The Untapped Secret of Selling Safety

The traditional approaches still have a place. But we should consider balancing the equation, putting those we serve at ease, and building a lasting relationship.

You may be thinking, “I’m not in sales, I’m a safety professional!” You’re half right: You are a safety professional. The Truth — as we often learn the hard way — is that if we are in safety, we are indeed in sales. The fact of the matter is that we are at the mercy of our ability to sell, no matter how “tight” the presentation. Regardless of our education or the facts surrounding an issue, we are still in a position where we have to make the sale in order for a positive change to take place. And the better we are at selling, the greater our results.

We learn the secret of selling safety from the master of selling himself, Joe Girard. Born into poverty on Nov. 1, 1928, and raised in a Detroit ghetto, he often said being poor was having no shoes, no food, and no job; that’s the way it was for Joe as a child. He was a hard worker, however, and dedicated to getting ahead and living the American Dream. In his twenties and married, he began to make his mark in the Detroit market and grow wealth through real estate. He was doing well until the bottom dropped out of the housing market. Joe was left broke and unemployed.

Determined not to let his young family down, he searched everywhere for a job. Finally, he talked a sales manager of a Chevrolet dealer into giving him an opportunity. The truth was the manager was not looking to fill a new position, but he found himself unable to say no to Joe. However, he told Joe he was not to take customers away from the regular sales staff. He was to sit in the background and help only if everyone was busy. Later that same day, as the regular sales team had gone home for the evening, Joe stayed to lock up. As luck would have it, a woman entered the showroom just as the doors were being locked. Joe stayed with her, talking about cars for two hours. She bought a car that night, and Joe was about to make history.

Joe did well selling cars — very well. How? He used a number of sales techniques, but maybe the most unorthodox was the concept of handing an item to a prospective buyer. He explains in his book “How to Sell Anything to Anybody” that he had desk drawers full of items, and everyone who entered his office received a small token. He had a drawer of stuff for women. He had another desk drawer full of items for men. A third drawer was full of items for children. When people entered his office, the equation was unbalanced: In the customer’s mind, Joe was going to be taking from them through a sale. In order to balance the equation, put the customer at ease, and build trust and a relationship, Joe would give each customer an item from his desk drawer — each customer, each time, no exceptions.

Selling Safety Awareness Willie Hammer writes in his instructive and educational book “Occupational Safety Management and Engineering, Fourth Edition” that “Intermittent safety efforts are generally ineffective. It is necessary to maintain an almost continual program of keeping personnel alert to safety practices. ”He continues by citing examples of awareness opportunities: “Small folders or booklets available from safety organizations, insurance companies, and the federal government can be given to each employee as he or she enters the plant or at other appropriate times. Slips with printed safety messages can be added to pay envelopes or attached to pay checks. Place mats or napkins with interesting messages on safety and accident prevention. ”

The point is that after certain safety fundamentals are in place, such as a formal safety process, management safety accountability, inspections, etc., safety awareness is key. Safety awareness is like the oil in a car: It makes the parts continue to function at a high level.

How do we sell safety awareness to our workforce? Part of the sale is within all of the traditional approaches, such as safety meetings, posters, slogans, bulletin board postings, competitions, challenges, etc. These approaches still have a place. But as we continue to bring safety to new and higher levels within our organizations, we should consider balancing the equation, putting those we serve at ease and building a lasting relationship. We should consider handing a Safety Awareness Item, or SAI, to another person during a critical safety conversation, or when we are asking for a safety sale. If it worked for Joe to the count of 13,001 career new car sales and a Guinness world record, it can help us sell safety, one employee at a time.

When it comes to building safety awareness within our workforce, we are attempting to bring them to a new level, to open their eyes, to obtain their undivided attention, at least for a short time, so we can deliver a message that will be heard, understood, and retained. Maybe the best, mostly untapped method for achieving this end is the use of an SAI during these interactions. For the most efficient use of the SAI concept, keep these seven principles in mind.

