Cross-Sell Without Getting Cross-Eyed

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In direct marketing tradition, cross-selling has been the ace-in-the-hole tool used by marketers to mine the back end.

It's a technique with a fabulous history. Back in the caveman days, when they sold you a 200-pound stone tablet, the salesman looked at you with his one good eye and said, "You want quartz scratching stone for writing on that? Only 5 drachma extra." Thus, cross-selling was born.

A few millennia later, direct mail and telephone marketing lent themselves wonderfully to this legitimate and often welcomed selling technique. Just ask the people at MBNA, who insert statement stuffers and other cross-selling devices into invoices and stand-alone mailings. And, yes, what has worked through the ages is what's relevant and exciting to the customer.

The gold standard in cross-selling must be: "Does it sell?" The only caveat: It must reflect positively on the brand. This is why Neiman-Marcus does not offer pickled pig's knuckles to its sable coat buyers.

With large e-commerce sites, an intuitive, hand-matched cross-selling system will quickly prove too labor-intensive and should be avoided. Try to avoid the temptation to use a handmade matching system.

The basic e-commerce cross-selling principle is simple: Have suggested additional purchases feed off a database based on purchasing history of other customers. If other customers have expressed an interest in product X, then suggest related products Y and Z. These rules are typically incorporated as an algorithm on a Web site's database.

As a footnote, sometimes the results are surprising. One client found that people who bought plastic shelf liners also liked Chia Pets!

The other-customers formula is not the only effective one. A cross-sell can be built to a generally popular item or a highly profitable item. Or, for example, a frequent buyer of wool sweaters can be offered a new style of wool sweater, even when he clicks on belts and accessories.

Cross-selling works best when positioned as a suggestion rather than a barked command. Use a soft-sell approach that capitalizes on a buying opportunity. Cross-selling also can be pointing out a similar product, providing a source for additional information, analyzing previous purchases or simply making a recommendation. ("Others have purchased ...", "May we suggest ..." and so on.)

A banner can cross-sell: "UPGRADE from Product X to longer-lasting Product Y and save $30! Click here for more information."

Personally, I think pop-up windows are annoying and would not foist them on my customers or clients. Banners, embedded text and photos and follow-up pages work just as well.

Follow-up pages or messages are a useful method for cross-selling. Once a customer has inquired about a product or begun to buy that product, then a follow-up page or message can present a similar or complementary product.

Follow-up pages do not need to be exclusively devoted to the cross-sell. If they are, it could be viewed by the customer as an intrusion. Follow-up messages may be embedded in the next instruction page. uses cross-selling at every opportunity. It uses the phrase, "Customers who bought this book also enjoyed...." And practices the same selling approach by suggesting that customers search for other titles by the same author.

As an example from the nonprofit world, the American Psychological Association sells industry books they add on the cross-sell, "You may also be interested in ..." This employs a soft approach that doesn't turn people off. Soft but relevant may be the ideal, nonintrusive approach to take with your busy and cherished customers.

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