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Expert's Angle: Why Customer Service Reps Don't Sell… and What You Can Do About It

Your customers are now three times more likely to leave you and go to your competitor across the street - or across the globe - than in the year 2000. So it’s essential that you transform your customer service group into a customer sales group. Yet 40% of reps in call centers are unwilling or unable to make the change.

Here’s why so many reps are resistant to sell and five strategies you can use to convert your customer service team in your call center into a customer sales team. And if you've already made the change, you can use them to strengthen your sales culture.

1. Communication

In many instances, call center reps were hired simply as customer service reps, and the job description they were given made no mention of selling. While management may have announced the change, many reps simply did not get the "new" message that their job entails selling and cross-selling.

As a manager, you need to continuously “drip-feed” the message about your organization’s commitment to sales. For example, the most sales-driven call centers reinforce this message at almost every team meeting, and in one to one discussions with their reps. They also post compelling signage throughout the call center reinforcing the "new" vision for the center to be sales-driven as well as customer service-driven.

One of the best ways to communicate the change to a selling environment is to assign sales and cross-sales goals to each rep. And track and disseminate reps’ results against their sales goals, at least weekly. The call centers that have transformed into a sales culture also have supervisors and managers at all levels give reps feedback, both written and verbal, on their sales results versus their goals.

Call monitoring sheets at these centers key in on sales and cross-sales results, as well as customer service and operational efficiency. And coaching discussions, which are ideally held at least bi-weekly with each rep, also focus on sales results and sales activity (as well as other issues).

2. Belief

Many reps have gotten the message that management now expects them to proactively sell, but they don’t agree that call center reps should be doing that. They may associate sales with force-fitting a product on a customer who does not need it. So in the case of belief, the issue is not that reps haven’t heard the message but that they don’t accept it.

In this instance, managers need to use their own selling skills to explain—at team meetings and in individual discussions—what’s meant by selling and to get reps’ buy-in; and to make clear to reps that sales and service are actually two sides of the same coin: they’re both about identifying and meeting customer needs, rather than force-fitting an inappropriate product or service on a customer. Moreover, the skills reps require to resolve a customer problem are the same ones needed to sell or cross-sell a product. That is, both service and sales include:

  • Building rapport with customers
  • Questioning to understand needs
  • Making recommendations
  • Resolving customer concerns
  • Gaining customer commitment to the recommendation

Managers also need to remind reps how much more difficult the economy and the business environment have become, and how much more cautious customers have become. And, at a time when customers are less loyal, they need to explain why it is now even more important for companies and everyone on their customer contact team to focus on selling.

3. Motivation

Whereas belief, as mentioned above, centers on reps’ feelings related to the overall mission of the call center, and what the team as a whole should be doing, motivation refers to what inspires each individual rep. That is, some reps may accept the view that call centers should be engaged in selling, but they themselves are not motivated to do so.

The strategy to enhance motivation and drive individual sales effort is to identify what motivates each individual on the team and use a mix of motivators to drive sales behaviors. For most reps money is a key motivator. So structure their compensation plan so that reps have the opportunity to earn incremental earnings based on achieving certain sales goals, such as revenue per hour or percent of callers they convert to a sale, or number of products sold per customer. The centers with the most aggressive compensation plans have implemented incentive plans where reps can earn as much as 50% of their total compensation in incentive pay if they achieve their sales goals. Besides that, there is no cap on compensation (because in capping compensation, you’re inadvertently sending the message that reps should stop selling when they reach a certain level of sales).

Another way to motivate reps is to create a career path for them, and by promoting them for consistently strong sales results. For reps not wishing to move into a management or supervisory position you can make them a senior rep or a lead rep and offer them additional responsibility, such as mentoring a new hire or making them the leader of a task force looking at an important issue. As just one example, the task force could be asked to work with management on designing a new call monitoring form.

Besides incentive compensation, centers that have transitioned to a sales culture or have a more robust one, using more and better sales contests. This gives reps an opportunity to earn additional compensation. Sales contests can reward either individuals or teams. Many reps enjoy participating in sales contests because it heightens competition and (if they are assigned to teams) helps them bond with their peers. The most effective sales contests are ones where the reps are involved in structuring them, and in which results are tracked and communicated at least weekly.

In addition, motivation is maximized simply by praising reps, especially when done in the presence of their peers. Reps should be praised not only for exceeding goals, but also for consistently meeting them.

4. Skill

One of the most common reasons reps resist selling is that many are not very good at it and become frustrated that they are not getting positive reinforcement from callers. This is especially the case for veterans who had never previously been asked to sell.

As the manager, you should provide your reps with state of the art sales training. Well-designed sales training has the following characteristics:

  • Customized – to reflect your products or services and your company’s culture and selling process
  • • Learning objectives- participants should know the objectives for the overall training and for each skill taught
  • Measurable-participants should receive feedback as to how well they are doing throughout the program
  • Interactive-participants should be involved in a variety of learning activities, from solving case studies to performing role-plays, to engaging in learning games, by themselves, with partners, and in sub-groups. A variety of activities will capture their attention and make the learning fun.
  • Modular-the training should be designed so that it can be taught in bite size pieces, and each module can be re-used. For example, the modules might cover building rapport; questioning for needs; making recommendations; overcoming objections; and gaining customer commitment.
  • Reinforcement-the training should be continuously reinforced with practice activities at company meetings, and in on-line exercises

Besides that, supervisors and managers should be trained in how to diagnose skill deficiencies and coach reps in how to improve, while at the same time enhancing their self-esteem. The most effective coaches use what I call Focused Coaching. In monitoring calls, they may notice a number of things the rep can improve on, but only key in on one or two at a time, so as not to overwhelm or demotivate the rep. And the coaching sessions should focus on improving selling skills, such as the skill of asking questions or gaining customer commitment.


Sometimes, despite the best of intentions, reps are not able to achieve their sales goals because of obstacles outside their control. For example, the hardware or software or equipment is not supporting them properly; or marketing is not making the phones ring often enough.

Or even more common, management gives reps a mixed message as to the contact center’s primary goal. For example, in our consulting engagements, when we ask call center reps what’s the most important thing for them to do to succeed in their call center, over 20% of them are unclear as to whether it’s reducing talk time or making the sale. And approximately the same percentage of reps complain that management tells them to individualize each call, but then deducts points from their call handling scores for not using certain words (even though these words may not be all that important).

It is incumbent on managers to do an audit of their contact center to insure that reps have the tools, equipment and supports they need to perform their job effectively and efficiently. Or to retain an outside firm to do so. This means talking to reps individually and in small groups; it means having managers take calls; and it means encouraging reps to report any current or potential problems and offering suggestions as to how to overcome them. Most of all, it means treating your reps the way you want them to treat your customers.

Capitalizing on communication, belief, motivation, and skills, and removing sales obstacles will enable you to convert your customer service team into a sales team. And if you have already built a sales culture, you can use these sales-drivers to strengthen it.

Ron Volper, Ph.D. is the Founder and Managing Partner of Ron Volper Group, Inc. He is a consultant, speaker and author of Up Your Sales in a Down Market.