Using Practical Awareness Items First, it’s not about the item, it’s about the relationship. Joe Girard didn’t hand out $100 bills or new wristwatches. Instead, he used simple and practical items that served a purpose. The purpose was to balance the equation so he could comfortably ask a critical question: He asked someone to spend a large sum of money on a car.

With an SAI, it’s not about the item. It’s not an attempt to “buy” safety or purchase performance. It is simply an attempt to soften the perimeter of the person you are talking to so you may discuss safety awareness in a manner that will be heard.

Keep items practical for peak interest. I have supported some work groups that purchased impractical or “silly” items. They were into sticky rubber frogs that would adhere to walls when thrown or mood rings predicting “a safety attitude. ”The practice of using SAIs in these locations quickly turned from effective to marginal, at best. Of course, you will never please everyone, but for best results with SAIs, consider staying close to these three core groups: food, tools, and more food.

A practical SAI is one that most of your people can use and will still appreciate, even if they already have one or two at home. For example, a small flashlight with the theme “maintain a clear path.” Or a roll of duct tape used to emphasize the need to use the right tool for the right job. A simple candy bar may be handed to a skilled craft professional when reinforcing line-of-fire crunch situations. The use of practical SAIs will allow you to finalize that sale, and in the end, that is what it is all about.

Like any good thing, SAIs can be overused, so formulate a plan within your location around what constitutes effective frequency. In most cases, that frequency will fall somewhere between an item per month and one item per quarter. When calculating an effective frequency of SAIs, consider the exposures faced by your workforce, the effectiveness of current safety awareness programs, changes in the workforce such as summer peak, seasonal outages or maintenance schedules, at-risk-act trend analysis, and the introduction of new initiatives or safe work practices.

For SAIs to be effective, it’s all about the handoff. In learning from the best, Joe Girard, we find that he handed an item to a client when he or she was in his office. What happens in the office? A sale! The same is true for effective handoff of the SAI: It should occur when the safety coaching or feedback is taking place. Over time, I have worked with some groups that have coupled terrific SAIs with an insightful theme at a great point in time, only to blow it through the handoff. Instead of personally handing the SAI to a co-worker immediately before the critical safety conversation, they simply pointed to the items in the box and told everyone to be sure to “pick one up.” If we are taking the time, effort, and energy to use the SAI concept, make sure we employ an effective handoff.

I believe immediately before asking for the sale (having that critical safety conversation) is the best time to hand out the SAI. Over time, however, it is appropriate to mix it up. Other effective times are greeting the workers as they are entering the plant, waiting at the gate as employees are driving out, or in small group huddles as job planning is taking place.

Building Enthusiasm Create buzz! The use of SAIs can have a ripple effect; in addition to the initial purpose of making that safety sale, handing out an SAI can create buzz, and that’s a huge positive for safety awareness. Creating buzz means your people are interested, engaged, and open to your message.

There are several ways to create buzz around the SAI. One way may be to give the items out very slowly during the course of the awareness period. For example, milkshakes were used to remind a group of utility workers in August of the hazards of heat stress and the need to cool off. But the safety committee did not deliver these during one safety meeting or throughout one day; instead, committee members hit one or two crews each day in the course of a month. Everyone was asking whether “today will be my day.” Each time, the committee member responded, “I don’t know, but make sure you watch the heat! ”Another example was when the lottery hit an anticipated record high. On the Thursday before the Saturday drawing, about a dozen workers had lottery tickets taped to their lockers with a note, “Take a chance on the lottery, but not in your personal safety!” Those who didn’t receive a ticket wondered whether they would. During the next two days, lottery tickets were found in the cabs of trucks, in job folders, etc. The message was clear, and the work group was buzzing.

Most car sales professionals would consider one sale a day a great average; Joe Girard averaged six new car sales per day. In fact, Joe set a single-day sales record of 18 automobiles. Customers in the lobby were getting in fights over who was next in line to talk to Joe, so he began scheduling 15-minute appointments throughout each day.

In safety, it’s the same deal: We sell our message one person and one appointment at a time. As safety professionals, we must use the traditional sales approaches but must take notes from some of the best, too. That would include a highly successful sales professional with desk drawers full of items. In our business, they are SAIs and are well worth the effort.

This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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