Transition in the Contact Center: To Sell or Not to Sell?


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In early 2007 CSO Insights solicited input from call center management members. Over 300 companies responded to our request for participation in this research project. The firms taking part in this study represented a cross section of multiple industries. Figure 1 below shows the breakdown of the participation by major industry segments: financial services, technology firms (computer hardware, software, and communications organizations) professional services firms (technology services and business services organizations), non-high tech related manufacturing, and other firms (outsourcing centers, healthcare, retail, travel, etc.

Regarding breakdown of call centers taking part in the study by size: 22% had 50 or fewer reps; 19% had 51-150; 14% had 151-500; and 46% had >500 call center reps. Call/contact centers are now transitioning from Service Only to include some sales/revenue component in their activities. Once again, the definition and delivery of sales is evolving.

We had no preconceived notion of what the data might tell us or how widespread the practice of call center reps presenting offers on promotions or products/services might be. Still, we were amazed to see that 9 in 10 call centers have introduced this practice, are in the process of doing so, or are currently considering making this shift.

A deeper dive reveals quite a lot is happening and it involves more than adding a promo offer using the usual screen pop and script. The transition from Service Only is cultural, structural and operational. It requires additional training and coaching investment in your existing reps, likely increased turnover from reps unable/unwilling to make the transition, and increased attention to hiring the right new people. While technology is needed to support this new endeavor, we were reminded first that the mantra from the customer relationship management (CRM) world, “People, Process and Technology” was in the right order—add to this Knowledge and you’re on the right path.

Unless you are in a particularly limited or protected segment we believe your call center will soon have a revenue component in its charter—if it doesn’t already. But like all transitions, there is a tentative time, a period of uncertainty. With one foot on the dock and one foot on the deck (or in the air headed for the boat’s deck), there comes a moment where you have to commit. And from that moment until both feet are firmly on the boat, you’re off balance. There is this same lack of balance, comfort and certainty in those centers that have committed but not yet finished the transition to including sales.

Even as revenues and other new measures of success are being surpassed, old measures have not been let go of. Principle among these is average handle time (AHT) which is very real in the planning and management of call centers but the antithesis of engaging a customer—extending not only an offer but an invitation. Finding this new balance and solid footing is the challenge confronting the leadership of today’s call centers in transition. Elevating the professionalism, contribution, development and satisfaction of their call center team members will be their reward.

When successful the transition from Service Only to introducing selling extends beyond the call center in both cultural and financial terms. In some instances, call centers have become profit centers not only paying for themselves (i.e., revenue neutral) by adding to the top line but doing this so effectively they contribute to the bottom line as well. Yet another dimension of selling is emerging as companies look to connect with their customers.

Those respondents about to embark on this transition see their single most important step as evaluating new technology. While those respondents that have made this transition also emphasize evaluating technology this was fifth place. First priority for this group is revising goals then ensuring the compensation plan includes some revenue (i.e., sales) component. The next biggest difference is hiring call center managers with past sales experience, and ensuring that you’re providing all managers sales training and mentoring to ease this process.

Clearly if there’s a lesson to be learned it is to put people before technology in your priorities. The question you may have asked yourself when you began reading is whether or not a shift is actually occurring in call centers today, moving to include a revenue component. You may then have asked if there were other firms, like your own, that are thinking about making this shift. If you are not in one of these first two groups with your own operation, we have another question for you: Why not?

There may be very good reasons within very limited and/or protected segments where the shift to include revenue in the call center, or at least considering such a shift, is not warranted at this time. But it appears that for the vast majority of firms this is not the case. Instead, your peers are heading for these new and only marginally tested waters in droves.

Like the penguin chicks all making for the sea at the same time, each must travel its own course but each will also find protection in the assembled numbers. Those that began several years ago have already made it to bright new areas and are making impressive gains. Some are currently in deep water and searching for an internal compass to steer them through these dark times. But the ones left behind doing the what has always been familiar may in the end be in the greatest peril.

Those who want to delve more into the full scope of the 2007 Call Center study, or are interested in a more focused view of the data can obtain the full report by visiting:

Barry Trailer
Barry has been involved in complex B2B sales for over 30 years and is intrigued with how it's changed/changing and what this means to Sales as a Profession (SaaP). Salesware, the analytics company he co-founded, was acquired by Goldmine Software in 2000 and his next company, CSO Insights with Jim Dickie, was acquired by Miller Heiman Group in 2015. He has twice been published by, and been a keynote for, Harvard Business Review, and is author of Sales Mastery, a novel.


  1. If a vendor is to get real value out of “empowering” customer service representatives to sell, they need to move from doing it “because we can,” to “it’s valuable for our customers.”

    Case in point: I called my cellular provider to correct a billing error. The call went poorly. Long hold times, multiple agents, my having to explain the problem repeatedly, and the seemingly endless apologies (I think there were at least six on my call).

    That awkwardness was nothing compared to the scripted service upsell I received before the last rep was ready to disengage from the call. “You’ve spent the last 30 minutes mishandling this problem, and you want to sell me more services!” I fumed. Needless to say, it was a wasted effort on the agent’s part, and a poor way to sell anything.

    Couldn’t my provider’s rigid call center business process exempt the agent from the “upselling” script, given their poor execution on the service-side of the call?

    Is it me, or does it seem obvious that the time sell to your customer is not after you’ve totally mangled the service call. There are some cases where “siloed systems” might not be so bad after all!

  2. Barry, Andrew

    There should be no doubt that the ‘sales through service’ Barry describes can be highly effective; cross or up-selling rates as high as 65% are not unheard of in some industries.

    But making this work requires the call centre to be fully integrated into all of the organisation’s marketing, sales and service activities. It also requires that the organisation have an overarching customer management strategy that integrates outbound and inbound activities. And it most likely requires the widespread use of propensity model scores (NBA, NBP, etc) to identify customers with the highest probability of being in the market for a particular product too.

    Of course, it almost goes without saying, that call centre agents are the ones who should ultimately make the decision to go for the sale after the service is completed, or not.

    That Andrew received a sales offer after an entirely unsatisfactory service experience probably speaks more about the poor managament of most US telcos, than about the sales through service idea.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager


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