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Lighten up! Featured

10:49am EDT October 23, 2001

What would you do if you walked into your conference room and found your staff engaged in battle, armed with Star Saucer rubber disc guns? How would you react if an employee sauntered into your office, wearing a crown?

You'd laugh, of course.

Not so long ago, the corporate workplace was painted with a stuffed shirt mentality. Work was a place for labor, not levity, until an army of laughter consultants and humor therapists marched in, commanding us to lighten up, for our own good.

A fun and relaxed corporate culture, they contend, creates rapport, relieves tension and motivates people. Corroborating research reveals that companies that let the good times roll at work see positive results in recruiting, retention, productivity and profitability. And in terms of marketing and public relations, humor, used appropriately, distinguishes a company from its competitors.

Inspired by April Fool's Day, SBN Magazine searched for Akron area businesses using humor to lighten up all year 'round. You may be surprised at who's laughing all the way to the bank.Comic competitions

High tech doesn't have to be dry tech. Barb Vasaris reveals that on any given day, clients visiting the anderson group might have to dodge a flying rubber disc or ping-pong ball.

"Some days, the frustration will build to the point that somebody will send a firmwide e-mail, issuing the challenge to a Star Saucer battle in the conference room, ping-pong downstairs or a snowball fight," says Vasaris, CEO of the Akron technology solutions provider.

These are a few of the ways she allows her 17 employees to blow off steam during stressful periods.

"There's a lot of stress involved in trying to make technology work, so I bought about 20 Star Saucer guns and a ping-pong table for our office," she says. "We laugh so hard during these competitions that it releases our frustrations and helps us unwind."

Vasaris says humor is an employee benefit that's just as important as stock options.

"Humor plays a big role in making people want to work for us. If our employees have fun working here, they'll be happy and they'll stay," she says.

Typically stereotyped as high-rankers in the Stiff Upper Lip Club, many accounting firms have also found their funny bones, cognizant that the company that plays together, stays together. Instead of packing a briefcase for the annual firm retreat, employees of SS&G Financial Services Inc. strap on a backpack.

"We aren't your traditional in-the-box accountants, and we demonstrate that by doing different things. Our Camp SS&G is an example," says Kathy Sautters, marketing director.

A decade ago, SS&G nixed the county club approach to firm retreats, opting for a "stress busters" annual retreat at Camp Ledgewood Girl Scout Camp in Boston Heights.

"The first year was phenomenal," she says. "We went from boring, roundtable discussions to fun things like building tents blindfolded. Everyone returned energized and excited at the feedback resulting from all that teamwork."

More recently, SS&G's retreats have taken on a game show format.

"Now the entire day is fully theme, and we do it in full costume. Last year, we had a desert theme. This year, we did 'Survivor,'" she says, clarifying that, unlike on the TV series, everyone was appropriately attired.

As part of the competition, team members are quizzed about the best way to handle client service situations. Based on the answers, a tribal council votes certain members off the island.

"We're trying to get people in the groove, having everyone understand that our focus on client service is what differentiates us. We try to instill that by bringing fun into our daily work life," Sautters says, noting that with 240 employees and offices in Cleveland, Akron, Cincinnati and Columbus, that's a challenge.

A potent prescription

"Humor is not only appropriate in today's business arena, it's essential," says Kathy Baker, who provides inspirational and humorous writing and presentations at A Few Choice Words in Kent.

"Whether in person or on paper, having a sense of humor and using it judiciously helps me create and strengthen professional relationships. It also helps grease the skids in tense situations," she says.

Baker advises injecting small doses of innocuous humor to help people relax and feel more positive about whatever's going on at the moment.

"I'm not talking about telling jokes. Jokes usually make fun of someone or something, and you don't want to risk offending anyone," she clarifies.

Humor is a potent prescription, says Ruth Coleman, president and CEO of Hudson-based Health Design Plus Inc.

Her health care management firm's prosperity (2000 sales topped $5 million) lies in providing superior customer service, and Coleman says one way she does that is by using humor to build relationships.

"Our client work is very relational, and I think using humor is important. Luckily, our clients have a wonderful sense of humor, so we get to know them as people and we laugh a lot," says Coleman, referring to customers such as Lubrizol and General Tire.

Coleman recounts an ongoing joke that started a few years ago when her attorney teased her about where she lived at the time.

"He said there seemed to be a lot of black velvet paintings in the neighborhood. So I bought him an Elvis painting,and he cracked up," she laughs, adding that now the attorney presents the velvet reproduction to new associates, to decorate their offices.

"His pre-emptive strike was to send me a guitar-shaped clock with a really disgusting Elvis on it," Coleman says. "Then, I had a stand-up Elvis poster delivered to his office. He was walking to the elevator with his firm's biggest client when the delivery guy shows up, carrying this six-foot Elvis."

When there's a rigid attitude in the office, it carries over to clients, Coleman says, so she tries to create a jovial workplace for her 100 employees.

"I've always kept a promise I made to our employees: 'If it ain't fun, we're not doing it.' So we have fun in the office, and it keeps us loose," she says.

Coleman says she appointed a "fun committee" to arrange special events. It's not uncommon to see the entire staff dressed in Hawaiian shirts for "Feast Day." And on "Employee Recognition Day," a designated employee wears a crown or tiara and a "My Special Day" body banner.

"Humor is a real motivator for people and makes this a good place to work," she says.

Cutting through the clutter

When it comes to using humor in marketing endeavors, every word is crucial to the fruition or flop of an advertising campaign, because humor is subjective. That's one reason The University of Akron established a "humor in advertising" course at its Community and Technical College.

Appropriately, Lucy Bibbee, manager of Hilarities Comedy Club in Cuyahoga Falls, teaches the class.

"When you use humor in advertising, the product and the target audience must be a match. As manager of Hilarities, I know humorous copy fits my 'product' and target market," she says, explaining that, if a marketing endeavor is to work, the audience must be receptive to humor.

"But using humor in marketing can be a bit riskier for some businesses, such as accounting firms and financial institutions," she says.

But it can be done. Sautters reveals how SS&G pulls it off.

"We've started creating some fun marketing pieces, like the tin cans we distributed last Christmas to announce to our clients that we made donations in their names to the local foodbank," says Sautters. "In December, I was up to my knees in tin cans!"

Rather than send mundane holiday letters to clients to proclaim the goodwill gesture, the SS&G-designed labels on the cans listed the "nutritional information," such as "Total Good Will: 100 grams, Local Good Will and Concern: 100 grams."

"The idea cut through the clutter, made an impression and made our clients laugh," Sautters says. "It worked because this isn't the traditional stuff you expect from an accounting firm."

Sagaciously structured, humor can sway public opinion in a positive way, Bibbee concurs. The caveat is to contemplate how your message will be received, based on your audience's mindset.

"Before you show your silly side, think twice about whether comedy fits your company's image," she says. "If you've been sending a serious message for years and you suddenly switch to gut-wrenching, hysterical copy, your public will never go for it, because it's too tough a fit. If you're giving up your authentic self to try to be something you're not, it isn't fair to your company."

Although using humor in marketing can be risky, Bibbee says statistics show a humorous piece can differentiate you from your competition.

"The downside is that humor is also the most difficult copy to write. But if you keep it simple and make sure the message is clear and uncluttered, your message will be memorable," she says.

"And that makes using humor worth the risk." How to reach: the anderson group (330) 945-6408; A Few Choice Words, (330) 677-4448; Health Design Plus, (330) 656-1072; SS&G Financial Services Inc., (330) 668-9696; The University of Akron Community and Technical College, (330) 972-7113; Hilarities Comedy Club, (330) 923-1962