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Design Thinking in Sales

Enabling proactive engagements between buyer and seller.


Ian H Smith

This blog post is written for manufacturing, services and tech challengers: fast-growth firms who offer products or services that aim to disrupt business-as-usual, and in doing so, recognise that social media marketing plus responses to formal RFP-based procurements alone, is not enough to ensure timely sales success. Transformation is needed in the high-value, high-touch sell.

What's invariably required is a way to break through the 'hermetic seal' that surrounds empowered buyers - with small, safe steps taken to lead to timely, win-win outcomes between buyer and seller - avoiding risky, win-lose arm's length RFPs. Here, I describe how Design Thinking in Sales works, as an integral part of a Demand Creation Selling method, implemented with Salesforce Sales Cloud.

Human Conversations

Despite our ever-increasing use of all things digital, the high-value, high-touch sell is always a 'people buy people' reality. In this context, we should re-read 'Markets are Conversations' (source: The Cluetrain Manifesto, collaboratively authored by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, way back in 1991.)

Let's revisit the first five theses of this pioneering manifesto:

  1. Markets are conversations.
  2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
  3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
  5. People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.

So, in the high-value, high-touch sell, where is the human conversation in a written, wordy response to a dry, arm's length Request For Proposal (RFP)? How can a 'sellside' innovator educate a 'buyside' decision-maker via such a cold, non-human conversation? As the Cluetrain Manifesto says: "Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors". Written proposals, in response to RFPs are not human. And nor do they enable innovation know-how to flow from the sellside.

However, many industries and organisations operate with deeply-embedded belief systems or even regulatory requirements related to all forms of procurement - especially government, and in UK, the National Health Service (NHS) being obvious examples. Even in the private sector, we have the barriers put up by 'preferred supplier lists' or other criteria that limit the tech challenger's ability to win from, afar - and through a cold, arm's length RFP-based procurement.

Although we cannot eliminate these formal procurement barriers, even where they exist for regulatory or immovable policy reasons, we can proactively intervene earlier - well-ahead of any formal procurement process. In many cases, I would argue that an earlier, proactive intervention by sellside challenger with empowered buyside executive will eliminate this procurement risk altogether.

There is a better, earlier way for sellside challengers to connect with buyside decision-makers: it is called Mutual Value Discovery, an open, collaborative engagement between buyer and seller, delivered through Design Thinking in Sales as the underlying method.

Whilst enabling an innovative sellside to engage with the buyside through human conversation, and not simply engage in arm's length procurements, is challenging - especially in regulated industries - Design Thinking is a method for overcoming these barriers to human conversations. This enables the sellside to educate the buyside - where the former has new concepts and ideas to offer, to solve a particular problem or exploit a particular win-win opportunity - and where the buyside does not know it all, and cannot easily specify a solution requirement from afar, in a soulless RFP document.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking was pioneered by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University ( Simply put, Design Thinking is a method for solving problems in a people-oriented way. At the Stanford this was defined as five steps in a problem-solving or innovation process: Empathize; Define; Ideate; Prototype; then, Test.

In this blog post, I talk about how Design Thinking can be applied through Mutual Value Discovery engagements between buyers and sellers and how Salesforce Sales Cloud may be configured to measurably increase sales effectiveness in this approach to new business development, including a more reliable and consistent approach to sales forecasting.

Sellers who simply wait for and respond to a mechanical procurement process, creating wordy Proposals or expensive 'pitches' in response to a RFP document, are engaging in a competitive lottery. Offering a free Mutual Value Discovery engagement at the outset - and well ahead of any formal procurement cycle initiated by the buyside - enables the innovative sellside to positively influence any future RFP document and related tendering process.

Selling solely via reactive responses to a RFP is not selling - it's telling. Assuming that the would-be buyer knows all works well for mature commodity products and services, but makes no sense where the sellside is introducing innovative, or new concepts.

Mutual Value Discovery

So, what is a Mutual Value Discovery, and why is it equally attractive to the buyside as it is to the sellside, in a high-value, high-touch sell?

