Sales Performance Management

The doctor is in: Sales Design Thinking at the intersection of scientific method and creative problem solving

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Before becoming a sales consultant, I spent nearly twenty years working in healthcare. You might think that with a master’s degree, a specialty in cardiovascular diseases, and training in the scientific method, my approach to sales effectiveness would be worlds apart from that of SalesGlobe founder, Mark Donnolo, who uses design thinking methods. After all, I come from a science background and Mark, as you may know, cut his teeth in art school, majoring in design.

Conventional wisdom suggests that either Mark’s right-brained creativity and my left-brained methodology are at loggerheads, or that over time we have achieved synergy by compromising our styles, but neither is accurate. And the fact that we agree on the best way to tackle the problem of quota setting is, I believe, a testament to our method’s durability.

That method is Sales Design Thinking.

Design thinking, which comes from the world of design and engineering, is a five-step process that begins with empathy for those facing a problem. Before you design a solution, you first must “feel their pain.” The remaining steps are defining the problem, brainstorming solutions, and developing/testing a prototype. After listening to a patient’s complaint, a physician may order diagnostic tests. In Sales Design Thinking, we analyze the organization’s sales capacity, market potential, and people.

With test results in hand, a physician can a make a diagnosis. With good data, a sales organization can see what its quota-setting challenges actually are. Once you’ve identified your actual problem, you can start to make what a doctor would call a treatment plan.

In our work, if we were solving a quota problem, we would ask: “Do you have a quota problem or a sales performance problem?” Until you know the answer, you can’t come up with a solution. It’s critical to take apart the problem statement and understand what’s really behind it.

Here is the five-step process we go through with our clients. As you can see, it’s a little bit science and a little bit art:

  1. Articulate the problem statement. Say a patient’s complaint is that they’re chronically tired. They might have a guess as to why – and so might the doctor. Bad sleeping habits? Could be. But it could be an iron deficiency. The doctor won’t know until the test results come in. In sales, your problem statement may be something like: “We need to solve our turnover problem.” But the actual problem might not be turnover.
  2. Redefine the challenge question by understanding the story. 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. In our example, the patient is assuming it’s a sleep issue, when it’s actually an iron deficiency. In Sales Design Thinking, we go back in history to understand what, how, and who. The answers often yield a robust challenge question. For example, “How can we solve our turnover problem on our key account team where quota attainment has been lagging for reps with fewer than three years of tenure?”
  3. Think horizontally and combine parallels. A sales organization may have some initial ideas about the problem, and then consider a limited set of options. They’ll rush ahead, assuming that the solution lies among those options. But beware of sacrificing real brainstorming for merely rehashing what you’ve done before. “If you’re tired all the time, drink more coffee” isn’t brainstorming. Sales Design Thinking takes each key component of the Challenge Question and brainstorms options in areas like “key account challenges,” “quota setting issues,” or “fewer than three years of tenure.” Then we can begin to see possibilities we wouldn’t otherwise have thought of.
  4. Develop vertically. After looking at the test results, a doctor may have a better understanding of the problem. Mark has described this process of moving into vertical development as like merging back into the lane where the team would have begun developing options after the old brainstorming approach. But now, with test results in hand and your horizontal thinking completed, you’re miles ahead with a new perspective.
  5. Manage change. Change can be challenging. A good physician knows better than to just hand the patient a note that reads, “Eat foods high in iron.” Instead, the doctor will talk with the patient about diet, supplements, and lifestyle – and will inquire about it on subsequent visits. Same with managing change around sales effectiveness. We need to understand the degree of change from the sales organization’s perspective, determine the organization’s readiness for change, and communicate often, on a variety of platforms.

Improving sales effectiveness might not save lives, but it can make life a lot better for your customer and your company. Whether you’re a healthcare professional, a design engineer, or a sales leader, the process of discovery, ideation, testing, and developing a solution can be enriching, rewarding, profitable, and even fun.

SalesGlobe and IBM often work together with clients where sales design thinking is used to help in the design of the sales processes, and the IBM Sales Performance Management solutions are the technologies used to help automate and streamline the sales processes.

Executive Director of Consulting Services, SalesGlobe

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