“Would you like fries with that?” Is upselling upsetting the customer?

Guest house

I’m currently arranging a new mobile phone contract. In common with most people I have very low expectations of the customer service I’m likely to receive. This is borne out of years of bitter experience. While the staff often appear incapable of connecting my phone to a functioning network at the price I signed up to, they do display far more enthusiasm in encouraging me to spend extra money on stuff which holds no interest for me. Insurance, technical support, discounted games consoles have all been offered this time in an attempt to increase the value of my custom.

Phone companies of course are not alone. Fast food joints have long used the ‘would you like fries with that?’ line. Presumably it works, as do the frequent requests from museum staff to buy a guide book or the staff in the hardware shop to buy a box of ‘special offer’ light bulbs.

Of course the concept is not a new one. Many businesses have long worked on the principle that you entice punters with an attractive low headline rate and then proceed to fleece the customer with numerous add-ons, whether requested or not. Airlines offer headline rates that few can secure and then whack on their own surcharges; restaurants offer discounts that are soon cancelled out by doubling the cost of drinks, while the assistant selling you a new computer is more interested in you opting for product insurance than in you buying the item itself.

Perhaps of all businesses it is hotels that offer the most needless and irritating examples of upselling. Resort fees, internet and parking charges are piled on in a seemingly deliberate attempt to wind up their guests, while food and drink prices appear to be governed by how much the management think they can get away with.

It doesn’t have to be like this. A few enlightened business owners (perhaps from their own experiences as customers) have chosen to surprise their clients by their contrarian behaviour. We’ve stayed in a couple of hotels where the contents of the mini-bar were complimentary. Ok, they weren’t packed with malt whiskies and brandies, but there was enough beer, juice, water and chocolate to leave these guests very impressed, for what is a relatively small outlay to the hotel.

Do guests pay for these treats in their room rate? Of course they do. But there’s a lot to be said for the giving the impression that staff are more concerned about you having the best experience than in relieving you of extra cash at every opportunity.

Is this simply down to applying a high initial price that then allows you to be generous to your customers by giving back out of the excess you’ve charged? If this were the case then £300 hotels would not charge £25 for parking while £50 alternatives offer it for free; the motel wouldn’t offer a complimentary packed lunch while the 5 star hotel provides the same service for £15.

The ability to make customers feel valued is surely all about attitude and not economics; the ability for those in charge to be able to say “how would I like to be treated if I was the customer?” It’s such a simple starting point for any business philosophy yet it’s one that appears to be a million miles from the minds of those who create ‘the customer journey’.


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Freelance travel writer

10 Responses to ““Would you like fries with that?” Is upselling upsetting the customer?”

  1. I’ve seen a couple of free minibars too. It makes it feel like a real treat, rather than something designed to screw you.

    I’ll always remember a conversation with the manager of a high-end hotel in Chicago. He said: “Constantly having to shell out more money isn’t luxury”. It was regarding tipping (he’d brought in a no tipping policy – extremely rare in US), but applied perfectly well to things like valet parking, minibars and WiFi.

    I’d be interested to see how the obsessive upsellers do on Tripadvisor, by the way. I suspect not well.

    January 23, 2012 at 2:17 pm
    • An American hotel with a no tipping policy? I’d love to see it. But yes, things that feel like a treat – isn’t that what a hotel should be all about?

      January 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm
  2. I think gents’ hairdressers started it … ‘Something for the weekend, Sir?’ 😀

    January 23, 2012 at 2:47 pm
    • Indeed they did. They don’t say that anymore do they?

      January 26, 2012 at 12:56 pm
  3. I am sick of those dirty profits as well. Unfortunately, businesses, don’t exist to maximize value. They exist to maximize profit. And, that is exactly the cause of so many problems in the world.

    When businesses spend 3 or 4 percent of sales on extra bonuses to customers, the marketing value of the goodwill and word of mouth pays for itself 10 times over. It is too bad that most companies are too short-sighted to see that.

