From Service to Sales: Preparing Your Phone Reps for Selling Success

In a catalog call center, the phone reps were being asked to up-sell one of the company’s new products at the end of the order-taking process.  Rachel, one of the newest reps in the center, was regularly offering the product on every single call, and enjoying a pretty good conversion rate.  Alex, a more seasoned employee who was actually more skilled than Rachel, did not offer the product on a single call we observed. And Sarah, another fairly new employee made some attempts but without much success.

What’s wrong with this picture? Is it a matter of having the wrong people in the job? Not enough training? Insufficient compensation? Inconsistent policies and procedures? The wrong scripts?

There is more and more focus in today’s call center on selling.  And whether it’s an outbound center whose sole purpose is telemarketing, or a traditional inbound customer service center that has decided to seize the opportunity and gain some additional revenues through an up-sell/cross-sell process, it’s becoming increasingly important to polish sales skills.

This article will address three critical steps in setting up a successful telephone selling program.

Step 1: Identify the Right People.

The most critical factor in successful selling is getting the right people for the job in the first place.  Therefore the first step in the process is a careful screening and profiling of candidates to see who is most likely to be successful and happy in a sales role.  Whether you’re hiring new employees, or simply identifying people in your existing call center to move into more of a sales role, making the match is critical.

The most critical attribute in predicting sales success on the job is whether a person has “enterprising” or “initiating” traits, as opposed to “responding” traits which are predictors of customer service success. Potential sales reps must be willing and wanting to sell.

One of the ways to determine candidates’ fit is to determine what motivates them. Are they motivated by money? A challenge? The satisfaction of helping someone or solving a problem?  Those motivated by money or a challenge will likely find sales a rewarding experience. On the other hand, the candidates whose test scores show they are adverse to risk probably won’t make good sellers, since hearing “no” is a frequent part of any sales process.

Any company wishing to increase its sales effectiveness should screen potential candidates and group them by strengths. Typically there will be three groups: ones with natural sales talent and attributes, those with “trainable” talent, and those with low potential for sales. While the people in the latter group might make excellent service reps, investing in sales training for this group is likely to yield little return.

The other two groups, however, can benefit from a sales training process. Let’s discuss now what this sales training should entail.

Step 2: Deliver Targeted Training and Coaching

Once you’ve identified the right people for the job, the next step is to equip them with the knowledge and skills to make the sale. A successful sales training program should include a variety of components in order to prepare frontline reps to persuade customers to say “yes!”  

In addition to the obvious training about the products or services to be sold, it’s also important to include these components in your telephone sales training:

  1. Creating a Sales Mindset.  You can’t begin a sales training program if there is lingering fear and reluctance about the sales process. Every sales training program should begin with open discussion about people’s fears and reasons they don’t want to sell. The critical thing to point out here is how selling if done properly is simply an extension of service and not cramming a product down the customer’s throat. You’ll want to get all the roadblocks identified and work through those so everyone begins the sales training with a strong belief that the service-to-sales interaction is a worthwhile process that will benefit the customer as well as them.
  2. Communicating Focus on the Customer. No service-to-sales initiative is going to be effective unless there is truly a focus on the customer. Training will need to focus on listening skills and the discovery process so agents will be able to effectively identify and offer the product(s) that fit the customer’s needs, demonstrating an extension of service rather than just selling a product.
  3. Organizing a Sample Kit. A third element of the training program will be to help agents identify what products should be offered in an up-selling or cross-selling opportunity. They need to learn how to listen effectively to position a customer-specific offer as well as be aware of what universal offers may be appropriate.
  4. Outlining the Sales Process. Every call needs a road map and most sales calls have four distinct steps: Engagement, Discovery, Presentation, and Commitment.  The vast majority of time in most sales training programs will be devoted to the essentials and techniques for each of these steps. Knowing what to do and what to say at each phase and what the desired outcome is at every stage is a critical factor in each individual’s sales success.

The types of training mentioned above can be delivered in a variety of ways.  More and more e-learning options exist where students can proceed through a prescribed sales training course at their own pace.  However, given the degree of practice that’s needed to get all the skills and steps right, instructor-led training with a knowledgeable facilitator will typically yield better and longer-term results.  And to maximize the impact of the sales training program, you’ll want to follow up with frequent side-by-side coaching to fine-tune the newly learned skills even further.

This need for side-by-side coaching brings us to another critical part of the sales training program.  Many call centers devote time to getting customer service reps trained to do sales training, but don’t complete the training with the critical component of training their supervisors to be “sales coaches” as well as call center supervisors.  It’s likely that many of these supervisors were promoted from customer service positions and may not ever have received sales training themselves, let alone how to coach others in doing it. It’s critical that these supervisors receive the same sales training as the frontline staff, have some time to practice the selling steps, and then get training in how to “coach for a sale” rather than “evaluate a call” in helping their team members get better at the sales process.

Step 3: Measure and Reward.

We can’t really talk about selling without talking about incentive programs. The type of reward system and the way it’s administered is the third critical ingredient in a successful selling program.

Those call centers whose sole purpose is to make outbound sales calls typically have a simpler, more direct policy on the call process and on incentives.  Policies are generally not so well defined for inbound call centers, especially those that serve primarily as service or support centers. Each organization must make a policy decision on the degree to which up-selling will be attempted and how it will be rewarded.

First, will agents be expected to attempt the up-sell on every call?  Or will they be able to select the callers that appear to be good up-sell candidates?  Some organizations force the up-sell on every call and obviously maximize their potential incremental revenue. But in some cases, this up-sell is done at the risk of damaging the service component of the call and the overall customer relationship.

For example, I recently placed a catalog order, and being in a bit of a hurry, I told the agent taking my order that the one item was all I wished to order.  This catalog always offers a few up-sell items, and generally I don’t mind hearing about the specials, but on this occasion, I was ready to simply finish up my order and move on.  Even after saying I did not wish to order anything else or hear about specials, the agent proceeded through the up-sell script anyway. When I expressed my displeasure about the offer, the agent explained that she “was forced to offer the additional items” on every single call.

Clearly, this was a case where the agent should have had the flexibility to go with the flow of the call. Doing so would have done more to solidify the relationship so the customer will be back for another order in the future.  While it’s understandable that organizations want staff to up-sell if reps are available and the queue is under control, it’s my opinion that it should not be forced on every call.

Some organizations would argue that unless it’s forced, some reps (like Alex in our first example) simply won’t do it.  The reasons they won’t voluntarily do it in most cases, are 1) they are personality types that are afraid of rejection, and/or 2) they haven’t been properly trained on how to do it.  Do the first two steps of hiring and training properly, and you should have a workforce that’s willing and able to up-sell. Then you can leave the decision in the agents’ hands about when it’s appropriate to up-sell or not.

With respect to incentives, one of the most common questions is whether to compensate for “making the offer” versus “making the sale.” While the first will certainly increase the number of attempts, these attempts might be poorly timed or delivered.  A better policy is to reward the actual sales results, or at least a combination or ratio of the two. You may have measures that evaluate the ratio of offers to sales or simply the ratio of sales to the number of calls handled. Another possibility is to look at sales per signed-on minute to evaluate staff productivity.

Creating a successful selling or up-selling program is a matter of putting the right people on the phones, training them properly, and creating policies and incentives to make them successful.  Once in place, you’ll be able to maximize your dialogues with customers and impact the bottom line significantly. Happy selling!