SBJ/Sept. 16-22, 2013/Opinion

How a team injects fun, games into sales culture to good result

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The majority of tickets sold for sporting events and teams are probably sold by men and women under 30 years old. That said, it made me think about pop culture and “gamification” and the importance of those two areas for people in that age group.

The number of people that play fantasy football and “World of Warcraft,” and even McDonald’s Monopoly, is staggering. People like the fun that games provide, along with the social interaction and opportunity to be recognized and rewarded as the winner.

My interpretation of the term gamification is a way to engage people and motivate them to change behaviors, develop skills, communicate more effectively, break down barriers and solve problems through adapting existing game formats or creating a customized game to fit a particular situation. According to Brian Burke of advisory Gartner Inc., gamification is currently being applied to customer engagement, employee performance, training and education, innovation management, personal development, sustainability, and a variety of other settings.

The marriage of pop culture and gamification has been integrated in the sales culture of a professional sports franchise in the form of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s “Shark Tank” competition. Adapted from the television show, the Lightning’s version of “Shark Tank” was developed by Tampa Bay’s sales management team and led by Ryan Cook, Lightning director of inside sales. According to Cook, the “Shark Tank” competition was designed to:

Measure a combination of strength of ideas and presentation skills.

Strive to bring new business teams together in preparation for the 2013-14 season.

Operate as three contests: designing mini-plan concepts, creating programs to improve organizational culture, and developing capital improvement concepts for the Lightning’s home, the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Allow sales reps to exercise creativity.

Give everyone a chance to make a difference in the way the team does business and provide them with a voice and an opportunity to be heard.

Be fun first, but also competitive.

It was the hope of the Lightning sales management leadership team that the contest would be a fun and engaging way to improve presentation skills essential for a successful career in sales, with the underlying hope that three big ideas capable of generating incremental revenue would be produced through the efforts of the contestants.

The game lasted six weeks and consisted of three rounds in which various senior leaders from the Lightning participated as “sharks,” challenging the validity of the ideas and identifying factors that teams may not have considered. The teams were a combination of veterans and rookie sellers as well as retention/service personnel. Teams were not permitted to seek expertise outside of their own groups for the first two rounds. Once their idea had been approved for the finals, they were allowed to seek out one source, inside or outside the organization, for expert guidance.

Tampa Bay Lightning “Shark Tank” participants are questioned about their business concept by a group of “sharks” during the competition.
Photo by: TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
I had the opportunity to provide guidance to the finalists competing in the organizational culture competition. The groups had worked hard on their concepts, and while it was clear that they wanted to win, it was important to them to have the opportunity to be heard as potential young leaders by Lightning senior management.

I was then selected to be one of five “sharks” in the final round to determine the winning team in each of the three categories. In the finals, the ability to take the concept, explain it so that all of the “sharks” could understand the premise and the potential impact, as well as the logic as to why this plan was conceived, was the absolute key to success. The three winning concepts were all simple ideas that were easily understood, could be implemented without great difficulty and had the potential to generate significant incremental revenue. Concepts that failed to win were complex and difficult to implement. Those sales presentations often left the “sharks” with more questions than answers.

The winners were recognized at a company lunch and awarded their prizes: an ultimate sporting experience on a Sunday, followed by a day off.

This is one of those rare instances in which everyone won and enjoyed the game. The organization received some great ideas to present to ownership for funding consideration and hopefully implementation; the sales managers identified some emerging stars; the summer sales period prior to the season was filled with excitement and enthusiasm; and a young staff experienced the opportunity to present themselves and their ideas in a forum to senior leadership and to describe revenue opportunities that they had identified and were excited to pursue.

Participant Tony Econ summed up the experience: “It’s encouraging to have your ideas heard, even when you are not at the top of the chain. Future executives want to feel empowered, and ‘Shark Tank’ was the perfect way to give us that opportunity.”

But “Shark Tank” was also designed to be a developmental tool for young sellers, providing them with an engaging competition to let them develop presentation skills that will be key to their professional success in the future.

“I don’t think I’ve ever taken such pride in a group project before, and being on one of the winning teams was extremely validating,” participant Alison Goodman said. “It is also a nice bonus that my public speaking skills got a little boost because I know this is a personal area of weakness.”

Sales as a profession has an extremely high turnover of young people. Taking some of the stress out of the job, injecting some popular culture and gamification can help alleviate that turnover by creating an environment that emphasizes development while also providing the entry-level worker a better understanding of organizational goals, objectives and workings. It also connects them to their co-workers in something that is more than the daily routine.

Bill Sutton (wsutton1@usf.edu) is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

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