Monday, June 17, 2024

How design thinking can help sales teams: Advice from the authors of ‘Naked Sales’

We in design haven’t been very good to sales for some time now. Over the last few years the leading methodology for innovation, design thinking, has changed the way people manage daily communications (mobile devices and applications), access health care (medical devices and care practices), travel (autonomous driving) and manage their lives at home (via Nest and other web-enabled home technologies). 

Yet, in all our excitement about all the nifty things we can design that change people’s lives, we’ve neglected the one relationship that matters most: the sales people who create value for customers. In fact, not only did we forget about them, we made their lives more difficult with exponentially increased complexity in our offerings: cloud-enabled products, IoT, AI, VR, AR and on and on.

We want to make up for this neglect by helping sales navigate complexity using design fundamentals as a killer app. As we discuss in our book Naked Sales: How Design Thinking Can Reveal Customers’ Motives And Drive Revenue, we believe what we’ve learned about creating breakthroughs in products and services can likewise help sales people achieve breakthroughs with new opportunities for customers.

Design thinking comprises both a mindset as well as a process for identifying new opportunities. The mindset represents a significant shift for most of us in business. We tend to get excited about the cool things we can produce, what they can do, and how attractively they can be priced. And, in so doing, we forget about the people for whom we’ve made them (or who sell them!). In design thinking, we always begin by thinking about the people for whom we’re designing. Before we determine what we can create (feasibility) and how much revenue we can drive (viability), we first need to understand what’s important to our customer (who), and why (desirability).

Given that sales people are the closest point of contact for the customer, you’re ideally positioned to embody this philosophy. We suggest you take advantage of this fact and focus first on what your customer cares about – Desirability.

With this philosophy in mind, let’s look at a recent example of how an account manager named Paul used this mindset and followed the three-step Design process to win big with his client. Paul works at a software company, and he responded to an RFP from one of the top 20 banks in the U.S. seeking a new software solution. Paul knew his offering was at a higher price point compared to others (viability). Yet, he suspected his solution’s superior capabilities offered the best path forward (feasibility).

Step 1. Discovery. Paul asked the bank if he and his team could come onsite and watch how people do their work on a typical day. This is similar to the kind of discovery we in design like to do. We go out to visit people where they are and try to learn interesting new things by paying careful attention to what they do and why they do it. That’s what Paul and his team did. They learned about the 2 major applications the bank relied on to manage daily customer transactions. And then, they stumbled across something very interesting. The bank had created its own homegrown system to help its 2 major applications perform efficiently.

In design we call this a hack. A hack is something that people create to make a given system, tool or experience better for them. Hacks are also evidence of unmet needs, which are major clues that help us design something useful. In essence, this bank had hacked its two major applications by creating a third. There was no mention of this this hack in the RFP.

Step 2. Insight. Paul and his team incorporated this finding into a bundle of new insights he shared with the customer about how his firm could help them. Insights are the second stage of a design process—they’re the fresh perspectives necessary to design a new solution. In essence, Paul was able to show the bank opportunities they hadn’t yet considered. And in so doing, he not only built excitement and interest, but effectively sealed the deal. Which leads us to the final step in the design process.

Step 3. Accelerate. In design, we don’t like to waste time planning for perfection. Perfection takes too long, costs too much and is rarely “perfect” anyway. We prefer to get going immediately with a solution that works. That’s what Paul did. This initial solution will impact 150 of the bank’s employees. Even though Paul can see a bigger picture that could help all 1500 employees, he sees the wisdom of helping the bank get started, allowing people to become accustomed to new tools and processes now before helping them achieve a larger vision down the road.

By focusing on people at the bank and learning what they cared about first, Paul provided several new insights to his customer that led to a breakthrough solution for them: “We’re going from riding a bike to driving a Corvette with your firm.” Talk about acceleration!

The opportunity for sales professionals is to set aside any focus on product, on features and benefits, on competitive positioning, and first listen and look deeply into what people are trying to do and why that’s important to them. This point of view is a differentiated one that creates the rapport and trust necessary for customers to embrace your new solution.


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Ashley Welch and Justin Jones
Ashley Welch and Justin Jones
Ashley Welch and Justin Jones co-founded Somersault Innovation, a Design Thinking consulting firm providing a unique approach to sales development. They are the authors of  Naked Sales: How Design Thinking Reveals Customer Motives and Drives Revenue. For more information, please visit,