Over the past few years, design thinking has quickly gained momentum in the business world. Some of the world’s leading brands have embraced design thinking as a means of optimizing product innovation. At its core, design thinking is a methodology for creative problem-solving. In stark contrast to analytical thinking, which involves breaking down ideas, design thinking involves building up ideas.
While design thinking has firmly implanted itself across product development teams, it has not secured a stronghold across sales teams — yet. Characterized by routinized activities, traditional sales methodologies tend to be at odds with the iterative methodology underpinning design thinking.
Times are changing. The sales cycle is becoming increasingly complex, and customers are demanding a more personalized experience. If you’re a sales rep, you know you need to up your game and become more innovative. Sales teams are recognizing the value of incorporating a design thinking approach into their daily activities. Salesforce’s sales team, for example, has embraced design thinking in its sales discovery process and has realized a 100% increase in revenue growth as a result. It’s time sales teams more broadly recognize the value of design thinking.
Empathy is at the core of design thinking. Empathy involves both a cognitive dimension — an ability to look at a situation from another person’s perspective — and an affective dimension — an ability to relate to a person and develop an emotional bond with them.
The importance of empathy in sales cannot be overstated. Empathy is a key predictor of sales success. A groundbreaking study published in The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice found a strong positive relationship between empathy and a buyer’s level of trust and his/her level of satisfaction. In our current sales landscape where a mere 3% of buyers trust reps — the only professions with less credibility include car sales, politics, and lobbying — seller trust is in short supply and high demand.
Empathy is especially valuable in the sales process because it encourages information sharing. Research has found that, according to buyers, the number one way for salespeople to create a positive sales experience is to listen to their needs. When we’re armed with so much information and data and a slew of AI and machine learning solutions, it’s easy to assume we know everything about the buyer. It’s important to first step inside your customers' shoes and listen to what really matters to them and what is top-of-mind.
The defining stage's objective is to craft a problem statement or, in design thinking speak, a point of view. So often, salespeople define the problem before developing an empathetic understanding of a buyer’s needs. The result is solution selling. Solution selling has long past its expiration date. At least 50% of sales reps’ prospects are not good fits for their offering. Only by defining the buyer’s problem can salespeople determine whether there is a lucrative fit.
The define stage involves asking a lot of questions. Perhaps contrary to popular belief, this focus on questioning does not impair sales conversation but enhances it. According to one analysis of 519,000 discovery calls, there’s a clear relationship between the number of questions a sales rep asks a buyer and his/her likelihood of success.
The ideate stage unlocks the true potential of design thinking, especially in the context of sales. This is when the focus shifts from problem identification to solution generation. And it’s all about quantity — about generating a wide range of possible solutions, not necessarily the final solution. It involves thinking beyond the obvious and necessarily entails significant creativity. How can I craft an offering that is uniquely suited to my buyer?
While often pushed under the carpet in sales, creativity is essential to sales and a key predictor of success. Research from the Aston Business School, a highly-regarded business school in Europe, revealed that sales professionals who were more creative generated higher sales than their less creative counterparts. Another study by Adobe found that companies that foster creativity are 3.5 times more likely to outperform their peers in revenue growth.
When crafting solutions to customers’ problems, sales reps must dig deep for their creative juices. How can you craft a sales pitch that strikes a strong emotional chord with the customer? Which decision-makers, in and beyond the C-Suite, should you involve? If the customer sells a free or inexpensive product or service, take it for a test run. Read through customer community forums and reviews. Don’t let up in terms of stepping inside the shoes of your customer. Only by embracing these types of activities can ideation be optimized.
The fourth stage of the design thinking process is prototyping — developing more fleshed-out and scaled solutions. Prototyping shouldn’t be done in a black box — otherwise, you are sure to lose momentum. Prototyping is an opportunity to have a more directed conversation with your customer after the discovery calls. The most effective sales reps will involve champions and other affiliates from the customer’s organization in the prototyping process and vet ideas. Involving tangential stakeholders in the solution process goes a long way in making them feel valued and invested in the final solution.
The final stage of the design thinking process is to test the final offering. This necessarily involves unveiling the fully fleshed-out pitch to all key stakeholders. During the test phase, salespeople need to be strategic and see themselves on the same team as the customer. They should use collaborative words and phrases — words like “we” and “together.” The “you versus us” mentality is dangerous.
Forrester predicts that one million US B2B sales reps will be out of a job by 2020. Salespeople can no longer afford to rely on so-called tried and true approaches. Nearly six in ten salespeople say that they don't change it when figuring out what works for them. In a world where each customer yearns personalized selling wants, this mindset is problematic. Design thinking — which is especially well suited for solving ambiguously defined problems — is key to establishing a genuine connection with customers and engaging them throughout the sales process.