Soft Selling Yields Hard Profits in Contact Centers

By Diane Bernebaum

According to a report from Dimension Data, two out of three contact centers across the world fail to provide their agents with any selling skills. This is surprising news given the fact that many organizations are looking to transform their customer service functions into profit centers. Service representatives can (and do) create revenue. Not only can service reps grow the bottom line, cross-selling provides them with even broader ways to serve customers and exceed their expectations. They are strengthening the customer relationship, thereby increasing their chances for repeat sales.

From Traditional Call Center to Revenue Producer: While many companies focus on technology as the path to call center transformation, it is only a piece of the total picture. Changing a traditional service center into a revenue machine requires training agents in various areas, including product knowledge, relationship management, and what it really means to be in “sales.”

Let’s face it. Many agents cringe when they hear the word “sales.”  It brings up images of pushy tactics, canned sales pitches, and relentless outbound phone calls. Your agents may be thinking, “You want me to do that?  I can’t do that. I am a customer service professional, not a used car salesman.”

They may also be concerned the impact this new sales focus will have on how management evaluates them, including how their performance, pay, and status will be affected. When answers are unclear, confidence wanes and stress levels increase. The solution is to ease service reps into sales roles:

1. Engage them early: Including reps in the planning process yields greater buy-in and commitment and helps to ensure a smoother transition. Take the time to acknowledge their concerns and demonstrate that you understand that they may feel uncomfortable with the concept of selling. Reassure them that you are there to help.

Focusing too quickly on new sales scripts and setting new performance measures will only exacerbate their concerns. If your associates understand the “why” behind the change, including how other products and services will benefit the customers, then reps will feel more comfortable and confident promoting them. Selling a broader range of products will allow reps to serve customers more flexibly. Once reps see that “selling” can help them add more value to customer relationships, they will be more open to the concept.

2. Share simple sales techniques: Share the following simple and subtle sales techniques with your team. They might just realize that selling is not as bad as they may think.

  • Make only one offer: Up-selling is the easiest way for reps to move into the sales arena. It is a whole lot easier to sell another product or service to an existing customer who is already on the phone than it is to make an outbound call to a cold “suspect.”But some companies ask their reps to offer relentlessly one product after another. When I was purchasing some clothing from a catalog company over the phone, the rep asked if I needed a blouse to go with the pants I had ordered. I said no, and then she proceeded to tell me about the shoes that would coordinate with the pants, and she told me that I could receive free magazines as well. By the end of this conversation, I lost patience and interest, and my opinion of the catalog had soured – all because they made too many offers.
    Customers can tell when they are being up-sold. They are usually willing to hear about your other products, but once a customer declines an offer you should stop the up-selling and close the call with a touch of kindness, such as: “Thank you for your order. Enjoy the rest of your day.”
  • Focus on the customer, not the script: I can instantly tell when reps are speaking from scripts. Can’t you?  It makes me cringe, and I want to say, “Just use your own words,” or “Haven’t you heard a word I said?”Encourage your agents to offer products and services in their own words. The customer will notice the difference. When agents really listen to callers’ responses and respond in a natural way, the conversations will flow more smoothly. They’ll feel less stress and therefore be better able to focus on the customer. This means you are more likely to make a professional impression and plant a seed for a future sale.
  • Don’t talk too much: Once you’ve made the sale, talking too much and sharing facts that are unimportant to the listener can derail the process. You can create objections which were not there when you actually made the sale!For example, a rep appeared to have gained a commitment from a customer to purchase a new technology product. The sale was in the bag, but instead of writing up the order, the rep continued to detail the product’s features. The prospect became quiet and then said, “Upon further reflection, the product sounds too sophisticated for my needs.”  The sale was lost due to an objection that the rep created.
  • Reassure customers about their decisions: I have noticed that I react favorably to this simple tactic. When I recently purchased a jacket from a clothing store, the salesperson smiled as she rang it up and said, “This is such a great item. It will really complement your eyes.”  Despite the fact that I know she may have been taught to say things like that, I believed her and left the store smiling.You can highlight the benefits of any purchase – how it will help callers save money, save time, be more effective, or whatever the case may be. This really helps to set the caller’s mind at ease and reinforce the sale.

3. Tap into top performers: Take a look around your call center. Listen to conversations and measure results. Certain reps or team leads will demonstrate natural sales capability. Conduct focus groups with these top performers and ask what makes them successful.

Your top performers will feel valued and appreciated because you have taken the time to listen to them and hear their ideas. You will learn practical methods that can be shared with others to improve their selling skills.

For example, a Fortune 500 financial service organization found that their top performers relied on customer data to cross-sell and up-sell services. When a rep was speaking to a customer about their high-end savings account and noticed that she had two children, the rep suggested their bank’s customized student savings plan and highlighted its benefits. The customer gladly opened the savings plan.

Management learned how offering an additional product based on customer data during an inbound service call increases the likelihood of success. The bank then showed all reps how to use customer data for sales success. The best practice was implemented quickly and successfully across the center.

If you’re looking for ways to increase revenue, increase client satisfaction, and increase job satisfaction for your call center reps, cross-selling and up-selling is the way to go. Just make sure you implement the change from traditional call center to revenue generation machine carefully. Your success will depend on it.

Diane Bernebaum is senior vice president of Communico Ltd., a customer service training and consulting company based in Westport, CT. She is also coauthor of the book, How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC, published by Jossey-Bass.

[From Connection Magazine September 2007]

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