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Learn About the Principles of Design Thinking

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Understand the concept of design thinking.
  • Identify where design thinking fits into the sales discovery process.
  • Use three prompts for curiosity.

What Is Design Thinking?

Long gone are the days of making a quick pitch over the phone and getting a new customer signed up that same day. The modern-day buyer is more complex; they need value at every step in the selling process, from the first pitch to the close. That’s easier said than done. With so much competition, it’s imperative businesses keep customers at the center of everything they do. This takes more than a sales pitch. It takes creativity, curiosity, and a little bit of what we like to call design thinking.

What is design thinking, you ask? It’s a way of approaching selling that brings together a set of tools and mindsets to help you truly understand your customers and what their customers care about. It starts when you work to discover your customer’s perspective and what they want. Then, you take that knowledge and use it to inspire what you create. Design thinking is centered around earning trust, developing deep relationships, and delivering solutions that exceed your customer’s expectations.

Get Started with Design Thinking

Using design thinking in the sales discovery process is a new innovation in sales. There are three core components.

  • A process to innovate
  • A set of tools that map to that process
  • Mindsets that underpin the process

As sales professionals, we’re probably all too familiar with both processes and tools. What is unique about design thinking, and can require the biggest change, is the mindset and approach you’ll take in conversations or discovery with new customers. We’ll dig deeper into those changes in mindset.

“The mindsets and tools of design thinking will transform how you sell and keep you anchored to your customer’s interests in a sea of distraction.”

—Ashley Welch, co-founder, Somersault Innovation and author, Naked Sales

Think Like a Beginner

Perhaps you enter customer conversations with a prescribed solution in mind. It’s a very common approach. You might know your “play” or think you know the perfect solution to your customer’s problem. That’s the perfect time to let go of your assumptions and stay curious—be open as you begin speaking with the customer to discover their challenges and needs. After all, your job is to learn something you don’t know about your customer.

The first place to start is to ask yourself two questions: Who is your customer? Who is your customer’s customer? Then, be creative to find out what they care about and value. Consider the value of this approach versus a predetermined mindset: “Since this is an insurance company, I know what I’m going to sell them.” Focus on your customer and what they care about, not on what you want to sell.

For you managers, instead of asking about the pipeline or sales targets, start by saying to account executives, “Tell me about your customer. Tell me a story about what your customer cares about.” Of course numbers matter, and you’ll get to that. Numbers aren’t going away, but start with stories, not numbers.

Harness the Power of Curiosity

Design thinking is ultimately a method that helps us unlock our curiosity. Use these prompts to pique your own curiosity about your customer.

  1. Look for things that surprise you. If something surprises you, double down and tell your customer, “I want to learn more about that—tell me more.”
  2. Look for evidence that people value something. If your customer gets emotional (excited, frustrated, angry, and so on) about something, it’s probably because they care about it. They may think they know what is most important to them. By observing their behaviors and reactions, you'll likely uncover things they care about that they may not even be aware of.
  3. Finally, get curious when you see a hack or workaround in a process—it means there's an unmet need waiting to be discovered. We can all be very creative. If a system doesn’t work for us, we create ways to make it work. This is a place to dig in and ask questions. For example, did your customer create a homegrown Excel® forecasting system? Why?


By embracing a beginner’s mindset and leveraging these prompts, you’re positioning yourself for a more successful sales discovery process. Keep reading to learn how to apply these tools for your customers.

Resources

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