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THE INNOVATIVE SALE
Unleash Your Creativity for Better Customer Solutions and Extraordinary Results
By Mark Donnolo
AMACOM Copyright © 2014 Mark Donnolo
All rights reserved.
The Sales Innovation Dilemma
THE CAB PULLED UP to the hotel. As I fished for money to pay the fare, I wondered how the English carry all those heavy coins around in their pockets. I wheeled my suitcase through the revolving door to find Alastair in the lobby at "half-ten," as they say in Britain. It was a sunny morning in London's Canary Wharf financial district, but my body clock reminded me that it was still 5:30 AM on the east coast of the United States. The time zone change and the long flight were starting to kick in. Sleeping less than four hours in an airline seat, no matter how far it reclined, left me weary as I transitioned into a day full of meetings.
Alastair was an executive with a global technology company and my host for a three-day meeting on sales strategy. In his buttoned-up, crisp style, he described the purpose of the days ahead.
"Our sales organization needs some inspiration, Mark. We've got a reputation for great products and service once we finally make the sale, which, unfortunately, does not happen often enough," he explained. "We need to put some welly into it when we're showing the customer how we're unique and why they should hire us. That's what this meeting is all about. Getting them to loosen up and think differently about new ways to help the customer."
We entered an expansive ballroom with plush carpet, heavily paneled walls, and thick crown molding. Alastair and his team had tried their best to transform the opulent space into an environment that would inspire creative thinking. In the middle of the room was an odd assortment of thought-provoking items—picture books, oversized board games, and three-dimensional puzzles—meant to arouse creativity. Positioned around the room were beanbag chairs and sofas, presumably for the executives to hang out and talk. The executives had been encouraged to dress casually, but they still showed up in suits, minus the ties, with the occasional pair of starched khakis or expensive jeans. Looking around at this proper group, it was hard to imagine even a few of them reclining in a beanbag chair for a serious conversation.
As I tried to absorb this peculiar setting, Alastair led me to the area where I would present my speech the following day. He had warned me this was a PowerPoint free zone, but when I looked at the large, blank whiteboard in front of the rows of chairs, I felt a wave of uncertainty. Alastair, however, was clearly excited.
"You will stand here, Mark," he explained, facing the empty chairs, "and your artist will stand behind you and illustrate your presentation in real time." Alastair beamed. "He has read your speech, but we have encouraged the artists to be free with their interpretations," he confided, enhancing my anxiety.
As Alastair and I walked away from the whiteboard, a sales manager approached us and asked if she could book a conference room for her team.
"Certainly, but this room is designed for working as well," Alastair replied, gesturing toward the beanbag chairs.
The sales manager nodded politely and mumbled something about needing a projector, then walked quickly out of the ballroom. Clearly, I wasn't the only one struggling in this setting. As I studied the executives in the room, I realized none were interacting with the picture books, games, or puzzles. Instead, they gathered in groups of three and four along the perimeter of the room, which was lined with coffee stations. Some had moved large coffee urns aside to make room for laptops, while others leaned against the walls or sat awkwardly on the floor to be close to an electrical outlet.
What was happening here? Offering toys to high-powered sales executives was like offering vegetables to a pack of wolves. Alastair's team attempted to promote new thinking by providing an environment without a clear purpose, boundaries, or constraints. But this was a group used to processes and technical specs. Alastair had inadvertently created a major constraint: The executives weren't allowed to conduct their meeting in any way familiar to them. To them, this creative stuff was just window dressing to the work they were trying to do. They were lost and, as a result, grasped for the familiarity of the sidelines while they talked about forecasts, sales pipelines, and products.
Alastair and the team found themselves faced with a common problem: the sales innovation dilemma. They knew they needed creative thinking to improve their unique value proposition and to offer customers better solutions. Their markets had become increasingly competitive, their products more commoditized; their buyers understood more about what they were buying than ever before.
