You're a client. You're on the phone to your customer services rep at the printer that does your brochure work and you're chatting about the weekend's football or X-Factor. It's the usual catch-up call, getting the gossip, feeding back about any glitches in last month's run. It's all very friendly. And then, out of nowhere, your rep starts talking about your leaflet work. 'Where do you get it printed? How much do you pay? Do you know it would be economic and more environmentally friendly to get it done here? No pressure, just thought you should know...'

In an industry built on personal relationships, that up-sell could be seen as a dangerous blurring of the line between sales and customer services. However, with the right training, the customer services sell can be a cheap and simple way of bringing in more business. The danger, though, is that in doing two jobs, customer services staff end up doing neither well, while getting too reliant on customer services for business generation and abandoning sales staff altogether may also be a false economy.

It could be argued that print has been quite slow to the customer services up-sell ploy; it's a staple part of most big business nowadays, from mobile phone operators to hotel receptionists. This may be due to the fact that, traditionally, the print customer service representative builds up a close relationship with the client and so using this closeness to sell does make some feel uncomfortable. Dani Novick, managing director at recruitment company Mercury Search and Selection, believes this taboo has meant printers have failed to grasp the full potential of customer service reps.

"Customer service reps are the greatest untapped asset in terms of improving profitability, value to the client and cementing long-term relationships," she says.

She argues that print should be looking towards the print management sector for inspiration. Here, she says, businesses employ customer service staff, or as they call them 'account executives', who have both commercial awareness and print knowledge.

"These people know that it's their responsibility to deliver value by helping the customer optimise specifications and offering options to deliver the best solution, rather than necessarily what the client asked for they are engaged in both up-selling and cost reduction," she says.

The cost reduction as a buffer to the hard sell is an interesting technique. You give a little to take a little and the trust is still maintained as the client is still getting best value. Everyone, presumably, is happy. The question is whether this would work for a printer, which a client arguably has different expectations of compared to a print manager.

Multiple roles

PrintWeek Customer Services Team of the Year Award winner AJS Labels has been engaged in the practice of customer service selling for some time. Managing director Andrew Scrimgeour says it is the natural result of being in a smaller company where roles tend to be more blurred.

"The segregation of duties that you have in big companies just doesn't happen here," he reveals. "Yesterday, I was scrubbing the floors, then I delivered labels, then I had business meetings and today I have had sales meetings. So everyone in our organisation has multi-tasks to do. I don't believe that, in a small company, you can look on your customer services and sales teams as separate roles."

The sales team at AJS is smaller than at any point in recent years, yet Scrimgeour says his company is more successful than it ever has been. He puts it down to the fact that his customer services staff are better placed to sell and bring in business than sales people. He explains that most clients do not want someone to be obviously salesman-like, too pushy and too polished. Instead, customer services staff have built up relationships with clients and are more adept at the non-pushy approach and instead offer advice that will benefit, rather than hard selling.

Simon Davies, commercial director at PrintWeek Customer Services Team of the Year runner-up Stephens & George (S&G), agrees that customer service selling is important, but he says a distinction still has to be drawn between sales and customer services staff, with both still a vital part of any company.

"We have distinct sales people and distinct customer service staff; we see them as different skills," he explains. "As a salesperson you go for the core business, and they are highly skilled in generating new business. Customer service staff, meanwhile, are in regular contact with the client far more intimately than the sales staff, so they are better placed to look into additional services we could provide to existing clients."

Essentially, then, sales finds them and customer services up-sells from the core product. For S&G, it is a two-pronged attack to give a complete sales approach. That is not to say they work in isolation. Both teams add anything they learn about a client to a system that both can access. So if things come up during the sales team's quarterly meeting with a client, the customer service team will know about it. Likewise, between these meetings, customer services will be in contact with the client regularly, and will add any information that comes up to the database. Any opportunity for expanding business with a client is therefore seized upon.

But for customer services teams to be able to sell effectively and not compromise their fundamental role of serving the customer, training is essential. Pushing too hard as a customer services rep will scare clients away, but not pushing hard enough will render up-sell attempts pointless. Likewise, a lack of print knowledge on the customer services staff part could lead to an embarrassing situation where an up-sell line is caught, but being unable to answer follow-up questions means the sale never gets out of the water.

"It is no good trying to sell to someone if they start asking you questions that you can't answer," says Davies. "In the past 25 years, print has changed beyond all recognition, so we will update training on an ongoing basis so that staff are able to answer questions that come from the up-sell process."

S&G handles the majority of training in-house, using the skills of staff to help others. For example, if the customer services team needs more production training, S&G will send them to that department to build up their knowledge. Davies explains how recently, Heidelberg updated its presses and the company installed new mailing line technology. Customer service staff were duly trained in what this meant for the products S&G offers.

But it is not just new technology where training is needed. S&G holds frequent reviews with customer service staff to identify any gaps in knowledge. Similarly, AJS's Scrimgeour explains that it is helpful to run refresher sessions.

"I'm a great believer in training," says Scrimgeour. "Even with people who have been in the business for a long time, we spend time refreshing their memories. Going right back to basics on the print process can be really helpful."

He adds, though, that it is not just print training that is important. Customer services reps are not necessarily natural sales people and teaching them how to sell, but not to force the issue and compromise their customer services role, is crucial.

Nature and nurture

So educating staff about business and commercial awareness should also be high on the training agenda. It could be argued that you cannot train someone to have the instinct of a salesperson. Scrimgeour, for example, admits that the skills of selling are partly a natural talent. However, he argues that experience is just as important. The more you get your customer service teams to sell, the better they should get at it.

One option, then, could be to record the sales conversations of those who do the up-sell well, and let others learn from this. Practice conversations between staff so not in 'live' situations can also build up skills and confidence.

Not that you are attempting to transform customer services staff into model salespeople. This type of experience training can also fine tune communications skills and help teach the right balance of sales pitch to advice. Concentrate too much on the sell and the fundamental service role may get missed. Hence, Davies says the way the customer service team sells has to be different to the sales teams.

"It is not a hard sell, it is a question-and-answer situation and if something does come up we can help with, then they simply explain that service in a non-hard sell way," he says. "It is not pushy; it is a partnership-building relationship."

The key word there is partnership. Your customer services team should not look to replace your sales team, but complement it in a partnership role. Likewise, the customer services team's relationship with clients must also remain a partnership. The key to balancing these two demands is intelligent training. Do this successfully and there is no reason why customer service teams shouldn't be using their unique position to bring in new business for your company.