A couple years ago, a team at Volkswagen turned a flight of stairs in a Stockholm train station into a giant piano. The theory was that if you made stairs more fun, fewer people would choose the escalator. It turned out to be a good theory when 66 percent more people chose the stairs once they knew they’d be playing a tune on their way out of the subway. 

This got me thinking not only about how cool Volkswagen is, but about the effects fun can have on our customers and clients, not to mention our own employees. Fact is, it’s a treat to work with people who know how to have a good time and companies that foster a fun culture have been shown to be better at retaining employees.

And yet, in my experience, too many businesses unwittingly limit the fun to lunchtime conversations between employees and occasional outbursts in the break room. Meanwhile, everything client- or customer-facing feels as though it’s been run through a highly effective humor-extracting device.

Isn’t it reasonable to suggest that if I love working with, say, Ryan, because he’s smart and cracks me up, that our customers and clients may appreciate Ryan’s personality too? That the average consumer doesn’t want to read mind-numbing ROI-based marketing messages any more than you or I do? We at Jellyvision work — and it is work — but we work to think of our target markets not as demographic categories, but as individuals who would appreciate creativity and humor in an explanation of their health benefits as much as they would in a discussion with a relative about Uncle Lou’s new girlfriend.

Granted, you might wonder whether humor fits naturally with your brand, not to mention with that of your customers and clients. Fair enough. I may be a little biased working for a place called Jellyvision. And perhaps there are topics where it is better to convey an air of thoughtful, razor-like focus, such as… airline safety.

Enter Southwest Airlines. They’ve successfully walked that serious/playful line by taking subject matter that is uniquely scary and boring and getting travelers to actually pay attention by focusing on the unique comedic sensibilities of their employees. Their flight attendants rank at the top of all airlines for customer satisfaction, as does the company in general. Their sense of fun and their creative marketing direction not only captures the attention of their audience, but results in the appreciation of their customers, building loyalty, differentiation and ROI.

So. How do you bring more fun to your work?

Hire funny people

That doesn’t mean hire comedians. It means place a premium on candidates who, in addition to possessing the skill set their role requires, have a good sense of humor. If someone can have fun in an interview, it’s likely they’ll bring that sensibility to their work.

Get rid of robotic language

Look at all the ways you interact with prospects and customers — automated voice responses and e-mails, form letters, everything — and toss out every phrase that sounds like a robot wrote it. Our standard, semi-automated reply to job applicants, for example, was written by one of our creative staff. It assures candidates that each application will be read by “a real human or two” and concludes with the line, “I don’t have any pull around here, but I’m rooting for you.” More famously, Groupon allows people to unsubscribe while making one last, and lasting, impression. It’s a great example of using humor to remain on task while not getting in the way. Go here to see it: www.groupon.com/unsubscribe

Be funny on task

Effective humor isn’t about peppering punch lines onto your existing content. The creativity and humor should work at the service of the goals. It should be woven into how you communicate with your audience about your product and about renewing, unsubscribing or buying.

While “fun” might not be synonymous with your “Brand Voice,” ultimately, your prospects and customers experience your brand largely through interactions with the people in your company. So unleash your funniest, most creative and delightful personalities on your marketing, customer service, and internal communications. Job satisfaction may just skyrocket, and customer loyalty will likely follow suit.

Amanda Lannert is the president of The Jellyvision Lab, the interactive conversation company. Jellyvision creates virtual advisers who help clients attract customers, train employees and reduce the costs of customer service. You can reach her at amanda@jellyvision.com or (312) 266-0606, ext. 116.

Published in Chicago