As the name implies, a Mutual Value Discovery enables buyer and seller to engage in an open conversation about how the sellside 'Value Proposition' solves a particular compelling problem recognised by the buyside, or where a product or service clearly adds value - when comparing the 'Current State' ('As Is') to a projected 'Future State' ('To Be').

What matters most in any Mutual Value Discovery engagement is the first step of Design Thinking: Empathize. As a practical technique used in in-person or online workshops, 'Empathy Mapping' becomes a powerful tool for enabling all stakeholders - buyside and sellside - to openly talk about and capture the key things that will define the next step in Design Thinking: Define.

Despite the pervasive implementation of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, such as Salesforce Sales Cloud, why are managers still suffering at the hands of poor sales forecasts? The answer is simple: sales people submit sales forecasts that managers want to see, which is not always what the buyer agrees with. The forecast is inherently biased - consciously or even unconsciously - and not validated by the would-be decision-maker(s) on the buyside.

There are two values that really matter in sales forecasting: (a) Deal Value*; and, (b) Close Date. If these two values are correctly entered and updated in a timely manner within a CRM system, then there's no sales forecasting problem. However, in the real world, this is where fundamental errors in sales forecasting are invariably found.


In Salesforce Sales Cloud, Deal Value is Opportunity Amount.

So, the big question here is this: what can managers do to fix this pervasive, challenging problem of inaccurate sales forecasting? The answer is a combination of: human change - switching sales forecasting from seller to buyer via Empathy Mapping during Mutual Value Discovery engagements; and reinforcing this with technology - creating extensions to Salesforce Sales Cloud, as a CRM system that facilitates buyer-enabled sales forecasting.

Demand Creation Selling

When applying a Mutual Discovery engagement and following a five-step Design Thinking method we are also engaging in a proactive intervention between buyer and seller, where the sellside must demonstrate clear value in the earliest stages of this process, enabling the buyer to exit at any time, yet achieve a measurable value outcome - even from one, initial Empathy Mapping session. This is Demand Creation Selling - and the opposite of Demand Fulfilment Selling, where responding to RFPs is the business-as-usual approach.

Demand Creation Selling must enable meaningful human conversations between buyer seller, and break the 'hermetic seal' that invariably surrounds these hard-to-reach, empowered decision-makers. Simply put, it means arousing curiosity in the buyer.

In an interesting Harvard Business Review article, The Business Case for Curiosity, the author Francesco Gino talks about curiosity as the root of many breakthrough discoveries over a long timeline. She goes on to say that curiosity, when triggered, inspires trust in new innovations. As someone who started life as a product designer, I can relate to this point about curiosity, and how this applies to both design and sales.

We now see that the sales professional begins to think and act like a designer, where curiosity drives a meaningful conversation between buyer and seller.

So, what is the basic 'DNA' of a Demand Creation Selling-oriented sales professional? It is the inherent (and to some extent, coached) ability to generate receptivity and rapport, which, in turn, can generate trust with senior buyside executives - all underpinned by the buyer's curiosity.

As mentioned earlier, Stanford define Design Thinking as five steps in an innovation process: Empathize; Define; Ideate; Prototype; then, Test - applied iteratively. As illustrated below, the five steps for Design Thinking flow iteratively throughout the proactive buying and selling cycle that defines Demand Creation Selling. From a process perspective, Demand Creation Selling has three (3), easy-to-remember 'Points', namely: PiercePoint; ProofPoint; and, DecisionPoint.

Let's define each of these directional phases of the buying and selling cycle, each moving through the iterative Design Thinking steps:

Creating a compelling message that resonates with an empowered, but hard-to-reach decision-maker. This is simply a focus on effective lead generation from a cold start: make the Value Proposition stand out in words and pictures.

Having aroused the interest of an empowered decision-maker with a PiercePoint message, the ProofPoint becomes the validation of claims made. This is where Mutual Value Discovery and Interactive Decisioning Tools (as extensions to Salesforce Sales Cloud) come into play.

