For many of us, the word “upsell” brings to mind the classic scene in National Lampoon’s “Vacation” where Eugene Levy manages to convince a bespectacled Chevy Chase to buy a more expensive “atomic pea” station wagon rather than the “antarctic blue Super Sport Wagon with the C.B. and the optional Rally Fun Pack” he ordered.

But for many companies, upselling and cross-selling is an appealing strategy. Inbound customer service calls are a captive audience, and for the most part consumers have come to expect a sales pitch as part of nearly any conversation. A recent report from CFI Group showed 41% of consumers expect customer service representatives to recommend additional products or services. What’s more, the CFI report showed 43% of consumers are very or at least somewhat receptive those recommendations and 36% frequently or sometimes make additional purchases. The odds of upselling to an existing client are much higher than closing a new deal — the probability of selling to a new prospect is 5–20%, while the probability of selling to an existing customer is 60–70%.

The customer upsell is a tremendous opportunity for creating ROI in a business function most often viewed in terms of simply trying to reduce cost per contact. There’s just one thing getting in your way: bad customer experience. Although it seems like common sense, a startling number of companies don’t seem to understand why attempting to upsell an already unhappy customer tends to make them even more unhappy. In fact, more than 40% of consumers worldwide said they get annoyed when an employee talks to them about things other than the problem they are trying to resolve.

Statistics not doing it for you? How about some anecdotal evidence? Surely everyone remembers the nightmarish Comcast customer service call that went viral a few years ago. AOL executive Ryan Block hit record about 10 minutes into his now notorious attempt to disconnect his Comcast service.

Subsequent interviews with former Comcast employees, as well as this leaked call center training manual revealed a culture in which upselling was promoted at the cost of the customer experience.

“Your reps shouldn’t be trying to sell upgrades to irate customers,” Naomi Kelsey wrote on CustomerThink. “However, some companies, for reasons lost to time, have policies in place requiring an upsell attempt on every phone call.”

Happy customers, even those who didn’t start the call happy, are far more receptive to upselling than their upset peers. 62% of B2B and 42% B2C customers purchased more after a good customer service experience, and a report taken from 75,000 customer satisfaction surveys showed satisfied customers were:

  • 75% more likely to prefer the brand overall
  • 60% more likely to continue doing business with the company
  • 83% more likely to purchase more
  • 77% more likely to recommend the brand to others
  • 76% more likely to trust the brand in general

Here’s the bottom line: upselling works if you’re willing to invest in your customer experience. Selling to happy customers is easy. Selling to upset customers will only make things worse.