Can ideas that work well in the world of sales be applied to improving health and safety performance in the workplace? ANDREW SHARMAN and DARREN SUTTON outline some concepts

The frenzy which surrounded recent Black Friday sales across the world got us thinking: what if we sold safety in the same way? What could we learn from some of the very best marketing campaigns to influence people to take better care of themselves and others, every moment of every day?

Well, that’s exactly what we try to encourage our delegates to do on our IOSH Certificated Behavioural Safety Leadership programmes all around the world. Let’s take a look at what works well in the world of sales, and see how we can apply these ideas to improving health and safety performance in the workplace.

Sell safety in the same way as your company sells its best product

This is a great place to start. Look at the effort and commitment that your organisation puts into selling your product or services. There is likely to be a very detailed and scheduled system of targeting exactly the right customer for exactly the right product.

We will find innovative and exciting ways to grab their attention (and keep it) to ensure that they will see and read our sales campaigns. We will ensure that we follow up on our message to make sure that they are aware of what we are offering and explain to them all the ways that they might be able to purchase our products.

Your company will probably use the most creative and persuasive people to help design these campaigns – some companies even employ or engage psychologists, anthropologists and skilled data analysts to make absolutely sure that the right message gets to the right customer at just the right time!

Just imagine if we put the same effort into creating safety excellence and influencing critical behaviours in our workplaces. What if we were to employ the same behavioural insights and approaches that we might use in our corporate showrooms and sales outlets in our manufacturing plants, mines and warehouses?

Make it specific

When committing to a sales campaign, experienced sales people will rarely try to sell a company’s entire product inventory. They know that’s a tough call! They focus precisely on specific products that they really want to sell – usually either a shiny new thing or perhaps old stock that’s always been difficult to shift. They’ll be inventive in finding unique ways of selling these products.

It’s the same for safety! If we try to sell safety to the masses as a generic, overarching concept, then that’s always going to be tough. So, let’s learn from sales and marketing experts and choose the critical behaviours on which we most want to concentrate. They could be related to new processes or pieces of equipment or they might involve old behaviour concepts to which people just won’t commit, for example, wearing gloves, asking for help or holding the handrail. What if we really focused our energy and creative minds to influence these specific behaviours and create new habits? You’ll be amazed at how things spread.

As you’re starting to consider ways to sell your message, take care to keep your feet on the ground and your head in the right place. You know there’s a fine line between being an expert and highly effective sales executive, and coming across like the person who tries to sell a beat-up old car by pretending that it’s fantastic.

As you work out how to present workplace safety in a more attractive light, let’s pause for a moment to consider a couple of potential traps.

Incentivisation or bribery and corruption?

Let’s be very careful here – incentivising or rewarding any kind of performance is an extrinsic motivator and usually leads to all kinds of unwanted outcomes, even when applied to sales.

It can be very effective in influencing behaviour, but it’s usually only effective in the short term, as people strive to get the prize in return for the behaviour – and then they want even better deals in the future!

In safety, if we try to incentivise performance by setting specific targets, the unintended consequences can be catastrophic. The perils of offering rewards and extrinsic motivation are too lengthy to include in this article.

If you’re curious to find out more about this phenomenon, there’s a whole section of our IOSH Certificate in Behavioural Safety Leadership programme devoted to this very subject.

Diminishing the opposition?

Some organisations try to let their customers know how awful their competitors’ products might be and how bad things will happen if they purchase these products or services. This is a high-risk strategy and is rarely employed by successful marketing campaigns. You risk highlighting that customers have alternatives, and their perceptions of your competitors’ products could be very different to yours!

In safety, it is easy to highlight the bad things – such as injuries, illness or even disciplinary action – to influence behaviour, but rarely does the threat of something bad encourage someone to do something good.

The threat of punishment may have worked when we were teaching our kids manners, but grown adults rarely respond well. Instead of threatening worst-case scenarios, stay focused on the positive value that great workplace safety can bring. Sell the benefits, not the negatives.

Okay, now that we’ve looked at a couple of potential pitfalls, let’s get back on track and consider some more positive ways to encourage workers to think about workplace safety.