For Tracy Tolbert, executive vice president of global sales at Xerox Services, creativity is an essential part of the business and an essential characteristic of successful reps: "In almost every case, our most successful sellers are the most creative. We occasionally get a salesperson who's in the right place at the right time, and it's the perfect storm and they get a big deal, and that's great. But those who deliver it quarter after quarter, year after year, are the creative thinkers, who put themselves in the client's situation and figure out how to make the environment better. And by the way, that's true for salespeople who are hunters, who are out there trying to find new clients; and it's also true for our account executives who are managing existing customers. It's the same kind of thinkers that are successful year after year."
Tolbert stresses that innovation has to be a priority for the organization and not just the initiative-of-the-day: "You have to be relentless. You can't just write about it in some newsletter one month saying, 'Okay, well, make sure everybody's got it.' They have to get sick of hearing it from you, because then it becomes part of what they're naturally thinking. You have to push, push, push and constantly expose your organization to creativity and the demand for innovation, or they just won't pay attention."
The consistent delivery of innovative ideas has paid off for Tolbert's sales organization. For example, the chief executive officer (CEO) of a current customer came to one of Tolbert's senior sales executives and told him about a financial problem the company faced. He essentially asked that executive to create solutions for his company's budget crisis. "This sales executive just got directions from the CEO to take tens of millions of dollars of cost out of the organization," says Tolbert. "He came to us and asked, 'Hey, how can you help me do this? Not in reducing the price on the service you already deliver for me, but here's the rest of my organization. How can you help me take the cost out?' It's because we have a great relationship with the CEO and have delivered creative solutions in the past. We wouldn't even be talking to these guys if we were not delivering service to them perfectly on the other side of the business.
"In response to this challenge, we have to be creative. We have to say, 'Yes, we can think of new ways to deliver for you.' I think our customers see us as really, really good creative thinkers around complex solutions. And they believe it because we've demonstrated it to them, rather than just talked about innovation."
Some sales organizations, like Tolbert's, have made sales innovation a part of their culture. Others, like Alastair's, are still stuck, trying to understand how innovative thinking merges successfully with metrics and quotas. So year after year, they turn to possible answers in selling a "solution," "spinning" the sale, building the "relationship," or "challenging" the customer. But the problem is that, while the sales organizations predefine a solution or take the customer through yet another new sales process or set of questions, the sales team goes through the same old thinking patterns. Sales executives know they need creativity to produce new and better ideas. They just don't understand how to get there.
Alastair's first mistake was assuming that all forms of creativity are the same, and that childlike props are appropriate for a sales organization. The first step in solving the sales innovation dilemma involves correcting some dangerous misperceptions about creativity.
The Dilemma of Perception
Alastair is not alone. Almost everyone has perceptions about what creativity is and how innovation is born, based on their own experiences. Teresa Amabile is the Edsel Bryant Ford professor of business administration in the entrepreneurial management unit at Harvard Business School and a director of research there. She is also a leading researcher in the field of creativity. Her work began thirty years ago with a study of 12,000 daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects. She coded the journal entries to understand how they made creative breakthroughs and to identify some of the motivating factors. "Because there are many misconceptions about creativity," she wrote in a noteworthy paper, "it is important to consider what creativity is not." According to Amabile, creativity is not necessarily the result of an eccentric personality or of art, or even a sign of intelligence. Neither, she wrote, is creativity inherently good.
This insight highlights an important point: Misperceptions about creativity and innovation are common, and may lead the sales organization in the wrong direction or prevent you from incorporating creativity into your sales practices altogether. You're not prancing around with finger paints to find your inner Picasso. You're solving a sales challenge in a creative way that will differentiate you from competitors.
Brian Stone, associate professor in the department of design at The Ohio State University and cofounder of Växa Design Group (creators of the gardening app, Sprout it), says many of his students believe real creativity is elusive. "When people tell me things like 'I'm not creative,' that's actually not true. They say 'I'm not creative,' because they think there's this magic bullet or some kind of potion that they take to get creativity. In reality, you just have to change your approach and your mind-set around solving a particular problem in a unique manner."
There are some surprising ways creativity can be applied to the sales environment. But first, let's look at a few perceptions and realities:
Perception: You have to be born with creativity. Innovators are those few individuals blessed with naturally high creative intelligence.
Reality: Most creators and innovators have learned how to be creative. Creative processes and principles are easy to learn, but practice and tenacity are required before they produce results. This is particularly true in the sales environment, which tends to be reactive and defaults to preconceived answers.
