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Cross-selling and upselling explained: How to increase customer order value

Existing customers can bring in almost three-quarters of your organization's revenue. Learn proven strategies for running effective upsell and cross-sell campaigns that increase customer engagement and purchases.

Ariel Aguilar Gonzalez

Ariel Aguilar Gonzalez

Which creates more revenue for a company: Acquiring new customers, or upselling and cross-selling? 

Both are essential investments, of course. However, research suggests that new customers drive just 28% of a company’s revenue on average — while existing customers bring in a whopping 72%. 

Cross-selling and upselling to new and current customers can bring in 42% of revenue (if not more!). Not to mention, any revenue raised by upselling or cross-selling existing customers is 100% incremental because you have already paid to acquire them. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the concepts or looking for expert strategies to cross-sell and upsell to increase your customer order value, let’s explore everything from definitions to examples and best practices.

What is upselling?

Upselling aims to increase a customer’s order value by encouraging them to purchase a higher service tier or an enhanced version of the product they want. If the upsell is successful, the customer will abandon their original item. 

Consider someone buying a new phone. The salesperson can offer upsells like a bigger screen or more storage, or an entirely different phone with features tailored to the customer’s needs. The salesperson can also upsell the service plan by highlighting faster speeds (4G vs 5G) or a higher data limit. 

Upselling increases the order total and could help the customer gain more value from their purchase, especially when an upsell aligns with the customer’s pain points and preferred solutions. 

When should I use an upsell campaign?

Organizations should identify an upsell for every product or service (if an upsell opportunity exists) and create messaging to explain the differences between the high- and low-tier products. 

It could be the right time to optimize your company’s upsell strategy if:

  • Overall sales are down
  • Average order value is down
  • Most customers purchase base-level items

What is cross-selling?

Cross-selling aims to increase a customer’s order value by promoting complementary products or services, increasing the total number of items purchased. Cross-selling can be as easy as asking, “Would you like fries with that?” 

When should I use a cross-sell campaign?

Cross-sell campaigns help your brand deepen its connection with the customer by providing additional services or products. 

Cross-selling is a smart investment if:

  • Average units per transaction are declining
  • Specific product categories far outperform others
  • Your company has a large customer base that can be reactivated

What channels do you typically use in upsell and cross-sell campaigns?

Upsell and cross-sell campaigns span practically every marketing channel and step of the customer journey, assuming a company has a robust and trusted customer dataset they can activate.

You should approach customers with highly relevant upsell or cross-sell offers that appeal to their needs and reflect their past purchases. At a minimum, the data you’ll need includes:

  • Individual customer purchase history - What has the customer previously purchased? Are there specific product types or categories they seem most interested in?
  • Aggregate customer purchase history - Which products or services are most popular with customers? Which products are commonly purchased together?
  • Customer channel preferences - Which channels are individual customers most likely to engage with your brand on? Where are they most receptive to brand messages?
  • Qualitative customer feedback - Has the customer shared details about what they are or are not looking for from your brand? How will your product or service help them in their day-to-day?

The point of sale is a prime location to activate these insights for cross-selling and upselling. Company or store associates should feel confident upselling or cross-selling based on a customer’s purchase and the needs they have communicated. For ecommerce and online sales, product pages can include “Customers Also Purchased” or “Consider These Upgrades” categories to support upselling and cross-selling.

Beyond the point of sale, other marketing channels that support cross-selling and upselling efforts include:

  • Email - Customers can receive targeted emails promoting items complementary to their recent purchases.
  • SMS - Text messages can announce limited-time discounts on product or service upgrades to create a sense of urgency.
  • Push notifications - Notifications on a customer’s phone or mobile device can encourage immediate action, like alerting them that they are reaching their plan limit but can upgrade now for uninterrupted access.
  • Social media - Tailored social media ads can promote complementary products and services to build excitement and demand. 

No matter where you choose to approach customers, be sure that your cross-sell and upsell offers align with your organization’s existing cross-channel marketing or omnichannel marketing strategy.  

When to avoid upselling and cross-selling

Upselling and cross-selling should not impede the customer experience, and some customers will be confident they want just the item(s) they originally planned on purchasing.  

