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Design Thinking: What’s Sales Got to Do with It? January 25, 2023

Design Thinking: What’s Sales Got to Do with It?

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This isn’t another article about why you should adopt design thinking. 

Most business leaders get it. Although implementation may at times be choppy, the core principles are widely understood as a competitive necessity. Today, we see less of an issue with buy-in and more of an issue with effective application. Too often the reality simply doesn’t live up to the promise. But, that is a topic for another post (if you want to discuss a better way to apply design thinking, book some time with me, I’d be happy to chat).

What I want to focus on here is the universal appeal of the principles that underpin design thinking, such as building empathy, engaging in inclusive design, and experimentation and adaptation

Specifically, what I didn’t realize when I first started in my role at Cantina in 2014 in sales and account strategy was how many of the principles used in design thinking actually apply to solution selling, account management and sales strategy. 

Now, stay with me because even if you aren’t in sales, this is still relevant to you. The reason goes to the heart of why design thinking often doesn’t work. And that is because it’s siloed. Either it’s treated like somebody else’s job, or it’s something teams do as an exception to their day job. We think of it like going to Ideation Island. A day away from the everyday to take some training that feels really transformative, until you head back and … nothing changes.

Design thinking is more interwoven in what you’re probably already doing than you realize. Certainly, that was the case for me. Finding the relevance of design thinking in what you already know well is a good way to demystify it and bring it closer to practice. The goal after all is to see the benefits—to hang a picture, not just put a hole in the wall.

Think of design thinking’s principles like the Fibonnaci sequence, a mathematical pattern found in art, music, and architecture, perhaps most famously in the design of the Parthenon. In the 1990s scientists discovered that the pattern also appears in nature in multiple forms. For example, the number of petals on a flower often follows the sequence, as does the arrangement of seeds on a sunflower head. The Fibonacci sequence has also been found in the arrangement of leaves and branches on plants, the structure of pineapples, and even in the spiral pattern of galaxies.

What I’d suggest is that when all is said and done, a good sales process mirrors a lot of what has been codified as design thinking. If you peel back the layers, you find something remarkably similar to what experience strategists, product designers, and innovators have been doing all this time. 

So, for all of the CEOs, CROs, sales executives, account strategists and inside sales teams out there, there’s something to be learned here from our design thinking colleagues. And even if you’re not in sales, you might find it surprising why sales—when done well—can be a positive force for good. 

Let’s dig in. I see three principles in play:

First Principle: Develop Empathy to Get Real

The essential core of design thinking is building empathy, which requires that we listen and understand deeply. It can be hard not to have an agenda in sales, but it’s essential if you want to build a relationship founded on trust. 

At Cantina, we’re fans of Mahan Khalsa’s approach outlined in his book Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play. The book provides strategies, tools, and techniques to help salespeople move away from manipulative tactics and toward authentic engagement. It shows how to build trust through self-awareness, active listening, and meaningful conversations that focus on customer needs. It’s not exactly the same as the work our researchers and experience strategists undertake, but it definitely rhymes.

In the world of business and sales, building empathy with your clients and prospects plays a critical role in the sales process. Genuinely understanding their perspectives can more quickly build trust and lead to higher quality proposals, solution design and negotiating win-win business relationships. 

The best sales people effectively build empathy by employing some fundamental tactics: 

  • It’s About YOU Not Me

    Sales people who eliminate their own need for approval in the process and check their egos at the door before engaging with clients often build the strongest empathy and understanding. In a nutshell, they make it all about them and use feedback and constructive criticism to create better solutions for their clients, instead of focussing on creating the best “deal” for themselves. 

  • Mostly Ask Questions

    Being authentically curious and asking great questions comes at the core of building empathy in the sales process. Sales people who can show genuine interest in understanding and helping the people they are working with often drive the best outcomes. Questions are a great way to demonstrate this interest without having to “sell” or talk about one’s own business or offerings. There is of course also implicit benefit for the sales person in asking great questions as well: It will lead to stronger proposals and solutions that their clients will benefit from. 

  • Hearing vs. Listening

    Merriam-Webster defines hearing as the “process, function, or power of perceiving sound; specifically: the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli.” Listening, on the other hand, means “to pay attention to sound; to hear something with thoughtful attention; and to give consideration.

    Sales people who truly listen to their prospects and clients build empathy and understanding much more quickly. Deep listening can also help to better guide conversations and ask more effective questions in order to create solutions that will meet the exact needs of their clients. In my experience, this is one of the most important characteristics of any sales professional; and often an early, leading indicator for sales success / failure. 

