Ease the Pressure

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When it comes to the ethical dangers of upselling, Wells Fargo serves as an extreme example of how the practice can go wrong. Over the course of several years, bank employees secretly created millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts, in part to help them meet internal sales goals.

Examples of upselling big and small can be found all over the business landscape, whether it’s a push for an extended warranty when a customer buys a new TV or all those other car services you suddenly need when getting a simple oil change. Upgrades and add-ons are a common method for boosting sales and revenues. The trick is doing it ethically, in a way that doesn’t make employees or customers uneasy.

“I’ve talked with waiters and waitresses who say they were pressured to push dessert or alcoholic beverages on customers,” says Eric Dent, the Uncommon Friends Endowed Chair of Ethics at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lutgert College of Business. “There’s a line where if the customer is offered dessert, that’s welcome. But if they feel put upon or if the waiter or waitress is making them uncomfortable, it’s crossed the line.”

So what’s a business to do? Here are Dent’s top tips for increasing sales in an ethical way.

Avoid arbitrary quotas

Your employees can’t control how many people visit a business on any given day or what they spend. But pressure to hit a specific target could cause them to make questionable choices that turn off customers. “If the wine expert at a nice restaurant offers you an expensive bottle of wine and you turn it down and he acts condescending to you for the rest of the night, that’s not an experience anyone wants,” says Dent. Stress about reaching a quota can also lead to more serious ethical and legal breeches like the Wells Fargo situation.

Set policies and goals that can be achieved by all.

You can require your employees to ask, “Do you want fries with that?” But don’t punish them if everyone happens to say no. “You can hold employees accountable for did they make the offer,” says Dent. “But they can’t be ethically held responsible for how many people accept the offer.”

Incentivize the right way.

Rewarding employees for every extended warranty or box of French fries they sell is OK—but you have to be careful about it. “If you do give employees extra pay, you have to put in an extra layer of monitoring to make sure they aren’t strong-arming customers by using scare tactics or not taking no for an answer,” says Dent.

Make sure everyone feels like a winner.

This is key to creating long-term customer relationships. When customers feel pressured by sales tactics, they might start to feel like they’re losing out on the deal. “An organization has to create alignment in its processes so that its employees are always looking for those win-win outcomes,” says Dent. “The company benefits by generating revenues, and the customer feels good about the product or service received and will come back because they ‘won’ last time with you.”

Listen to employee concerns.

If your staff starts asking questions about a particular sales practice, pay attention. It can be a sign that it’s not working the way it should. Speaking up isn’t always easy for lower-level employees encountering a problematic policy. Dent says an effective way to point out issues is to hold them up against a company’s mission statement. “Maybe ask, ‘Can you help me better understand how this particular policy supports the corporate values that have been upheld? Because it seems to me I see some conflicts with it,’” he says.

Accept when you’ve made a mistake.

No business is perfect. But if you’ve screwed up, take responsibility. “I think people actually gain credibility and are seen as leaders when they’re willing to adjust and admit that something wasn’t the best way to go,” says Dent. 


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