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Design Thinking for Sales

Design Thinking for Sales: From “Always Be Closing” To “Always Be Curious”

By Ryan Barretto / April 23, 2018

What’s the number one goal for a salesperson in your organization?

To sell, right? Obviously. And for many organizations, it’s not just to sell – but to sell a lot, and quickly. In fact, 28% of surveyed companies indicated that closing more deals was their top sales priority.

So you set weekly and monthly sales quotas, goals and benchmarks and incentivize with commissions and bonuses.

But take a moment to consider how this pressure to close might be affecting sales conversations:

Are your salespeople taking the necessary time to prepare for every call?

Do prospects feel understood and prioritized?

Or do the conversations feel rushed, impersonal, or generic?

What if just for a few accounts, the number one goal wasn’t to sell – but to learn?

To make this change would mean dipping your toes into the emerging trend of design thinking for business.

Design Thinking: Back to Basics

This aptly named methodology was originally created by/for designers, but has since proven successful in a number of other applications.

The design thinking approach has one single goal: to understand and solve a problem for the consumer, and is characterized by empathy, customer-centricity and curiosity.

Design thinking as a whole is a complex, in-depth set of principles. When used to address other business problems, only the most relevant and useful principles are pulled out and applied.

When it come to the sales process, the discovery phase is where design thinking principles can make the biggest impact.

Here’s how empowering your sales people to think like designers can significantly improve their chances of conversion:

Design Thinking Helps Establish Trust & Credibility

The pressure to close quickly often causes salespeople to take the path of least resistance when researching prospects.

So the internet becomes their sole source of information, which often leads to a shallow, one-dimensional understanding of who they’re trying to talk to.

Not to mention when you rely on internet research alone, you only know what everyone else knows about your prospect.

How can you offer unique solutions with just the usual information?

Design thinking encourages you to go deeper – to get closer and more in touch with your prospect.

Salesforce Account Executive, Brianna Layton, shares a story on the Salesforce website about how she applied design thinking to a customer pitch for a major product distributor and retail company.

For 2-3 weeks prior to her presentation, Brianna set out to interact with the brand in every place she could think of along the consumer journey.

She visited the company’s website, signed up for their rewards program, tweeted them, downloaded their (not-so-great) mobile app and bought their product at a physical store.

When she presented her findings and insight (which included some tough love), after a brief moment of awestruck silence the customer demanded to hear more – asking questions, posing scenarios and demonstrating the level of curiosity and gratitude that can ultimately lead to a successful sales pitch.

Take a page from Brianna’s book. Go to the store, download the app, visit the restaurant. Put yourself in the shoes of your customer’s customer.

In short: Familiarize yourself with the brand by experiencing the brand.

Now you’ve got an advantage – a unique point of view to share with your prospect. Not only will they see your level of dedication, but they’ll also see the value you can provide them before ever even mentioning your product or offering.

You’ve taken the time to get to know them and you’ve shown that you’re genuinely interested in improving their business.

I can’t think of a better way to start off a sales conversation.

Design Thinking Allows for More Authentic Conversation

Another habit perpetuated by the “always be closing” mindset is to offer solutions before fully understanding the problem that needs solving.

This is where sales scripts can be the devil in a not-so-convincing disguise. A significant 69% of surveyed buyers say the way sales reps can improve the sales experience is to listen to their needs.

The discovery phase shouldn’t end with preliminary research. Remember, most people don’t like being sold to, but they do like having their problems solved.

Design thinking suggests that even when you have the captive attention of your prospect, it’s your job to remain curious.

Ask questions.

Research shows top salespeople ask 10.1 targeted, relevant questions per hour while average performers only ask 6.3.

Discover something that genuinely surprises you.

Look for the unmet needs in the hacks and workarounds they’ve created because their current system is failing them.

And not just with the goal of being able to respond with, “I have just the thing for that;” but in an attempt to spark a different kind of conversation – a real, customer-centric conversation that aims to uncover what your prospect truly values.

Only then can you begin to create a custom solution.

Design Thinking Broadens the Scope of Opportunity

Design thinking doesn’t just suggest curiosity for curiosity’s sake.

When you take the time to get inside the mind of your customers – and the minds of their customers – you may uncover certain challenges and problems they didn’t even know they had.

Salespeople often set out to offer a “simple solution” when in fact their customer’s problem is anything but simple.

In this way, design thinking challenges salespeople to become detectives. Not just in finding out information, but in piecing it all together to uncover the full story.

Customers may report having problems that you discover are simply symptoms of a larger issue. While the traditional sales process says “we’ve got the prescription,” the design thinking process says, “we’ve got the diagnosis.”

Don’t miss the significance of this subtle shift.

Helping your customers discover problems they didn’t know they had means that you’re able to identify and offer solutions you didn’t know they needed.

And while prolonged curiosity may temporarily kill the close, in the end you’ll be able to offer multiple solutions that result in a bigger piece of business.

Of course I know the main goal will always be to close. And it may not be realistic or even feasible for reps to extend their discovery process on every single account.

But I like to think of design thinking for sales as a mindset shift – one that transforms a salesperson’s thought process from “what can I sell to you?” to “what can I learn about you?”

Just that subtle shift alone can make a world of difference in customer conversations.

But if you really want to see the full impact design thinking can have on your bottom line, give some of your sales reps the time and resources needed to apply this method to a select few of their accounts.

And see how far a little curiosity can take your sales business.

Ryan Barretto

Ryan Barretto

is the SVP, Global Sales at Sprout Social, where he oversees both the Sales and Customer Success organizations. Prior to Sprout, he was the VP of Global Sales at Pardot–a Salesforce company. In his spare time, Barretto keeps busy watching Toronto Raptor Games and/or partaking in princess plays put on by his two daughters.
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