Make it personal

A great marketing campaign will make things as personal and as localised as possible. Even if it’s just an email campaign that starts with “Dear Deon” – or whatever the actual name is – and then continues to mention your name throughout the campaign. This kind of detail can really make a significant difference to the customer, since personalised campaigns make us feel special and help us to believe that we are really important.

Starbucks is a great example of this, as it writes the name of its customers on the sides of its coffee cups. Coca-Cola picked up on the concept recently in its packaging design, which featured different names of people – essentially encouraging customers to find – and then buy – a bottle or can with their name on it. And, in TV and radio advertisements, we’ll notice slight nuances in different countries or regions to take account of language, local culture and even accents and dialects.

It’s about targeting the right product to the right audience at just the right time. It’s highly unlikely that you will see a marketing campaign for hot soup in the middle of a heatwave – or braai equipment in the middle of winter!

What if we did the same for safety? We often hear tales of how “toolbox talks just aren’t relevant to us” or “they always do the safety walks and audits when it’s not so busy” and “when they do safety conversations, they don’t even ask my name or know what I do”.

An advertising campaign would be a huge failure if it was approached in similar fashion – so why do we use this technique for safety? How can you tailor your approach to your audience and make it feel personal?

Tell a story

Stories are powerful. People remember the stories and fables they were told during their childhood. A good story usually has an underlying message or metaphor attached – and a great sales campaign will hook onto this. The characters will be entertaining and easy to relate to, the story will probably stir feelings and emotions, too.

A story will help people become attached to the product or service that we are trying to sell. There was a particularly successful advertising campaign for a brand of coffee back in the 1980s, which started with a guy asking his neighbour for some sugar for his coffee.

The relationship between the two neighbours developed over a period of several months and people were actually looking forward to seeing the next “episode” – which was just a 90-second TV advertisement. The coffee became synonymous with the story and sales picked up significantly.

What if we employed similar campaigns to motivate changes in critical behaviour in our workplaces? What if we created interesting characters with humour and a developing dialogue that kept people interested and stirred their feelings and emotions occasionally, too?

Make it easy to buy… and hard to say no

Finally, have you ever noticed how companies like Netflix, Amazon, Apple and even our local supermarket chains, make things so easy for us to buy or sign up to. It’s just “click here” or “sign there” and they’ve even found ways to automatically fill in some of our details for us.

Those items in the supermarket that they really want us to buy will be placed right at the checkout within easy reach so we don’t forget to put them in our baskets or trolleys.

Now, if you try to cancel any of those services or return those goods to the supermarket, you’ll find it isn’t quite as easy to do. The “cancel” page on the website will typically be hidden away somewhere with no prominently featured links – and the returns department will be right at the back of the store, or even in a different location altogether!

Influencing human behaviour is sometimes as simple as making the things that we want people to do as easy as possible – and the things we don’t want them to do as difficult as we can.

In safety, particularly for those critical behaviours we hear about, it’s often the other way around. Unsafe behaviour – for example, taking a shortcut instead of using a pedestrian walkway – is actually far easier to execute than safe or compliant behaviour.

And so, to close…

We can learn a lot from our sales and marketing people, who get creative and use innovative methods to really persuade people to buy stuff. Some of our very best ideas on our safety leadership and behavioural safety courses around the world come from people who have worked in sales teams and marketing departments.

Sometimes it’s about thinking differently and trying something new. Sometimes it’s just about making the safe behaviour easier to do. Always, it’s about how much we actually care and how much attention and focus we allocate to solve this problem. We can be sure that our most creative people will pay as much attention as is required to develop a marketing campaign that works over a sustainable period.

Perhaps, after reading this article, an immediate action for you might be to grab a coffee with a colleague from the sales or marketing department and ask how he or she would sell safety!

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman (left) is chief executive and Darren Sutton is senior partner at RMS, consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organisations globally. Find out more at RMS’s IOSH-approved and certified Behavioural Safety Leadership online learning programme takes a mindful approach to developing safety leadership and provides a low-cost, practical and easy-access route to building a robust safety culture in an organisation. E-mail us at: and mention this article to find out more and receive a free gift and special offer when you begin your online programme.

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