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Design Thinking in Sales

Defending value over price in the high-value, high-touch sell.


Ian H Smith

Design Thinking in Sales is the combination of a Method and a Platform, designed to meet the challenges of new business development. It is a way to defend value over price in the high-value, high-touch sell. I have applied this Method recently in both health and tech innovation, but it can work for any industry (private or public sector), and for any organisation, large or small. 

With Design Thinking I am helping organisations of all shapes and sizes to increase sales effectiveness. My work and experience is diverse: ranging from UK NHS organisations, through fast-growth tech innovators, to financial services firms.

The challenge in the cold-start high-value, high-touch sell is always the same: connecting with decision-makers with a bias to action, a curiosity and restlessness that means being open to new ideas, disruptive technologies - and often provided by an unknown startup or spinout.

The Hermetic Seal Problem

Even in relatively small ventures, and certainly within large organisations, buyers are surrounded by a Hermetic Seal. This means that they are insulated from outsiders - the entrepreneurs, sales and business development professionals who want to sell their products and services to these identified decision-makers and influencers. 

Today, sellers 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 difficult to use, but remains a reality. 

Cold calling is impossible, unless the seller has the buyer's mobile number - and even then, the question of GDPR compliance or, more generally, irritation at interruption from an uninvited caller will result in a 'do not call' negative outcome. 

In the public sector and regulated industries, formal procurement processes also reinforce the Hermetic Seal - creating further distance between buyer and seller. Although Design Thinking in Sales cannot completely eliminate this barrier, it can help to break it.

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 often, a lower risk, cost-effective solution.

Although the seller 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 often rapidly follow - even if a competitive procurement must be included at a later stage. 

This is especially helpful in a number of ways:

  • Enable early stage product or service concepts to be explored well ahead of completeness.
  • Reduce the risks associated with a high-value, high-touch sell to inherently risk-averse buyers.
  • Accelerate the overall buying and selling cycle by reducing the buyer's risk in first engagement.

Design Thinking Method 

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 enabled Design Thinking as a 5-step method for innovation: 'Empathize; Define; Ideate; Prototype; and, Test'

This is a foundation for Design Thinking in Sales.

The subtle, but important cultural values of the Stanford embraces the best behaviours of the Silicon Valley: 'act now'; fail fast'; and, most important of all - 'Empathize'

In the public sector buyside, say the UK NHS for example, a risk averse culture may be countered by achieving trust with the buyer - instead (or at least, well in advance) of formal, arm's length procurements. Trust leads to truth - and a more meaningful Innovation outcome.

Trust is generated earlier, when the seller makes an initial (often free) offer to the buyer, which creates a progression of 'receptivity' leading to 'rapport'.

Early Adopters Revealed

We understand how difficult identifying an early adopter customer can be. Although we do not have a magic solution for this problem, what I find in my work is this: it is the curious managers, also empowered with a budget who are the people to focus on, when applying Design Thinking in Sales. 

This is what psychologists call 'the Need for Cognition (NFC)'

The Need for Cognition (NFC) Scale is an assessment instrument that quantitatively measures 'the tendency for an individual to engage in and enjoy thinking' (Cacioppo & Petty, 1982, p. 116). 

In simple language, people who exhibit a high NFC Score are curious and enjoy challenges. From a sales and marketing perspective, the seller who poses intellectually-stimulating challenges is more likely to draw-out a reaction from a prospective buyer who fits this psychological profile.

When asking prospective buyers to engage in Design Thinking to establish receptivity, rapport and trust through a Design Thinking-based Engagement, then the Value Proposition Messaging must be both open and stilumating to elicity such a response from a prospective buyer who is inherently curious and restless (in the context of solving problems). 

Three Design Principles

First and foremost, all of this requires the seller to Empathize with the buyer. The ultimate 'Value Proposition' for a particular product or service can take it's direction from three 'Design Principles', originally conceived for digital products or services, but can be relavant to any product or service:

'Meaningful Journey. To start small, with the lowest risk, faster - but understanding, more generally, where the ultimate destination might be - without being overly prescriptive.

'Fierce Reduction'. To simplify and eliminate waste from every step of the Meaningful Journey, every aspect of the Value Proposition.

'Progressive Disclosure'. To avoid 'cognitive overload' on the buyer - enabling the simplification of Fierce Reduction and clarity of Meaningful Journey to combine - one step at a time.

