How to master the art of upselling

Getting your customer interested in more than what's currently on the table is an important skill to have, says Phil Rothwell.

These days people are busy, very busy. You don’t have to work in sales too long before you work out how precious every conversation is. That’s why making the most of every sales opportunity by upselling is absolutely essential if you want to get the best out of your business.

The trouble is, all too often we fail. You will probably know the scenario. The phone rings and someone answers. They take an order, thank the customer for their business and end the call.

Did you tell them about the special promotion,’ you ask.

Oh no, sorry!‘ they respond.

I am not always sure why this happens. Sometimes it’s because people see the chance of a sale and ignore the bigger opportunity and sometimes the promotion doesn’t seem relevant to the conversation. Either way, it’s a crying shame, because upselling not only increases revenue, it provides an opportunity to build a stronger relationship with your customer. The real tragedy is it’s a skill you can learn and is relatively easy to apply, but is still often ignored.

Question time

As any seasoned sales person will know, if you want to have a productive conversation with a client, you have to ask questions. This is excellent advice, but choosing the right questions at the right time is equally important. You need a strategy that helps to set the context for the broader discussion about the products you sell. This strategy needs to be applied from the inception of the sales process, because the key to selling isn’t ‘the close’, it’s ‘the open’.

The most effective upselling strategy I have used is one that hinges around finding out what is fundamentally motivating the customer. We sell ecommerce software and services and normally customer motivation boils down to one of three things: increasing sales, reducing costs, or a combination of both. We call these drivers.

The thing is, customers rarely call us up and say ‘I want to increase sales’. More often they will say, ‘I need a new website’, or ‘I need this feature’.  What’s happened is that they have thought about their need and concluded how it can be met. If you can get into that conversation, then all of a sudden, the sales process becomes consultative and cross-selling is a natural part of it.

This is all frighteningly easy. All you have to do is ask ‘Why?’ which can then facilitate a conversation that might sound something like this from your side.

You say: ‘Hello there, my colleague tells me you would be interested in us developing a new website for you. Can you tell me what you’re trying to achieve?’

‘We’d like to increase sales as they have been trailing off in the last 12 months,’ they reply.

You pitch in, ‘A new website can help you, but there may be some other options worth considering as well. For instance, have you looked at a project to improve your search engine rankings, which will attract more traffic? We have a service that can help in this area as well.’

It’s a big improvement.

Adapting to suit

Of course, for many businesses this is easier said than done. For instance how do you apply this to the sale of staplers? Asking someone why they are interested in buying a stapler wouldn’t really work. That’s because the customers’ drivers are less likely to be directly associated with the product. However, the same approach can be adapted to work in this context as well.

Staplers can be purchased from any stationer, so I would be interested in (i) finding out why they were interested in talking to me and (ii) why they were interested in doing so right now. Maybe their motivation is to reduce costs or reduce the delivery times, or perhaps get access to a credit account. Most people already have a stationery supplier; find out why they need, or are willing to consider using a new one.

This kind of discussion can more easily transition into something more product-related. Again, it’s all about asking questions: ‘What kind of documents do you produce? Are there other kinds of bindings you use, perhaps in sales proposals?’ Of course, the customer may not be interested in playing ball. ‘Listen, all I want is a bloody stapler!’ But you lose nothing by trying.

No pain no gain

Implementing these kinds of processes in your sales team often requires dedicated effort. In my experience, sales people like to enjoy the freedom of interaction with their customers and can be resistant to ideas that seem to point at scripted conversations. You don’t need scripts, although some people do find them useful.

We train our team to use this approach and I try to reinforce it with an expectation that we should know the reasons why any of our customers are interested in a product or service. So when one of the team says to me ‘I have a customer interested in our search engine optimisation service,’ I always ask ‘Why?’ If they don’t know, then I ask them to find out.

A script may be optional, but an understanding of what products and services are relevant to specific drivers is essential. We have a number of services that either directly or indirectly increase sales, and a number that can reduce operating costs, along with some that can do both. We all have them listed on a sheet of paper, as a reminder.

Ethical selling

Whenever I talk about this, it’s at this point my non-sales friends look at me as though I have grown horns and a tail. It’s important to understand that upselling doesn’t have to be manipulative in any way at all. The majority of companies sell a range of products and services that offer great benefits to their customers. Telling people about them is helpful and a good thing. If your sales team is trained to understand the needs of your customers, then as well as being focused and competitive, they can also add value and build stronger customer relationships.

Further reading on sales processes

  • Change your sales approach – Too many salespeople make excuses and moan about the response rate of prospects, says Shaun Thomson, founder of Sandler Training. Here’s why they should turn that attitude on its head.


Phil Rothwell

Phil Rothwell is founder and CEO of digital marketing agency EcomEvolve.

Related Topics

Customer Loyalty

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