly handle the activation. But those who don't are insulting my intelligence and wasting my time to suggest that we can productively use the "processing time" to talk about some other great offers.

There are some transactions during which most people don't want to do anything but get the matter handled and get off the phone or website as quickly as possible, and this is certainly one of them. Fast, administrative customer contacts are not the right time to sell something. I called to do exactly one thing -- just do it, please, and don't take advantage of our time together.
What is the customer's reaction/impression likely to be? Again, this requires that you put on your customer hat and be brutally honest with yourself. If you, as a customer, would be turned off, inconvenienced, or otherwise displeased with an upsell pitch, don't subject your customers to it.

Everyone knows that businesses will usually try to sell them more. And like many marketing tactics, upselling is a percentage play; it will succeed a small portion of the time, but the successes should justify the effort. If you do it right, at worst your customer won't be annoyed, and at best she may take you up on it. If you do it wrong, you risk not only a failed upsell effort, but unhappy, disengaged customers. And no sales program is worth that.

What are the best or worst upsell/cross-sell techniques you've used or experienced? And while you're thinking about it, can I interest you in one year of free credit monitoring?

(Flickr photo by Pondspider)

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    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at www.businesswithclass.com.