With the Value Proposition created through applying the three Design Principles, the buyer can now safely and clearly engage with the seller through the five steps of Design Thinking, starting with step one: Empathize. 

Empathy Mapping Is Key

It is important to understand that the Empathize step in Design Thinking, done right, leads to a more meaningful Define step that follows. When moving to the next three steps of Ideate, Prototype and Test, it is important to think of these activities as being equally applicable to any product or service value proposition - regardless of its maturity. 

Prototyping and Testing is more about how you explore and validate the solution fit to the problem and justification for timely purchase.

At the heart of the designer's (and therefore, more broadly, the Design Thinker'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 works well. 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. 

What follows is a capture of a true understanding of the problem.


Step 01. Empathize

Empathy Mapping workshops are a great way to engage many buyside decision-makers and influencers as Stakeholders in the process. Online, these workshops are often more representative of all Stakeholders, if conducted as more short sessions of say, half to one full hour. 

Given the problem of lack of available meeting time in calendars, many 30-minute online meetings will maintain momentum - rather than waiting for larger blocks of time in Stakerholders' schedules. 

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.

When bringing buyers and sellers together, the Design Thinking in Sales method enables all Stakeholders to respond with meaningful answers to open questions - topics categorised as 'Say', 'Think', 'Feel' or 'Do'. This also means 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)'. What matter most here is 'Time-Based Value': working-out the mutual interests in having a sense of urgency in moving through the Design Thinking process.

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 defined is this Time-Based Value - calculated as the 'Cost of Delay' or the 'Cost of Doing Nothing'. 

In a high-value, high-touch sell, this provides a vital counter-argument to deal slippage and is the best way to defend value over price.

The ROI Model and Time-Based Value 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 Design Thinking Platform 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 can be, as the name implies, a very effective way to facilitate idea generation - well ahead of completeness of solution.

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. 

This also means that early adopter customers can become 'wise investors' in any early-stage product or service.


Step 04. Prototype

Prototyping obviously relates to the specifics of a particular product or service, but can be at any stage of its life or maturity. This means enabling buyer and seller to collaborate around a Prototype stage - building on what is captured and then iterated in the Ideate step.

Since this is Design Thinking in Sales, the Prototype must inform the buyer and seller of how the ROI Model will measure and validate the Proof-of-Concept in the next step: Test. This must relate to the right mix of a quantitative Economic Basis of Decision and a qualitative Emotional Basis of Decision. 

It must also quantify the Cost of Delay or Cost of Doing Nothing for the buyer, as described above.   

Prototyping should embrace a 'fail fast' mindset - again, regardless of product or is ensuring that whatever the product or service may be, it must be capable of undergoing rapid, iterative change - driven by the broadest range of would be buyers and users.

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. 

Remember the three Design Principles: Meaningful Journey; Fierce Reduction; and, Progressive Disclosure - they are key to making Testing deliver on the promises captured in a 'Model'.

Testing requires the broadest Stakeholder engagement on both buyside and sellside. It could be a pragmatic User Acceptance Testing (UAT) of a particular product or service, building on the Model generated at the Prototype step, and enabling a measurable value outcome to be created. 

This is often an iterative process - embracing progressive improvements in say, User Experience.

Persistent Coaching

For anyone engaged in the high-value, high-touch sell - such as financial services, health, life sciences or tech - the way to transform the sales organisation to Design Thinking in Sales is through Workshops - underpinned by everyday use of a Platform. This is then linked to real world sales motions - at team and individual levels.

To make learning stick, The CRM Platform can be delivered as a tailored solution, running on the trusted Google Cloud Platform. Extending the implementation of Method and Platform is ongoing Coaching - to drive learning in the context of real world sales and new business development.


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 - which is rarely, if ever achievable in a high-value situation.

From a buyer perspective, Design Thinking enables innovators from the seller organisation 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 Value Proposition for a particular product or service can be created on the three Design Principles: Meaningful Journey; Fierce Reduction; and, Progressive Disclosure. This allows the seller to create smaller, incremental steps to towards timely procurements, with Proof-of-Concept or similar steps added along the way. 

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.

This is sales enablement, optimised: Design Thinking in Sales. This is delivered as a combination of Method and Platform, enhanced by Coaching for continuous learning. It is defending value over price in the high-value, high-touch sell - any industry, any organisation.


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