How to frame your upselling message for maximum success
  • sales
  • Blog post

How to frame your upselling message for maximum success

The most successful salespeople know it’s far more efficient to sell to existing customers than to slog through a bunch of cold calls. They also understand that upselling, when done with worthy intent and not mercenary greed, actually provides a service for buyers.

But like so many aspects of sales, upselling effectively is easier said than done. So what’s the secret? How do you improve your chances for success? A ground-breaking research study provides a critical insight.

The study, done by a team of academics at two universities in Germany and one in Switzerland, focuses specifically on how salespeople should frame their upselling messages to maximize results.

Simple or complex

The researchers conducted an experiment in which 200 volunteer “buyers” were divided into two groups. Each was offered similar services in a simulated upselling situation. But one upsell was framed in a way that was complex and required much time and thought, while the other was simple and straightforward.

There was one more difference in the way the researchers presented their upselling efforts. Some of the volunteer buyers were given a message emphasizing the additional benefits of the upsell. Other buyers received a contrasting message, emphasizing the losses they might incur if they didn’t accept the upsell.

When the researchers analyzed the results, they found an interesting pattern:

  • When the upsell seemed straightforward, the buyers reacted similarly to the benefit-oriented and the loss-avoidance approaches. Because they didn’t have to work hard to analyze the upsell in relation to their original purchase decision, they essentially said, “Whatever. We’re easy.”
  • But the “complex” upsell presented a different kettle of fish. These buyers responded much more favorably to the loss-avoidance message. Because they had invested time and energy on their original purchase decision, they were loath to abandon it merely for additional benefits. They would move off that original decision only if persuaded they would lose something meaningful by sticking to it.

Gains vs. avoided losses

What conclusions about upselling can we draw from the research?

If your offering is relatively simple and your sales transactional, you can upsell any way you choose — as long as you’re respectful and not just trying to jack up the sale. You might say, “The deluxe model runs at 20% higher efficiency so you can produce and sell more product.”

But if your sales are complex, you need to be more cautious because customers can be reluctant to change course after a buying decision. They won’t accept an upsell for a gain, but they’re amenable to one that’s about loss avoidance. Here, you might say, “The deluxe model is more efficient so you won’t miss delivery deadlines on big orders.”

The psychology revealed in this research is intuitive. An effort to pile on additional functionality that increases the price tag (and your commission) can be seen as self-serving. But when you frame it as a targeted effort to protect your customers from an unseen hazard, they perceive you as a trusted advisor — which is what you always want to be.


This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “What Makes Upselling Succeed — or Fail.” 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 research study: Heidig, W., et al. (2017) “Supersize me!” The effects of cognitive effort and goal frame on the persuasiveness of upsell offers. Journal of Service Management, 28(3), 541-562.

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