Got a unique sales challenge? Solve it with design thinking.


Every couple of weeks I get calls from clients asking questions such as, “How do other companies in my industry implement cross-selling?” Or, “How do companies in my industry motivate their teams on multi-year selling?” Or, “How do other sales organizations set their quotas?” But they don’t really want to know how other companies in their industry do these things. What they actually want to know is, “What should I do?” because right before they called me, they were grasping for solutions and replicating the status quo.

Adapted from engineering and design’s legendary method of “design thinking,” Sales Design ThinkingSM is a left-brain thinking process that helps to generate right-brain innovation. In recent years, fields outside of design have borrowed from design thinking to innovate and problem solve. At SalesGlobe we apply the principles to help our clients improve sales effectiveness. Sales organizations need the structure of such a method to address the range of variables that define sales challenges and the constraints of time, product, price, and organizational capabilities among others. They also benefit from the defined steps in the process that ensure the team moves beyond the known approaches – the solutions they’ve developed in the past – and pushes through to a phase of discovering new ideas.

Sales organizations can use Sales Design Thinking to develop external solutions – in customer situations where the need to differentiate determines whether a deal is won or lost. The process can also be used internally for the development of other sales programs, such as a new channel partner plan, a new incentive design process, quota setting, or a new value proposition for a customer segment that fits within the overall sales effectiveness strategy.

Sales Design Thinking

As illustrated above, Sales Design thinking consists of five phases: Articulate the Problem Statement; Redefine the Challenge Question by Understanding the Story; Think Horizontally and Combine Parallels; Develop Vertically; and Manage Change.

Brainstorming, testing, brainstorming

Every organization is different, and no conversation around quota setting will sound exactly the same. But armed with the basics of Sales Design Thinking, you will find yourself in a position to move the discussion forward, toward a solution. In Sales Design , the five steps are iterative. You’re always checking back in with the stakeholders, always brainstorming and testing. Here’s an outline of the process.

1. Articulate the Problem Statement.

Typically, it goes something like this: “We need to fix the quota process because the sales team is underperforming and turnover is high.” If you try to solve for that problem statement, you’ll have your sights set on those specific points (underperformance, high turnover); and when you attempt to fix them, you may miss the underlying causes. Pursuing the initial problem statement is the first mistake most organizations make. It’s one of the reasons the problem doesn’t go away, and why other related problems emerge. So, step one is checking yourself to be sure you’re asking the right question.

2. Redefine the Challenge Question by Understanding the Story.

To get beyond that initial view of the problem statement, redefine the problem by understanding the story behind it. You may be thinking, “The story? I already know the story.” But it’s likely that you know only a piece of it – the piece you can see best from your perspective. Understanding the whole story provides an enhanced picture of what you’ll need to solve for. Asking what the pain points are, how and when they developed, who was involved, and why it was done the way it was done elevates the problem statement into a robust Challenge Question. For example, our problem statement could evolve into “How do we fix the quota process for national accounts by engaging regional sales leaders and aligning with new account assignments to increase the percent of reps attaining quota and decrease rep turnover?”

3. Think Horizontally and Combine Parallels.

When most organizations work on solving for a problem statement, they have some initial ideas and then consider a limited set of options. They may begin developing those options as potential solutions. They’ll load up their flip charts and engage in what they think is brainstorming. But in reality, they all probably entered the room with preconceived ideas – mostly ideas that have been used before. Instead of brainstorming, the team members spend most of their time making sure some of their ideas make it onto a flip chart. All this time, they have stayed within the realm of what’s familiar.

With Sales Design Thinking, instead of rushing toward a safe solution the team should break apart the Challenge Question into its key components (for example: “engaging regional sales leaders”, “new account assignments”, and “decrease rep turnover”). Then it should brainstorm approach options that might address each component of the Challenge Question separately. Some sources of ideas or parallel examples might come from within the company. Others may come from outside of the company, from other industries, or completely outside of the business. These parallel ideas can produce dramatically divergent options for each component of the Challenge Question that the team can combine and explore. While many ideas may not apply to the Challenge Question, this process will yield a number of prospective solutions that the team wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

4. Develop Vertically.

After developing a range of options, boil them down according to criteria such as how well they address the overall Challenge Question, the degree of change required, and the ease and cost of implementation. Moving into vertical development is like merging back into the lane where the team would have begun developing options after the old brainstorming approach. But now you’re miles ahead. You have the benefit of having gone through the previous three steps. You’ll have ideas and possibilities that you wouldn’t have generated through the old approach.

5. Manage Change.

A couple of years ago, I met with a sales leadership team that had developed a straightforward quota solution. A few months later I asked how the new approach was working. They explained that while they thought it would be easy to understand, the organization didn’t get it and they reverted to the old process. I asked them how they had rolled out the process. “We made an announcement and sent the process out to all of the managers with the dates for each milestone.” That was it. One announcement. The organization didn’t see the value in it, no one bought in, and it died on the vine. That was shortsighted. Change management requires a structured approach with frequent communication and reinforcement. Change management starts with going back to the “why”- the reason the organization wanted to solve the problem in the first place, understanding the organization’s readiness for change, and charting a plan to communicate and support the change.

Sales Design Thinking is a discipline that combines left-brain and right-brain thinking that leads to innovation. At first, this approach may seem unnatural. But if you stick with it and build your creative problem-solving muscle, you’ll find it can lead to solutions unlike any you’ve had before.


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