Design Thinking in Sales

My sales method for the high-value, high-touch-sell.


Ian H Smith

Design Thinking in Sales is a method, delivered as a combination of technology and coaching, 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 recently in healthcare and tech startups, but it can work for any industry, and for any organisation, large, medium or small.

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 in Sales 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. This becomes value created for the buyer - with or without the seller monetising a deal.

Although the seller may have to initially engage in Design Thinking in Sales 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. I have made this work, in ultra-conservative organisations, such as the UK National Health Service (NHS).

This is especially helpful in a number of ways:

  • Enabling early stage product or service concepts to be explored well ahead of completeness.
  • Reducing risks associated with a high-value, high-touch sell to inherently risk-averse buyers.
  • Accelerating the buying and selling cycle by enabling the buyer to understand cost of delay.


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 thereby, 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.

Design Principles

First and foremost, successful new business development 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 applies to any high-value product or service - business or consumer:

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 - applying the simplification of Fierce Reduction and clarity of Meaningful Journey - 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 in Sales, starting with step one: Empathize.

Empathy Mapping

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 in Sales - 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 buyside and sellside, benefiting 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. See more on ROI Modelling below.

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 is visualised below. 

This Define step provides a solid foundation for what comes next: Ideation. 


Step 03. Ideate

The 5-step Design Thinking in Sales 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 in Sales 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, 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 both 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 in Sales - is part of a rapid, iterative approach to innovation. In buyer-seller engagements, this may start as a 'Proof-of-Concept': the 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. 


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 CRM Platform. This is then linked to real world sales motions - at team and individual levels, underpinned by Sales Coaching.

In a high-value, high-touch sell, the Buying and Selling Cycle will vary, but the cost of the seller getting it wrong and committing 'pilot error' at a crucial Stage is rarely, if ever recoverable. This is a focus on achieving Right Action, Right Person, Right Time. This can be granulated into 15-minute sessions with Being Guided offering the inherent advantage of the unbiased outsider.

Value Engineering

The process of ROI Modelling is key to generating buyer receptivity, rapport and trust. For Design Thinking in Sales this takes on board the measurable value created when comparing Current State ('As-Is') with Future State ('To-Be') as a result of the buyer making an investment in the product or service in question. This is Value Engineering.

The Mutual Value Discovery process applies at every step of Design Thinking in Sales, where buyer and seller mutually validate a win-win outcome for pricing a particular solution. The ROI Model helps to defend value over price and counter deal slippage by calculating the Time-Based Value for both buyer and seller. 


CRM systems, such as Salesforce Sales Cloud, are great for recording historical events and data: Opportunities (or Deals); Leads (or Enquiries); Campaigns; Accounts; and, Contacts. However, a CRM system does not guide buyer or seller, it just records data - before, during and after key Actions or Events. It does not prevent 'pilot error' at crucial Stages of the Buying and Selling Cycle.

As illustrated below, our Design Thinking In Sales method embedded in Salesforce Sales Cloud solves this problem.


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 in Sales 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 in Sales 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 - embedded in CRM. This is delivered as a combination of technology and coaching for continuous learning and improving sales effectiveness - all in a measurable way. It is defending value over price in the high-value, high-touch sell - any industry, any organisation - business or consumer.



All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!