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Design Thinking in Sales

Increasing sales effectiveness in a deep recession.


Ian H Smith

We have entered a highly-challenging economic recession, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. New business development has become increasingly difficult for every industry, every organisation. Design Thinking in Sales is a method focused on overcoming the challenging world of timely new business development.

The Hermetic Seal Problem

Buyers are surrounded by a Hermetic Seal - insulated from sales and business development professionals, who use various techniques to break this seal: email messaging and social media, such as LinkedIn. Compliance with General Data Protection Regulation ("GDPR") has made cold emailing increasingly difficult to use, without attracting requests to 'unsubscribe' or causing offence.

Breaking the Hermetic Seal

Design Thinking in Sales means transforming the buyer-seller engagement: from an arm's length cold procurement process to an open 'Mutual Value Discovery'. It can become a truly compelling way to break the Hermetic Seal that surrounds the key buyside decision-makers and influencers.

Even in highly-regulated industries and formal procurements, Design Thinking can better serve the self-interests of buyers, since it allows for a better definition of a particular problem, which in turn, leads to the delivery of a more appropriate - and a more cost-effective solution.

Although the sellside may have to initially engage in Design Thinking with buyers via a non-chargeable, presales activity, once buyers see the value it creates, a monetised engagement can rapidly follow - even if a competitive procurement must be included at a later stage.

Design Thinking Defined

Design Thinking means, as the name implies: thinking (and acting) like a designer. It is all about solving problems in a people-oriented way. The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design and Stanford University (the defined Design Thinking as a 5-step method for innovation: 'Empathize; Define; Ideate; Prototype; and, Test'.

At the heart of the designer's mindset is curiosity. This means constantly asking questions and challenging conventions. In sales, the biggest challenge is getting in front of buyers and achieving a conversation to ask open questions about problems, sufficient to understand how the seller's value product or service could be an appropriate and timely solution to a compelling problem.

Even if the breakthrough is simply a 30-minute online meeting with the buyer, this is where Design Thinking in Sales starts. And the most important step is the first one: Empathize. 'Empathy Mapping' is the technique used to achieve initial receptivity and rapport between buyer and seller, which in turn, leads to trust and openness. What follows is a capture of a true understanding of the problem.

Step 01. Empathize

In Empathy Mapping workshops, it is important to engage as many of the buyside decision-makers and influencers as Stakeholders in the process. In an online environment, these workshops are often more representative of all Stakeholders, if conducted as more short sessions of say, one hour.

Of course, when engaged in Empathy Mapping, a problem will best inform the second step in Design Thinking - Define - if what's discovered comes from a meaningful openness achieved with the broadest set of Stakeholders. This is accomplished through building receptivity and rapport between the buyside and the sellside, benefitting from the high levels of trust that follows.

We can work with buyers and sellers, using our Design Thinking Platform to enable all Stakeholders to submit answers to the right open questions - topics categorised as 'Say', 'Think', 'Feel' or 'Do'. Needs. This includes capturing corresponding Insights from each Stakeholder.

Step 02. Define

Having established rapport, receptivity and trust in the first step of Empathize, you can now pay great attention to buyer and seller openly exploring and validating a clear 'Return On Investment ("ROI") Model' for a particular Value Proposition at the second step - Define.

A tailored ROI Model can help to defend value over price and counter deal slippage. This is where the ROI for a Value Proposition should have a quantitative calculation for comparing 'Current State (As-Is)' with 'Future State (To-Be)'.

The ROI Model should include both a quantitative 'Economic Basis of Decision' and a qualitative 'Emotional Basis of Decision', where the balance between these two 'Scorecards' depends entirely upon the context of the solution being considered. Underpinning all of this is the ROI Model for the 'Cost of Delay' or the 'Cost of Doing Nothing', providing a vital counter-argument to deal slippage.

This is captured in our Design Thinking Platform, where a 'Model' is generated for each 'Solution', and in turn, this is applied to each 'Project', as illustrated in the infographic below. This Define step provides a solid foundation for what comes next: Ideation.

Step 03. Ideate

The 5-step Design Thinking method allows prospects and customers to engage with challengers, often well ahead of completeness of solution, and enables both the validation and sometimes, part-funding of crucial stages in the evolution of product or service design. Ideation is, as the name implies, a very effective way to facilitate idea generation.

At this step, and taking input from the Define outputs, it is key to look at the scope of Ideation by focusing on what's urgent - and what's important: applying the Urgent/Important Matrix created by Eisenhower. Without constraining creativity, it is key to prioritise around the 'Do' quadrant of this Matrix. And taking on-board Churchill in WWII - to have a sense of urgency with 'Action This Day'.

Although expressed as five linear steps, this Design Thinking method is inherently iterative, where the second step of Define overlaps with the third step of Ideate. In turn, it may be possible to combine Ideation with the fourth step of Prototype, as explained below.

Step 04. Prototype

Prototyping obviously relates to the specifics of a particular product or service. For example, with digital innovations and service design, using a No-Code Platform - such as the Salesforce Lightning Platform (and/or a related AppExchange app) - this enables buyer and seller to rapidly Prototype what is captured and then iterated in the Ideate step.

Prototyping should embrace a 'fail fast' mindset - underpinned by a willingness to 'Try This, Try That ("T4")'. So, in the example of digital innovation, this becomes a pragmatic reality through taking advantage of a No-Code Platform, and removing expensive, time-consuming coding of apps. In some digital innovation scenarios, it may prove beneficial to use prototyping tools, such as as InVision, to create User Experiences for Stakeholder validation - early and often.

Step 05. Test

The Testing step - as with all other steps of Design Thinking - is part of a rapid, iterative approach to innovation. In buyer-seller engagements, this may become the Proof-of-Concept - the culmination in applying a particular solution to what has been agreed is a truly urgent and compelling problem.

Testing requires the broadest Stakeholder engagement on both buyside and sellside. It could be a pragmatic User Acceptance Testing ("UAT") of say, an enterprise app that digitises a particular process or set of tasks.


Design Thinking in Sales is a great way to overcome the risks and costs associated with arm's length procurements, where the buyer is expected to know all and prescriptively define both the problem and the solution. This is rarely achievable.

From a buyside perspective, Design Thinking enables innovators from the sellside to challenge assumptions and offer fresh ideas to solve the most complex problems. In a spirit of openness, the initial Empathize step enables buyers and sellers to generate high levels of trust through curiosity and conversation - challenging business-as-usual.

The ability to generate openness and trust between buyer and seller can lead to truth, faster. The Define step in Design Thinking is greatly enhanced by early Empathy Mapping and the broadest possible Stakeholder engagement. A rapid, iterative journey through Ideate, Prototype and Test leads to a fail-fast, but win-win outcomes for buyer and seller.

In order to reinforce Design Thinking into all new business engagements, our Design Thinking Platform, built on Salesforce, combined with Opportunity Creation services, enables us to implement a solid engagement model for both buyers and sellers of high-value products and services. This is sales and buyer enablement.

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