Perception: Creative ideas come from eureka moments. Creative people have moments of epiphany that lead to innovation.
Reality: Creative moments are usually the culmination of a creative problem solving progression. In the majority of situations, brilliant results come amid numerous other ideas that never see the light of day.
Perception: You have to work in a heralded innovative organization in order to be creative. The business press regularly covers corporate innovators like Apple, Google, and Pixar with a focus on how they work, how their offices are designed, and how their cultures function.
Reality: Any organization can adopt innovative practices, and any individual can use creative methods independently. Being in a really cool environment can inspire a creative mood, but if you're in the 90 percent of sales environments that aren't regularly cited by the business press for their innovation, the opportunity still exists to create distinguishing competitive strategies and customer solutions.
Perception: Innovation doesn't apply to sales. Sales necessitates a target customer base, an offer, and a sales pipeline in order to hit your numbers. Innovation belongs in product design or marketing, but not sales.
Reality: Innovation wins deals. Innovation can be the differentiating factor in a competitive sales situation, and continued innovation can help retain customers.
Perception: Creativity is creativity; it's all the same. A painter, musician, or poet can translate those talents to creativity in the business arena.
Reality: All creativity is not created equal. Most creative endeavors fall into one of two general categories: "artistic" creativity and "functional" creativity.
When you think about creativity and innovation, names like Jackson Pollack, Walt Whitman, or Andy Warhol may come to mind. These talented people were famous for their artistic creativity. Artistic creativity leans heavily toward expression and the unconstrained innovation seen from painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, and interpretive dancers. But it's hard to assign a place for this in a sales environment. Artistic creativity is inherently subjective in the way it's made, when the artist says, "This is how I want to paint this picture." It's also subjective in the way the finished product is judged. Some people may say, "I love it," while others respond with an equally valid, "I hate it."
When I was in art school in the 1980s, I created a series of silk screens about the Cold War, which loomed large at the time. I used color, format, texture, and line to communicate my ideas about this nuclear threat. By all standards, it was successful. My professor understood it, most of my peers liked it, and I felt I had communicated my thoughts through these silk screens. But it had no practical application. I never, for example, considered sending it to Ronald Reagan as a suggestion for how to deal with this conflict.
Artistic creativity has limited application in a sales environment, which is marked by goals, expectations, and objectivity. Sales organizations demand a different type of creativity. Functional creativity is defined by its objective outcomes. With functional creativity, there is a right answer. In art school, everyone in a class can feel something different about a project's end result; but in a sales environment, you want everyone to see the same picture.
After graduating from art school and working as a designer in New York, I earned my MBA and began working with sales organizations. Here, I found, creativity was just as necessary, but was no longer judged subjectively by a sales manager's feelings about your work. The end results of a sales rep's work were objective: How much revenue did she bring in? Did she win a small project, or a major piece of new business? Was the customer satisfied enough to maintain loyalty in years to come? Figure 1-1 illustrates the difference between artistic creativity and functional creativity.
As president of The University of the Arts, Sean Buffington understands both artistic and functional creativity. "We tend to think of creativity as something that resides in people who we think are creative," he says. "We believe that creativity is a thing that some people have and other people don't have. I would argue against that. While not everybody is necessarily visually acute or has the same kind of ability with their hands or can sing, everybody does have the ability to create; that's something that is fundamentally human.
"But even though we're all creative, our goals are different. Our purposes are distinct. In the case of the arts, the process is iterative and lifelong; it's a process of learning and reacting and changing and adjusting.
"But in business timeframes are shorter and goals are different. In business, you don't have the luxury of saying 'I made these four pieces of ceramic art and they didn't really come out the way I like, so, I'm just going to put them on the shelf and go back into the kiln.' In the case of business, the decision is more immediately consequential. The company either made money or it didn't make money. It successfully entered that new market or it didn't, and there could be real consequences that have to do with revenues, whether people are able to keep their jobs or not, whether the company can hire people or not."
Excerpted from THE INNOVATIVE SALE by Mark Donnolo. Copyright © 2014 Mark Donnolo. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM.
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