Why is it so hard to get retail associates to upsell?

Discussion
Photo: RetailWire
Nov 07, 2017
Bob Phibbs

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from The Retail Doctor’s Blog.

I was buying a small electronic item when the cashier asked me, “Do you want to buy the extended warranty?” I replied, “No.” She continued, “I didn’t think so, but my boss makes me ask.”

While that isn’t an example of upselling, it’s the germ of why employees don’t do it.

It’s like parents saying, “Clean up your room” or “Mow the lawn.” No one likes to be told what to do.

The dialogue with employees about upselling should start at the hiring process. Ask during the interview if they know what upselling means. Ask if they have been trained on how to do it. Ask if they like to do it and, if so, why. If they don’t know what it is, give them an example.

The crucial tactic is to get your retail staff to see that they upsell themselves all the time.

Start with something they know. Take coffee.

If they come in with a Starbucks cup, ask them what drink they have and its price. Challenge them a bit. Maybe it’s a Zombie Frappuccino that cost $4.50. Ask them why they purchased that instead of a Slurpee at 7-Eleven for half the price. Then explain to them how they upsold their selection on novelty, Instagrammability or taste.

The point: Upselling is just what they, as shoppers, regularly do on their own.

Make sure you don’t confuse upselling with adding-on. They are two different aspects of selling.

Upselling is taking someone from a bargain, sale or standard product to a similar one that has more features. That means taking them to a better product that delivers more benefits to the shopper.

The upsell item should make life more convenient, deliver better results or have less maintenance. And yes, it costs more too.

Whatever you sell, make it clear upselling is part of everyday life — all you’re asking is for your team members to proactively help shoppers who are just like them.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What advice would you have for managers trying to encourage store associates to upsell? Do some associates have to overcome a mental barrier in order to upsell? Are some more naturally inclined to upsell than others?

Braintrust
"Making product recommendations based on information the customer gives you is a lot easier than pushing the same upsell to every customer. "

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37 Comments on "Why is it so hard to get retail associates to upsell?"

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Charles Dimov
BrainTrust

Make it easy for the associates. Give them a bit of a typical script — and maybe a practice run or two. Also important is a counter discussion script; one that indicates that if the person says no, here is what to say that might turn it into a “yes please.” What the script is depends on your specifics and industry.

Most retail employees want to do a good job and help their company succeed. A little help might be the nudge that drives up your margins. Even a little is moving in the right direction!

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

At a recent Store Operations Council meeting, we talked about the prevalence of part-time workers in retail. Several people present said that they don’t hire ANY full-time workers. It’s tough to incent behavior from someone who has to travel an hour to a job where they’re working only four hours a day.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Really, what incentive does a part-time worker have to upsell? Forced into part-time work as an adult [not teen part-time work] without any benefits, enabling retailers to avoid the expense of providing health insurance. Lack of upward mobility, managing two part-time jobs just to get by … “atta boy,” “atta girl” does not pay the bills nor inspire the desire to upsell. Plain old human nature.

David Livingston
Guest
1 month 4 days ago

Ditto. No incentive, no enthusiasm, and most of the customers will be annoyed by the scripted upsell.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Thanks David! I totally agree. Doesn’t sound like brain surgery to figure this one out.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Upsells aren’t scripted, upsells are an opportunity to show someone a product that might do more than the one they originally came in for.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Absolutely true. And there’s another message to workers: You’re expendable. Ensuring part time-ness also communicates that the employee should be worried about job security.

It’s not just that they’re part time. Retail shift scheduling can be an area of game playing — where the schedules are clearly made to eliminate lunches, keep employees away from benefits, etc. Employees are not dumb — and they take away many unspoken messages from those games employers play.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Training employees to upsell has nothing to do with a message “you’re expendable.” Scheduling sounds like your issue, not the one I raised in the post.

Stefan Weitz
BrainTrust
I would say three reasons: lack of incentive, lack of data and consumer behavior. In the former, there is little upside except in the increasingly rare case of commissioned sales people to engage with a harried consumer to try and convince them to buy the extended warranty for their new speakers. Even in the cases of commissioned sales people, the malaise of an associate who has to recite a memorized script to convince you to engage with the product is palpable. Second, most associates today don’t have the data about the consumer to authentically upsell them. Just because I’m buying… Read more »
Dick Seesel
BrainTrust
Upselling can’t work everywhere — in a mass merchant or discounter, for example, where associate training is more focused on “process” like running the registers or restocking the shelves. But there are plenty of specialty stores (and even department stores) that need to make upselling part of associate training in the first place. Filtering out candidates during the hiring process if they are uncomfortable engaging with customers is the obvious place to start, followed by extensive role modeling after the hire. Who does this the best? I’d argue that Nordstrom has always made it part of the company culture. In… Read more »
Bob Amster
BrainTrust

It is highly unlikely that an entire workforce will, of its own volition, try to upsell so that only its employer will benefit directly. Make the workforce share in the benefit!

Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust
The word SELL is a four letter word to most store associates because they personally have had negative experiences with “pushy” sales people in the past. They simply do not feel comfortable asking someone to purchase something else (upselling) or asking them to purchase more (add-on selling). Instead of asking associates to “sell”, teach them how to help customers buy. The five Ws go a long way in helping associates personalize services that creates a positive experience, and ultimately converts more sales: WHAT are you looking for … alternatively WHAT would be new/different? WHO is the purchase for … yourself… Read more »
Shep Hyken
BrainTrust
The upsell has a negative connotation to it. That is a shame. I use the example of a customer going to a hardware store to buy a can of paint and then once home realizing that they forgot to buy brushes. Doesn’t it make sense that the sales person would have asked, “Do you need brushes with that paint? I don’t want you to get home and realize you didn’t have what you needed to complete the project.” (Of course the sales person could offer up other appropriate product suggestions.) The bottom line is that NOT upselling at the right… Read more »
Art Suriano
BrainTrust
This issue is no different than attempting to have all associates encourage customers to open the store credit account. Often they don’t do it because they don’t like to. But to suggest we should ask about upselling during the interview process is not the solution. Training today is the real problem. Most chains are only allocating 10 hours of training for new hires, which is not nearly enough. Furthermore, too many retailers have ineffective training programs that are either too long (a downside of e-learning) or too inconsistent when they are peer-led. The simple solution to most issues including upselling… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Actually it’s not at all the same as attempting to get associates to get shoppers to open accounts. Upselling is based on the one item the shopper is looking for – it is a better version or a more complete system as I said in the post. And yes, the why is what I talked about in the post.

Meaghan Brophy
BrainTrust
There are a lot of factors at play here. First, the employee needs to genuinely believe in the products they are selling. In the electronics example, the employee clearly doesn’t think anyone should purchase or would want to purchase the warranty. Instead of her “boss making her ask” they should spend time talking about the benefits of the warranty so employees see why someone would want to purchase it. There is definitely a mental aspect to upselling. No one wants to seem pushy, which is why upselling should be personalized to each customer. Train associates to ask questions and learn… Read more »
Brandon Rael
BrainTrust
Simply put, without the proper incentivization packages, how do companies expect their employees to provide an outstanding customer experience? The two are intertwined, and you simply cannot have one without the other. Employees are looking for not just a paycheck, but a more enriching experience beyond the day-to-day responsibilities. Training, performance-based bonus plans and a defined career path help to significantly improve the overall associate performance. According to Richard Branson, if your employees are not given the right tools, are not looked after and are not appreciated, they are simply not going to provide the experience your customers are looking… Read more »
Phil Chang
BrainTrust

Employees don’t need to upsell if they feel like the customers coming in are people that they care about and want to look after. When you go to a mom-and-pop where they know everybody — they don’t upsell, they look after you. Upselling comes right with it. The experiential gets you to the upsell without selling.

Help employees feel like they’re looking after people that matter. Make employees feel like they matter and they have a stake in how the store does. Once you have that, you don’t need to upsell.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

That’s actually not true. You do need them to upsell because most employees will sell with their own wallet in mind – not the shoppers. That’s why so much premium merchandise sits because the employee tells the shopper, “You don’t really need this.”

W. Frank Dell II
BrainTrust
A number of factors could increase upselling. Hire outgoing associates for the job, not to put in hours. Educate them on the products and features. One problem today is many customers do research online before coming into the store. Some of this research is biased or wrong. Unless an associate knows what they are talking about you cannot really help the customer. Make upselling part of the job and success measurement. Speak the language. When in a foreign speaking area speak the local language and English. For the rest of the country speak English. Teach employees to look the customer… Read more »
Sarah Nochimowski
Guest

Retailers should offer packages of products that go together — that have associations. This should be merchandising’s role; to train associates about the products’ universe.

Molly Nichols
Guest

Associates need to understand that they are not cheating the customer. Upselling is nothing to feel guilty about, but offers a better product for a value price. Rather than pushing them to just sell more or the same thing, make sure associates understand they’re helping the customer.

