How Play Can Increase Sales Performance

Even the greatest products can languish on the shelf if your sales and marketing teams aren’t in sync.

While reading a book called Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, I started thinking about how marketing ideas can be totally out of sync with the market for which they’re intended. Johnson writes: “Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly.”
This reminded me of my years as a sales representative in the book publishing industry. Twice a year, the sales force would all turn up at a major conference where we were told what books we’d be selling. Editors would plow through the books they’d purchased the rights to, then the marketing team would tell us how the product would be promoted and publicized. But no one ever asked us, the front-line salespeople, what the market wanted, so we were often faced with selling books we knew no one would buy.
The lesson is that sales and marketing are two different disciplines that should be increasingly integrated in terms of new product generation, pricing, and promotion. Too often, marketing departments operate in a vacuum; new products are developed as a direct result of customer surveys, or far worse, in total isolation.
We’re all looking for new product ideas, something that will excite our target market and stimulate sales, or for new ways to generate excitement about what we already sell. Enter the marketing firms, who come up with clever campaigns that communicate our message to a wide audience and hopefully generate an upward swing in sales.
How many of you have involved your sales team in developing a promotional campaign? Very few, I suspect. But consider this: who knows more about the people who buy what you sell — a third-party communications firm, or the people who interact with them every day? If you’re using a communications firm, they’ll likely do a much better job if they can hear what your sales team has learned on the street.
{advertisement} In the book Jump Start Your Brain, author Doug Hall brings executives to a place he calls the Eureka Mansion, where he uses a counter-corporate approach to brainstorming. At the mansion, wearing ties is a hanging offense; he puts whoopee cushions on chairs and provides squirt guns to douse people and Nerf balls to throw. Basically, he strips away all pretentiousness from the visitors within minutes of their arrival, turning them into squealing children. The results are amazing, and execs from many of the world’s big-name corporations — Anheuser-Busch, Procter & Gamble, AT&T, Pepsi-Cola, Folgers, Disney, Ford, and Nike are just a few — have visited the mansion.
So, how do you mine for — and then synthesize — the nuggets of vital information your sales and marketing people possess? How do you jump-start their brains? First, set aside an entire day to bring the two teams together for a brainstorming session. Hold the meeting somewhere well away from your office or plant that has lots of space to allow freedom of movement. Go to a local toy store and buy some harmless toys that fire stuff (ping-pong balls, Nerf balls, foam bullets — aim for toys meant for 6- to 7-year-olds). If it’s summer and part of your day can be outside, buy a bunch of squirt guns. Don’t tell them about the “hardware” you’ve acquired, but urge them to wear appropriate clothing — what they might wear to wash the car, for example.
On the day, break them into teams and let them battle it out with all the toys you bought, no holds barred, no rules, just a huge amount of fun. Afterward, move to a working area, allowing people to take their weapons with them. Decide in advance what you want to achieve — for example, coming up with a new product range, or improved versions of existing products. You might want to discover why a certain product is not selling well, or come up with catchy new media advertisement; it doesn’t really matter.
In Jump Start Your Brain, Hall suggests lots of ways to generate ideas, but I’ve used one particularly simple and effective approach on many occasions. Ensure everyone has a Sharpie pen, a bunch of post-it notes, and lots of small, round, coloured stickers.
Now, pose a question and write it on a flip chart — something along the lines of, “What could we do to sell more Nerf balls?” Tell attendees they have three minutes to write down as many ideas as possible. Make it known that they’re not allowed to say anything negative, nor positive, about anyone else’s idea. If they do, their colleagues are free to “Nerf” them. They can, however, hitchhike on to someone else’s idea and add to it.
Ridiculous and stupid ideas should be welcomed from the outset. Each Post-It note must contain only one idea and the writer must hold it up, read it out — loudly — and hand it to a facilitator who will take it and stick it up on a wall, easel, or other flat surface. Don’t worry if chaos breaks out — this increases creativity.
Once the three minutes are up, everyone takes a break; throwing things, shooting each other, and otherwise being outrageous is just fine. Meanwhile, group similar ideas together by shuffling the Post-It notes around on the wall. Once this is complete and your brain-stormers have reassembled, they’re allowed to use five of their coloured stickers to vote on the idea, or comment, they like best.
With the voting complete, you can go onto another product or topic, or you can delve deeper into the one just completed. For example, once you have several ideas on how to sell more Nerf balls, you might want to repeat the exercise by questioning how to go about introducing the idea that got the most votes. In this way, you can acquire, streamline, and synthesize creative and innovative group input on every step of a sales or marketing strategy.
Bringing your sales and marketing teams together in a totally different environment, where normal business rules cease to exist, will let two worlds collide. When that happens, who knows what brilliant ideas will be unleashed?