    January 24, 2012 at 4:06 am
    • Agree with you John. It should make perfect sense…

      January 26, 2012 at 12:59 pm
  4. I am new to your blog and was drawn to this post because of your picture choice. It’s the Balcony, in Kratie Cambodia. My husband and I recently spent 6 nights there, including my birthday. Now, this place does not fall in the category of up selling exactly, yet the manager there followed a good practice that has me singing praises. The rooms, at only $5/ night, are quite awful…hard beds, weak fans, poor internet. Even so, I would send people there because of the super friendly and helpful service.

    I had inquired about getting a cake for my birthday…was there a local bakery, would it be open when I arrived? The manager of the Balcony said he would take care of it. When I arrived, after a long bus ride, not only was there cake, yet he and his staff had made a birthday sign, put up balloons and got party hats & sparklers. He helped us throw a party with the other guests. It was lovely and all way beyond expectation.

    He definitely made me feel valued and was only charging me $5/night for a room!

    February 12, 2012 at 2:50 pm
    • Hi Karen, thanks for stopping by and yes indeed it is from Kratie. I couldn’t remember the hotel name but we stayed next door. Well spotted!

      A great story and I can understand why you would recommend them – your experience sounds similar to ours in Cambodia (outside of Siem Reap at least). 6 nights was a long stay in Kratie – would be interested to hear how you spent your time in the town and nearby areas.

      February 13, 2012 at 7:50 pm
  5. Shaun C #

    Hi Andy,

    I hate to admit it, but I’ve found myself on the front lines of this. I work for a major wireless provider here in the states. When I started 6 years ago this company was fantastic to work for. We had pride in ourselves for being #1 in customer service for many years in a row in our industry. Then they(over paid CEO and greedy stockholders) slowly started to introduce up-selling in customer care. At first it wasn’t that bad, now its part of our metrics and goals. Its not asked its required, and its the most important metric we have. It is beaten into our heads from the time we walk in the door until we walk out. I’ve tried my best to fight it but it was no use. Reps that had been employed for years were dropping like flies, because they couldn’t meet sales goals or felt to much pressure and quit. I don’t have that luxury, I have 2 kids and a mortgage payment, I live in a town with no work and the bills have to be paid. I could wright forever about this epidemic, but just wanted you to know there are two sides to this story. You might be annoyed, but i’m the one that can’t sleep at night.

    March 22, 2012 at 4:18 am
  6. Rachel #

    The most dangerous widespread delusion that most businesses will have these days is that upselling, by some twisted definitions, “works”. I’ve seen that rationale used again and again to justify increasingly unwise behaviour directed towards customers. It annoys customers, you say? : that doesn’t matter, “because it works”. This tired rhetoric is trotted out again and again, despite the fact that even the most optimistic estimates show that 75% of customers do not and will never respond to this selling technique. And a hefty portion of them resent it so much that they’ll never shop with businesses that treat them with that type of contempt again. That doesn’t matter, though, does it? Because upselling “works” at least once with possibly as much as a whole 25% of the customers who are left. What’s that you say?, some of that 25% will also be so annoyed that they fell for your pressure tactics that they’ll join that other 75% in the pissed off camp after their experience. So, despite you having made a one off sale you lose a repeat customer for life? That definition of “it works” looks increasingly thin when you stop to analyse what you actually mean by “works”, doesn’t it?

    I’ve got a question. If it “works” so well, then how come the high street is so quiet these days, with the majority of sales being lost to the internet? There’s one, big, main retailer though whom all other retailers online have had to funnel much of their business for much of the past ten years. That retailer is Amazon. Whilst Amazon does engage in upselling, it is at least more subtly done than the clumsy “do you want a large meal, and onion rings, and ten other things you didn’t ask for, rather than the normal-sized meal you just told me in the clearest possible terms you wanted?” approach taken by low-brow high street retailers like McDonalds. And Amazon does at least give you a way to opt out of all future upselling attempts. Consumers have responded to that approach by switching away from clumsy in-person upselling in our droves. We now make most of our purchases through that Amazon channel, rather than having to tolerate an endless line of pushy jerks at physical stores, who all mistakenly believe that their obnoxious behaviour is justified “because it works”.

    I should thank those pushy jerks, and the suits that instruct them to behave that way, really. Because their obnoxiousness and inability to see the damage their behaviour does to repeat business has forced me to cut out fast food entirely, and to do all my shopping online. That “works” for me.

    December 1, 2012 at 12:34 pm