Glenn Cantor
Guest
1 month 4 days ago

I worked at Brooks Brothers during last year’s holiday season. There is a fine line between making good suggestions and being obnoxious. Most sales associates are paid the same whether or not they generate incremental sales. They don’t have incentive to make suggestions. Meaningful but small incentives would provide the encouragement they need to better engage customers.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust
Let’s not forget that store layout and merchandising probably have a bigger impact on shoppers adding things to their basket than recommendations from store help. So we should approach this topic with reasoned caution. We also need to recognize how abused the term “upsell” has become. Retailers use it to talk about everything from credit card offers at the cash register to the results of a thorough discussion with a personal shopper. Every retailers needs to develop a realistic view of upselling and how it fits for their customers. It is, after all, a volatile process that can destroy brand/store… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Really? “A volatile process?” Helping people get a better product when someone “absolutely” knows it is the right thing to do would never get done. Apple doesn’t upsell – they add-on. Big difference.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Of course when it works, it’s great. Where it gets volatile is when it’s not working. Why volatile? Customers who take offense do so quickly, quietly, and simply don’t come back. Add to that the idea that this has to be executed using a large corporate process that attempts to increase upsells — but where bureaucratic errors come easily.

I certainly agree with you about it done well. The challenge is how often it’s done well and how far wrong it goes if it’s not. Hence my choice of words.

Cheers…

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust
Funny. I remember my district manager for the supermarket I managed asking me to increase the average customer transaction by just 25 cents in the 1980s. In turn, I asked my store staff to “suggestive sell” (as we used to call it) a specific item that we wanted to push that had good margin and naturally tied in with popular products. That simple process is still in place in many retailers 30 years later, today. Bottom line, keep it simple. Change items to be pushed often. Set the example by upselling it to shoppers yourself. And be consistent in the… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

Upselling is personal, it’s not a blanket sales process to push margin on people who have no interest in it.

Todd Trombley
Guest
The concept of upselling is representative of a very troubling underlying philosophy. The very idea of “selling” is an old construct that is highly tainted. It is a part of the reason why salespeople have historically had such poor reputations. Ever watch the movie Tin Men or see Glengarry Glen Ross? How about the old joke where a guy gets banished to Hell and discovers that Hell is having to share a cell with a life insurance salesman? These old tropes all are based on the idea of not trusting salespeople because they will try to “sell” you. When was… Read more »
Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

People sell themselves and things all day long. Calling it “an old construct” doesn’t make it right. There is nothing anyone is wearing, using , or buying that someone, somewhere sold them on.

Mark Nicholson
Guest

Leaving in the hands of fate that associates might upsell won’t help. Encouragement won’t do a lot, training is required. Incentive is often the best motivator. But it doesn’t have to be upselling, and depending on the situation, it can be offering peace of mind (warranty) or necessities (add-ons) or other options to help associates rationalize.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Are some more inclined? Yes, of course. There are always people who are better at a given task than others, and selling isn’t any different. That isn’t to say, though, that personality is the only problem: (the quality of) WHAT you’re selling matters too. So if you combine low-quality salespersons with low-quality products, you’ll inevitably end up with what Bob experienced … everyone just going thru the motions.

gordon arnold
Guest
My advice to managers and executives faced with solving the futility of this problem is to simply step down. Those employees on the floor or phone with the capability of developing the skills needed to upsell simply need a reward system that is seen as worth the effort from their perspective. Whether it comes as a point system used to get and/or hold a higher hourly wage or as a bonus for profit taking, or how about all of that. Capitalism is a give and take market endeavor that needs more legitimate giving and less business ownership entitlements disguised as… Read more »
Tony Orlando
BrainTrust
Upselling must be taught by the owner or the top dog, because if they can not do it the right way, how do you expect your staff to learn how? I spend a great deal of time working with my deli staff on how to upsell, and spend most of my time showing them how to do it the right way. When they see results, it makes them feel more comfortable doing it as well. We do not say “May I help you?” as it puts customers on the defense, and they feel pressured, which isn’t good. We engage in… Read more »
Ken Morris
BrainTrust
Managers need to do three things to improve store associates’ upselling success: hire people with the right personality, educate them on the value it provides to customers and make it easier with the right tools. It takes the right people, process and technology. People: The first step is hiring people that are outgoing and understand that upselling is a value-added service that may ultimately increase customer satisfaction by helping them select the product that is best for them. Offering customers good, better, best options, which often results in an up-sell to the “best” option helps customer make more educated purchase… Read more »
Peter Luff
BrainTrust

I would advise a very simple thing: sell the value of the upsell items to the store associates. If they believe in whatever it is you wish them to upsell, they are more likely to want to promote it positively to clients. If the sales team do not believe in what they have been instructed to do by the management all they will set out to achieve is to prove the management were wrong.

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust
The author’s position about upselling is perhaps disjointed. McDonald’s has proven that upselling is an easy, built-in part of their customer experience (would you like fries with that, or would you like to super size that)? The same holds true for every national brand that positions itself on the shelf “next to” the house branded product from the local retailer. These national brands are upselling their branded presence. Get gas, and every gas station has built-in upselling from the regular to their premium at every pump. 7-Eleven does this with their Slurpee (super and double Slurpees at every location). Upselling… Read more »
wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Making product recommendations based on information the customer gives you is a lot easier than pushing the same upsell to every customer. "

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