Second Principle: Be inclusive to share the outcome 

Inclusive design is a fundamental approach used in design thinking—to capture diverse perspectives and include customers in the design of their own products and services. In addition, prototyping and testing with clients is also critical to Human Centered Design as it can directly inform the process and help give people exactly what they need. When we talk about “inclusive design” in the world of sales, it can be particularly effective in a few key areas: 

  • Co-creating the solution

    The best sales people collaborate with their prospects and clients. They ask questions. They listen and they take direct input from their clients. This includes understanding the client’s vision and what they need in a solution that will meet their needs. In some cases, I have seen sales people who will collaborate on proposals via shared documents with their clients so that there is an equal voice in the process between the buyer and provider. This step in the process also strengthens trust and can help be a leading indicator of how a customer will be treated post-sale as well. 

  • Prototype and test 

    In the world of sales, time passing can be our worst enemy as it can lead to deals stalling or not happening at all. To help accelerate the process, and mitigate the ticking clock, sales people who test proposals with their prospects early in the process often drive to faster close cycles. Creating proposals, estimates, contracts and other detailed sales materials can often take a lot of time, slowing down the sales process while still leaving some guesswork about what the prospect actually wants to buy. As a sales person, if you can share preliminary solution design, initial high level draft proposals, or back-of-the-napkin estimates very early in the process, it will benefit everyone involved. Sales people will get feedback earlier in the process about their proposals and this approach continues to support the notion of co-designing solutions with clients. Ultimately it saves time for everyone involved and helps close the gap with the sales person’s worst enemy: Time. 

Third Principle: Stay flexible and adaptable 

Change is constant in our world and this is no different in the world of Sales. Design thinking and HCD are completely centered around the notion of change: both driving change for the better and helping people adapt to changing organizational and customer needs. In some ways DT and HCD can be the catalyst for driving change and also a framework for navigating ambiguity as change happens. The process and methodologies are meant to surface the things that need to be changed and inform how they should change as well. 

Change is always a factor in the sales process. Anything can happen, especially during longer sales cycles—customer needs change, budgets shift or expand, or competing solutions can change a customer’s trajectory. There are many things out of the direct control of the sales person which can impact the process. 

To help manage this, sales people need to be ready to embrace change—to roll with the punches when they come, without losing sight of the end goal to create the best solution for their clients. 

To adapt, sales people have to flex creatively when needed - to think outside the box in order to adjust solutions, provide new options and put the customer needs at the center of every proposal and contract iteration that transpires. Ultimately, it’s about “doing whatever it takes” to arrive at the solution that earns the trust and commitment from prospects and clients. 

  • Supporting the Decision Process Vs. Selling

    I recently had the luxury of buying a new vehicle. The sales person I worked with told me that he wasn’t there to sell me a car, but rather to help me make the right buying decision in what can be a complex process. I like this mindset—and it should resonate with sales people who incorporate the principles of HCD into their process. To be a collaborator, a true listener and someone who asks great questions that they can help consult with their clients on the best path forward are the types of salespeople who will build long lasting business relationships and sales careers. 

Putting it all together

All three of these principles share one quality in common: they each challenge the silos that are otherwise preventing businesses from finding and effectively building on new ideas. 

When you check your ego (not an easy thing for most sales people!) and start with empathy, you shift your thinking from inside-out—what do I need?—do outside-in—what does the client really need?

When you blur the boundaries between creator and recipient you not only get a better project proposal, you also set the foundation for an effective working relationship. There’s nothing worse than an adversarial, pure transactional relationship. That will never produce more than incremental improvements to what already exists. If you want to leapfrog competitors, you need to get to the source of all innovation, which is the unmet needs of your customers. Co-creation is absolutely critical.

And lastly, too often businesses march forward against some mythical, linear plan even when it’s obvious to everyone that it’s unlikely to produce the desired results. Stay focused on outcomes, but also stay nimble. Careful listening and co-creation removes boundaries between salesperson and client—and in the project itself, between the business and its customers—but acting on what you learn requires that you remain adaptive.

It’s been eye opening for me to realize some of the symmetry between what I’ve learned about design thinking and how I’ve honed my own craft over the years. I bet there’s something similar going on in your world. And I bet looking for those common patterns is a good way to make design thinking more effective in your own organization. After all, you’re probably already doing more of it than you realize.

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