When is it a Good Idea to Upsell?


It's a trick question. When was the last time you felt reciprocity with a company? And I'm not talking just about messaging, either. Are we there yet?

Because as Don Schultz says in his seminal book on Integrated Marketing Communications, “…when both the value of the of the customer to the brand and the value of the brand to the customer are high, the relationship will be strong and ongoing.”

Beth Harte said: if there were more reciprocity, upselling (or cross-selling) wouldn’t be a concern of “when is it okay?” because one could assume the trigger would be inherent in the relationship.

In a close enough relationship, someone could alert you when you need something more and you wouldn’t be offended by the suggestion.

The idea of customer reciprocity is intriguing -– is it like a friendship? One that goes much further than the definitions of online "friend" or "follower". Because real money exchanges hands. In the absence of physical rapport, digital execution matters.

Who does it well?

Reciprocity rules

Amazon's secret to online dominance is reciprocity. You can look at the data, think about how your own purchasing is affected by their masterful use of your browsing and purchase data to tailor the site for you. Customers love the attention. Think about it.

Even if you know it's based upon an algorithm, the tool is only as good as the rules written to provide search results. They show they pay attention to what people buy and make suggestions on similar books and materials. An added bonus is the "people like you" who bought this, also got that feature

Another benefit at Amazon is customer reviews.

You can dig into reviews by others, and now you can even read the comments to the reviews. Most of the times, you probably stop at the cross references from customers who bought what you are looking for, but it's nice to have the option to keep reading and discovering new material.

If the reviews weren’t there, even with negatives or neutral thrown in, you might buy something you'd end up regretting. Amazon helps customers not waste precious money.

Harte says I don’t look at it as upselling I look at it as a benefit of being associated with the brand. Because they offer reviews, I don’t mind taking a look at what they are potentially upselling.

That's the way I feel as well. So much so, that I joined their affiliate program — one of only two I participate in. The other one being to support quality products by a friend. You see, although they are not at the same "friend" level, Amazon managed to create a nice balance of give and take — reciprocity.

Fair/unfair in reciprocity

First developed in 1962 by John Stacey Adams, a workplace behavioral psychologist, Equity Theory attempts to explain relational satisfaction in terms of perceptions of fair/unfair distributions of resources within interpersonal relationships. [hat tip: Beth Harte]

One of the elements of influence I discuss in my talks and workshops is group behavior. You can maximize collective rewards by working with a group in developing accepted systems for apportioning rewards and costs equitably among members.

Systems of equity will evolve within groups, and members will attempt to induce other members to accept and adhere to these systems. Hence why customer service in social is not fair, and why it is not a long term solution — people make social comparisons.

What do they see?

Upselling is invisible

Developing relationships with customers needs to be baked into your business for it to pay off at scale — and where it matters most, profits. Just like with initiatives in social media, in that case, upselling is invisible. It's a natural outcome of having established a mutual interest based on value.

And I'm not talking about coupons. You can offer incentives, recommend other-like products, reassure customers with reviews. The best way to upsell is to develop a system of reciprocity where value is exchanged between a customer and the company.

Reciprocity is one of the levers in marketing by context building. Reciprocity anticipates a need — the good balance to strike between the entitled quid pro quo, and the lazy status quo.


[Beth Harte and Anna Barcelos collaborated on this post as members of Conversation Agent customer-centric content advisory board]

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