When engaging a buyer in Mutual Value Discovery workshops, with meaningful CRM-based Interactive Decisioning Tools, the seller achieves sufficient rapport, receptivity and trust to understand the path, people and politics towards a timely win.

Whilst the PiercePoint message is all about creating communications that resonates with hard-to-reach, empowered buyers, the ProofPoint validation of such as message must be built on a solid foundation of buyer-seller interactions and conversations. This is where a Mutual Value Discovery becomes key to reinforcing a compelling case for timely purchases: a solid ProofPoint validation underpinning success at the DecisionPoint.

As an inherent part of proactive intervention which empowered buyers, Design Thinking requires sellers to show buyers why and how a Mutual Value Discovery is just that: something that is truly mutual and, regardless of whether there is a purchasing outcome, or not, there must be value created for both parties at this stage.

If you create a powerful PiercePoint and identify would-be early adopter customers who exhibit strong Design Thinking behaviours, then you will find that an open, collaborative approach to the buyer-seller engagement will follow. In turn, this should lead to a solid quantification of the Deal Value and Close Date for a win in a ProofPoint - and executed via Mutual Value Discovery sessions - online or in-person. The ProofPoint must be validated by a ROI Model.

Interactive Decisioning Tools

By applying a rigorous ROI Model and quantifying Deal Value, and the Cost of Delay or Cost of Doing Nothing, you have, at least, achieved a strong ProofPoint. You have given the buyer a strong case for justifying both of these key values: how much to spend, when to spend it - and the consequences of not doing so, and from the buyer's (not just the seller's) perspective.

This is also where 'Interactive Decisioning Tools' apply: Web forms built as one or more ROI Calculators, implemented as extensions to a CRM system, such as Salesforce Sales Cloud. To engage buyers as users, these Web forms must be freely available, but must not require each prospective buyer to become a licensed user of the seller's Salesforce Sales Cloud instance.

The ROI Model and related ROI Calculator(s) should be built (as Web Forms) on an initial analysis of Current State (As Is), in order to explore and calculate Future State (To Be) advantages, as a consequence of the buyer acquiring the product or service in question. This becomes a quantification of both an Economic Basis of Decision and an Emotional Basis of Decision.

When you shift from Demand Fulfilment Selling to Demand Creation Selling you enable the buyer to determine the Deal Value (Opportunity Amount) and Close Date - and this is where the sales forecast is validated through ROI Modelling in one or more Mutual Value Discovery interactions.

By calculating and agreeing the ROI with the early adopter customer, a quantified Deal Value (Opportunity Amount) makes it easier for the buyer to justify investment and counter discounting. Equally, a Cost of Delay and/or Cost of Doing Nothing counters deal slippage at the DecisionPoint for the seller, and counters unreliable Close Date forecasting.

Here the sales forecast becomes truly collaborative: it will have a dramatic, meaningful effect on the reliability of sales forecasting with Salesforce Sales Cloud, in addition to enabling buyers and sellers to determine win-win outcomes and business cases for new digital and other high-value innovations.


The Demand Creation Selling method enables sellers to better educate buyers - and, in turn, enables buyers to build better cases for investing in new innovations. Underpinning all of this is Design Thinking, Mutual Value Discovery, and Interactive Decisioning Tools (built as Web Forms on the Salesforce Lightning Platform). This results in sales forecasting that you can rely upon - shifting the process and ultimate validation from seller to buyer.

Human Conversations are essential in connecting innovative sellside and cautious buyside, countering the inherent weakness of arm's length RFP-based procurements.

Design Thinking is the DNA of the early adopter buyer of new innovations: inquisitiveness, empathy, cooperation, experimentalism and optimism.

Mutual Value Discovery requires buyers to exhibit behaviours consistent with high levels of curiosity: individuals who engage in and enjoy thinking and problem-solving.

Demand Creation Selling is a proactive intervention between buyer and seller, applying the Design Thinking method through PiercePoint, ProofPoint, and DecisionPoint phases.

Interactive Decisioning Tools are simply Web extensions to CRM apps that enable buyer-validated sales forecasting: underpinned by Design Thinking and Mutual Value Discovery.

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