Customer Service in the Age of the Scripted Upsell

By Stephanie Hammerwold

I am taking a bit of a break from HR this week to talk about customer service. This is not really much of a stretch because a big part of HR is providing customer service to employees, managers, company owners and prospective employees. In addition, some of us in HR (especially in the retail sector) have been responsible for giving new hires basic customer service training. With all the shopping I did during the holiday season, I noticed that sales and customer service is getting more pushy, forced and scripted. Is this approach good for business, or does it just drive customers away in frustration?

The Upgrade Culture

I recently went to the movies and decided to brave the concession stand lines to get some popcorn to munch on while enjoying the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise. No sooner had I ordered a small popcorn than the person behind the counter tried to upsell me by saying, “For twenty-five cents more you can upgrade to a medium.” I said no, which was followed by, “Are you sure?” Again, I replied no. We repeated this same routine when I ordered a small iced tea. This is a theatre small, so it is already the size of a bucket—there is no way I needed more than that.

I have experienced this type of thing at other places that sell food. There is this attempt to push more food on us even after saying no multiple times. Usually I opt for the smaller size because I know I will consume all of it if I upgrade to the large. Do I want the giant bucket of popcorn? Yes. Do I need it? No!

Stick to the Script

Back when I worked in HR at a small grocery chain, I had someone in my new employee orientation who had previously worked at a large, well known chain. When we got to the customer service training part of orientation, she asked me, “So, do we have to ask every customer if they want stamps or ice?” I told her the company did not require specific questions at checkout. She told me that at her old job, they were required to ask this with every order, even if a customer was only in there buying one item. She said it pretty much became a joke and most cashiers felt silly asking the question every time.

Some stores, particularly those that are part of a large chain, seem to employ this scripted type of customer service where they give employees specific things they are supposed to say in each transaction. It could be asking every customer if they want to upgrade or requiring that employees try to sell each customer on more services. I have run into this with my cell phone provider. I went in the store several months ago to enquire about how to file an insurance claim for a damaged phone and ended up having to fight off a salesperson trying to awkwardly convince me to get a home security system—it was awkward in that I could tell that the salesperson’s heart was not really in trying to push this extra service on me. I got the sense that he would get in trouble if he did not try to sign me up for a service I repeatedly said no to.

I know that many times the frontline employees are merely trying to follow the requirements set forth by the corporate office, so I cannot really blame them. The problem here is corporate policies that attempt to dictate exactly how a salesperson should interact with a customer. It seems to me that the problem is with a lack of trust in salespeople to do their job. The focus should be on hiring people who have the skills to interact with the public and forge natural methods of communication rather than relying on a script to tell them what to say. Give employees training in how to deal with various customer situations, but allow them to use their critical thinking skills to deal with each situation on a case-by-case basis. Life does not usually follow a script.

Trust Employees to Know How to Make Customers Happy

Those who have customer service personalities have the ability to build a loyal customer base without the need of a specific script or required offering of upgrades. For me, I am more likely to return to a store where I do not feel like I am being sold goods and services I do not need just so the salesperson can fulfill some kind of sales quota. Over time, I will probably end up spending more money at that establishment than I would in a single frustrating transaction where more and more is being pushed on me.

As I mentioned, it is important to hire people we can trust to put on a good face when it comes to customer service. When those people work for us, we need to trust them to give good customer service. This means empowering employees to make decisions when it comes to assisting customers, so they do not need to track down a manager for approval on everything. It is also important to eliminate required questions and statements. Such things start to sound forced and insincere when it comes to repeat customers.

Remember to treat customer service employees well. It is not an easy job, and the pay is often low. Improve compensation, increase benefits and recognize the value a good cashier adds to your organization. Doing so will help build loyalty, which will create an environment where employees want to give good customer service.

What are your thoughts on the current state of customer service? Is it time to move back to a more natural approach, or is the scripted upgrade culture a good thing?

Photo by Tim Pershing