Downselling: Proving you have the customer’s interests at heart
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Downselling: Proving you have the customer’s interests at heart

Salespeople should always be looking for ways to upsell their buyers. Right? After all, selling more and better product to existing customers is easier than beating the bushes for new ones. And if you do it correctly, it provides more value for the customer. Win-win.

That all sounds good. But it’s only part of the story. In fact, there are times when instead of upselling, a successful salesperson ought to try the opposite technique — downselling.

This somewhat startling statement requires a bit of explanation.

Consider: When you meet with a prospect for the first time, they may have little reason to trust you, and many reasons — at least in their minds — not to. Buyers know you have an agenda. They think you’re there to make the biggest sale you can. What better way to dispel this impression than to show them you’re willing — even happy — to make a smaller sale than might otherwise be possible, if doing so serves their interests?

Waiters and stair covers

Wait a minute, you may be thinking. If you’re voluntarily going to leave money on the table, you need proof that it’s worthwhile. So let’s look at some of that proof.

Robert Cialdini, a professor at Arizona State University, has done extensive work on the psychology of influence. As part of his research, he went undercover at an expensive restaurant to see why some waiters earned more than others. There, he discovered a waiter he calls Vincent, who was by far the most successful at getting customers to accept his suggestions — and at maximizing his and the restaurant’s income from each party of diners.

How did Vincent do it? By upselling at every turn, trying to get people to opt for more expensive dishes?

Nope. Just the opposite. He would recommend, when appropriate, that diners go for less expensive choices. Cialdini quoted him as telling customers things like, “I’m afraid the sea bass dish isn’t as good tonight as it normally is. The salmon is less expensive, and it’s excellent.”

By downselling in this way, Vincent showed he was willing to act against his own interest and put customer needs first. As a result, diners trusted him. And when he came around later asking whether they wanted more wine, or dessert, they would be more likely to add these items — pushing up the bill and Vincent’s tip.

Want another anecdote?

This one’s personal. I recently asked a flooring company to provide an estimate for putting hardwood treads on the stairs in his house — one flight from the ground floor to the second floor, and another flight down to the basement. The company duly came out and wrote up an estimate. But the estimator said that in his opinion, the only stairs that really needed covering were the ones to the second floor, because they were visible to guests entering the house. The basement stairs weren’t. The estimator pointed out that by making this suggestion, he risked reducing the size of his sale, but he had the owners’ interests in mind.

I might have balked at the expense of doing both staircases, but signed up cheerfully to have one done. I then told my wife that if it looked good, we could bring the crew back in a few months to do the other set.

The flooring guy almost certainly didn’t know about Vincent, but he was using the same downselling approach. And it worked.

Higher ratings

But perhaps anecdotes aren’t enough to sway you about the value of downselling. OK, then, how about a rigorous, large-scale research study demonstrating it?

Researchers from three U.S. universities — Elon, Georgia and Temple — enlisted the cooperation of a national restaurant chain for the study. The researchers gave the servers involved the option of upselling four expensive dishes or downselling four inexpensive options. Several hundred customers were served under these conditions, and the researchers then went back and surveyed them. As it turned out, slightly more than half of the customers were upsold, and indeed, the upsellers got more short-term gain thanks to the higher price.

But that wasn’t the whole story. More significantly, the customers who were downsold reported significantly higher “repurchase intentions.” The researchers also found that downsold customers rated the restaurant higher on perceptions of quality, value and overall satisfaction. Downselling, the study showed, had a long-term positive impact on sales and enhanced the brand.

In other words, when you go back to customers you’ve downsold, they’re more likely to trust you and buy from you again.

Disrupting perceptions

You’re probably not a restaurant waiter or an installer of flooring, but the connection between downselling and trust can be helpful in many complex sales. Remember, when you first encounter buyers, they’re often looking for reasons not to trust you. They fear that salespeople will overpromise, hide negative information and recommend high-ticket options that yield the biggest commission.

Downselling — as early in the sales process as possible — disrupts these perceptions. Buyers are more likely to trust you, listen to your recommendations, see you as a long-term collaborator and buy more from you if you show them that you put their interests ahead of your own.

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Establishing Credibility: Putting the Buyer’s Interests First.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the video here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning video module are based on the following book and research study:

Cialdini, R. (1984) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Harper Business.

Norvell, T., et al. (2018) Assessing the Customer-Based Impact of Up-Selling Versus Down-Selling. Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, 59(3), 215-227.


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