Early on in the journey, be aware that customers may have more questions and not yet trust your brand. If you have a complicated customer onboarding process or if the customer is still setting up their account, be careful not to bombard them with advertisements or send messages that compete with their current stage. 

For example, an enterprise software company may offer a month-long free product trial for interested users. During the trial period, people likely need educational resources to help them navigate and use the product to its fullest capacity. If the company immediately offers product upgrades or pushes the trial user to become a paid customer before they realize the value of the product, it could discourage them from becoming a customer altogether. 

Another potential time to avoid upselling or cross-selling is if you have a brand-new product line that needs early customer feedback. Keep those products to a specific pool of customers who are likely more patient with product or service hiccups during the testing phase. 

How to upsell and cross-sell effectively

The key to upselling and cross-selling is to understand the value each product or service provides and what distinct customer personas typically need based on their challenges or preferences.

By understanding your customer, you can empathize with them and structure the content and timing of your upsell or cross-sell to engage more authentically.

To create a successful upsell and cross-sell strategy, an organization must first:

  • Build robust journey maps - You don’t want to upsell or cross-sell just for the sake of it. Think of the overall roadmap a customer has with your company and the typical drivers for them to move forward with it. Customer journey maps enable you to perform customer journey orchestration that can boost your overall sales success.
  • Understand your customer base - Break your customer base down into customer personas and document the distinct values they find in your particular business or product. Customer segmentation is key for optimizing your outreach and delivering tailored offers that your customers will appreciate. 
  • Embrace experimentation - For both content and timing, segment different elements into campaign experiments to learn what’s working. Experimentation must be an organizational priority (with expected failures along the way) so the team feels comfortable trying new approaches and learning what performs best. 

When engaging customers in a cross-sell or upsell:

  • Prioritize the customer as a human - An effective upsell or cross-sell will appeal to the customer’s needs. Ideally, your salesperson or copy should prove you understand the customer’s challenges or preferences and explain why an upgraded or complementary purchase is right for them. If a customer is purchasing an internet plan and says they love online gaming, for example, it’s appropriate to offer a plan with higher bandwidth. 
  • Reference what other customers purchase - It can be powerful to make suggestions to a customer based on what other customers of a similar need purchased. B2B sellers, for example, can reference what brands of a similar industry or size purchased (if allowed to do so). 
  • Respect the journey - Understand where the customer is in their journey and be empathetic to the challenges they might be facing. Fine-tune messages to resonate with distinct personas at each stage of their journey. A retail customer may come to the store with a very specific clothing need. Address that first, and then find natural opportunities to suggest complementary products. You could also offer for them to apply for a store credit card to receive a discount on their purchase — and potentially justify adding more items. 

Cross-selling examples

  • Entertainment cross-selling example - A theme park could cross-sell by offering a discounted ride photo bundle when customers first purchase their admission. 
  • Finance cross-selling example - A common cross-sell for banks is offering a checking account or credit card to customers who have only one type of account.
  • Retail cross-selling example - A clothing retailer could cross-sell by promoting winter gloves, scarves, and slippers when customers are purchasing other winter attire, such as a winter jacket.
  • Sports cross-selling example - Sports teams and arenas could cross-sell souvenirs by offering a 5% discount on orders that include a hat and jersey.
  • Telecom cross-selling example - Many large telecom companies cross-sell to customers by offering discounted service bundles, like pairing home internet with a television service and mobile phone plan. 

Upselling examples

  • Entertainment upselling example - A theme park could offer one-time ticket purchasers to upgrade to a VIP ticket that offers shorter ride wait times, or an annual pass for continued access ot the park. 
  • Finance upselling example - A credit card company could try to upsell a customer by promoting the benefits of its premium credit card, which has a higher annual fee.
  • Retail upselling example - An electronics store could upsell a TV purchase by either recommending a better screen type like OLED or a larger TV size. 
  • Sports upselling example - A sports team could upsell ticket buyers by promoting season ticket deals, or by encouraging season ticket holders to upgrade to a VIP tier that provides more benefits. 
  • Telecom upselling example - Internet and phone providers can upsell customers by promoting plans or services that include higher bandwidth or more data allowance.

