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Perceptions & Realities — Is Creativity in Sales a Silly Distraction or Your Salvation?

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Alastair is an executive with a global technology company and my host for a three-day meeting on sales strategy. The premise of the gathering was to get people to think differently about new ways to help the customer.

Alastair’s team had tried their best to transform the upscale ballroom into an environment that would inspire creative thinking, bringing in picture books, board games and puzzles (meant to arouse creativity) and bean-bag chairs and sofas (presumably for the executives to let loose and talk). As I studied the room, I realized no one was interacting with the items. Instead, they gathered in groups around the coffee stations. Some had moved the coffee urns aside to make room for laptops, while others leaned against the walls or sat on the floor to be close to an outlet.

What was happening here? Offering toys to high-powered sales executives was like offering vegetables to a pack of wolves. In an effort to promote new thinking by providing an environment without constraints, Alastair’s team had inadvertently created a major constraint: the executives weren’t allowed to conduct their meeting in any way familiar to them. This is a common problem – the sales innovation dilemma. They knew they needed creative thinking to offer customers better solutions. Their markets had become increasingly competitive, their products more commoditized, and their buyers understood more about what they were buying than ever before.

Some sales organizations 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. The problem is while the sales organizations pre-defined a solution or take the customer through yet another new sales process, 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 all forms of creativity are the same, and child-like props are appropriate for a sales organization. Step one in solving the sales innovation dilemma involves correcting some dangerous misperceptions about creativity. You’re not experimenting with finger paints to find your inner Picasso. You’re solving a sales challenge in a creative way that will differentiate you from competitors. There are some surprising ways creativity can be applied to the sales environment. Let’s look at a few perceptions and realities:

You have to be born with creativity. This is a perception – innovators are those few individuals blessed with naturally high creative intelligence. In reality, most 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 pre-conceived answers.

Creative ideas come from eureka moments. This is a perception – creative people have moments of epiphany that lead to innovation. In 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.

Innovation doesn’t apply to sales. This is a perception – the role of 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. In reality, innovation wins deals. Innovation can be the differentiating factor in a competitive sales situation, and continued innovation can help retain customers.

Creativity is creativity; it’s all the same. We know this is a perception – a painter, musician, or poet can translate those talents to creativity in the business arena. In reality, all creativity is not created equal. Most creative endeavors fall into one of two general categories: artistic creativity and functional creativity.

Mark Donnolo is managing partner of SalesGlobe, a leading sales effectiveness consulting firm. Over the past 25 years, he has worked with IBM, Comcast, AT&T, Office Depot, KPMG, LexisNexis, Accenture and Verizon, among many Fortune 1000 companies. He is the author of two books on the subject: “The Innovative Sale: Unleash Your Creativity for Better Customer Solutions and Extraordinary Results” and “What Your CEO Needs to Know About Sales Compensation.” Connect with him on Twitter and on LinkedIn.

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