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Down to business: Upselling has its place, but not at the post office

Down to business: Upselling has its place, but not at the post office

The jury is still out on the increasingly common practice of upselling.

Tell me if either of these sounds familiar:

“Would you like fries with that?”

“Would you like to use Express Mail for this item, which is guaranteed delivery by noon tomorrow … and includes $100 of free insurance and you can track your package?”

The first one, of course, is the “upsell” made famous by McDonald’s: the suggestion at checkout that you add on to your order. It proved so successful in generating sales for the fast-food chain that others copied the technique.

The second one, common these days when you mail just about anything, is upselling as practiced by the U.S. Postal Service. The jury is still out on its effectiveness.

The first time I heard the upsell at the post office, I was impressed — these clerks obviously had received some sales training. But after hearing it time and time again as I regularly mailed packages to a daughter overseas, I began to tire of the long-winded spiel.

I’m not alone: a columnist at a New Jersey newspaper, who sells baseball cards on the side via eBay, declared a post office visit “the single most-annoying thing in my life.” Even the blog run by the Postal Service’s Office of the Inspector General asked of upselling, “What balance should the Postal Service strike between finding the best value for the customer and maximizing revenue?”

And revenue is an issue for the agency, which receives no direct support from the government but relies on the sale of products and services to fund its operations. Last week, the Postal Service reported losing $3.5 billion in its fi scal third quarter, due to what officials have called an “unprecedented decline” in mail volume because of the Web — more people are e-mailing than are sending letters. Losses have been seen in 14 of the last 16 quarters.

So the agency has cut work hours, has proposed a hike in rates and the elimination of Saturday delivery, and has explored the sale of other products. (A study by the consulting firm Accenture says post offi ces overseas earn more revenue from selling things like licenses and office products than pushing stamps.) And then there’s the spiel.

It’s part of an initiative known as GIST (greet, inquire, suggest, thank) that outlines a script for window clerks: make eye contact and smile, offer a rundown of mailing options, and complete the transaction with a receipt and a “thank you.” The rundown, though, follows a prescribed order that puts the most expensive service (Express Mail) fi rst, then details other options and a wide array of add-ons — all in the interest of upselling.

That has raised the dander of some workers, including one who answered the question on the blog of the Office of the Inspector General thus: “In my opinion, my job is to professionally assess my customers’ needs … and provide the shipping and services that best fi ts their needs … Upselling to increase revenue is a bad, bad idea.”

Suraj Commuri, an assistant professor in the School of Business at the University at Albany who teaches courses in branding and marketing, says upselling works best “when the customer gets the feeling that the employee is offering the option after a bit of consideration.”

Mere recitation of products “is more like a reminder than an upsell,” he says. “There is no substitute in marketing to actually caring about the customer.”

Warm and fuzzy? I don’t know about you, but I haven’t felt the love at the post offi ce window.

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