How to measure the success of upsell and cross-sell campaigns

Before implementing an upsell or cross-sell strategy, your organization should establish a baseline of its metrics, which can include:

  • Average purchase value (APV) - The average amount a customer spends each transaction.
  • Average volume per transaction/units per transaction (UPT) - The average number of items in each transaction.
  • Customer lifetime value (CLV) - The total amount a customer has spent with the company over time. 
  • Customer retention - The percentage of customers who are still active. Assess this number one month, three months, and six months after a customer’s last purchase.

Next, your team should define what success looks like.

Companies often have data that suggests what an ideal customer is. For example, customers who buy at least three different products have higher retention rates, or customers who spend at least $50 on each purchase are more likely to recommend the brand. 

Targeted cross-sells and upsells can keep customers in your ideal range and help your organization reach its goals. Whatever your metric is — maybe you want to increase customer lifetime value or retention, or both — determine a starting point and set a goal based on your company’s larger business objectives.

Your efforts may yield complementary customer engagement boosts, too. For example, you may notice a lift in email open percentage, the number of reactions and comments on social media posts, or more positive customer reviews. 

Experiments are essential for testing individual campaign elements and measuring the success of your upselling or cross-selling approach. Aim for a sample size of at least 100 customers who receive a cross-sell or upsell offer and at least 100 who don’t. If the two groups look the same after the test, then your team should try something different or experiment elsewhere.

Common cross-selling and upselling mistakes 

There are a handful of common mistakes that marketers and salespeople make when trying to cross-sell or upsell customers.

  • Fragmented outreach - Too many brands have different marketing teams focus on specific channels or stages of the customer journey, like acquisition, advertising, and SMS. This means teams are siloed and uncoordinated and may inadvertently bombard customers with messages or fail to empathize with the customer experience at that journey stage. Consider a customer who, two days after making a purchase, receives a social media ad, text message, and email all promoting different things. Not only is the customer likely not ready to purchase again, they may be annoyed by all the messages.
  • No definition of success - Teams may also forget to set a clear success metric, which creates a roadblock at the end of the campaign. If the team hasn’t considered how to measure the campaign, even if you increase customer behavior and purchases, you may be unable to prove that. That’s why baseline metrics are essential and you should ensure you know how to measure your results before you begin. 
  • Deprioritizing campaign optimization - As products or services — or the competitive landscape around them — change, your team needs new ways to position your strengths and appeal to buyers. Fine-tune your messages and frameworks for the constantly changing customer base, like ensuring you resonate with Generation Z or keep up with knowing who your competitors are.  

Tools you need to launch effective upsell and cross-sell campaigns

The key to effective cross-selling and upselling (or any customer outreach) is to work from a single source of truth on your customer insights and activity. 

Because so many teams actively collect and rely on customer data, having a single place to store and manage it all is essential. Otherwise, teams use disjointed solutions that result in disconnected data, outdated information, and inefficient outreach. 

A data warehouse is a must-have tool to store customer data so you can activate it in your campaigns. Remember: If you don’t capture the data, you can’t use it to understand your customers.

Marketers will also use channel-specific tools to engage customers, such as email marketing or SMS tools. These solutions should connect to the data warehouse to keep customer profiles updated.

To simplify that process, composable customer data platforms like GrowthLoop sit on top of a data warehouse and pull data from it to sync it with other marketing tools. This keeps the data in one place and provides total flexibility with the marketing channels and solutions you use. 

Composable CDPs can also: 

  • Create intelligent customer audiences 
  • Orchestrate cross-channel journeys for those tailored audiences
  • Implement generative marketing to personalize content
  • Measure success from the journeys

Perfecting your customer sales strategy

As your organization continues to attract new customers, there is a powerful opportunity to maximize each purchase by promoting complementary or enhanced products.

Your customer data can guide you to create effective cross-sell and upsell offers, ensuring you approach customers with the products or services you know they need.

If you start to see customer churn, don’t panic! We detail how to craft a successful winback campaign in this post, so you can recover lost customers. 

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