Sales Can Learn From Design Thinking

Adapting Design Thinking to meet the growing needs of the sales professional

Design Thinking is a method focused on solving problems in a people oriented way. It is interesting to look at Design Thinking in reference to sales: especially when considering a high value or high touch sell, and to see to what extent a sales professional should think like a design professional.

Curiosity and trust

If we consider the make up of the design professional and compare this to that of the sales professional, it is remarkable how many human characteristics are common in both roles. Designers and sales people are both curious, continuously asking questions, and tend to challenge conventions or assumptions.

Design professionals and sales professionals have another thing in common: an inherent ability to develop and generate trust. An architect or product designer must gain the client’s trust at the earliest stage of any project to elicit a frank and open conversation around the interpretation of needs and desires of the client, and map these insights to the ideas and concepts generated by the designer. Likewise, the sales person engaged in the high value, high touch sell must rapidly build trust with buyers, in order to uncover their true needs and desires, and ultimately gain a true perception of a problem to be solved.

Design professionals typically follow a highly structured learning path. For example, architects have to go through many years of education, combined with on-the-job training and mentoring, before they become qualified and entrusted with new building projects. Similarly, product designers in automotive, aerospace and other industries must engage in an intense level of university education and undertake a form of multi year apprenticeship and industrial training. However, sales professionals are typically hired and developed through a much less defined set of criteria related to academic qualifications or formal training.

It is this lack of formality in the development of a sales professional that opens up the opportunity to apply Design Thinking in Sales. If the skills of the successful sales professional include an inherent curiosity, combined with the ability to quickly generate trust with a buyer, then Design Thinking becomes central to learning how to effectively apply these human characteristics in a structured, meaningful way… In this context, Design Thinking in Sales becomes the foundation for two interdependent things: (a) the method for execution; and, (b) the curriculum for learning.

The key to consistency

The problem with the sales profession is that although there is much attention paid to implementing a method for execution (typically embedded within a CRM system), there is no agreed curriculum for learning that is either consistent or widely available – as it is for design professionals. Even in the context of a method, this often results in a very unsophisticated set of linear steps that describe the buying and selling journey as a mechanical set of tasks – from initial lead generation through to deal closure.

Sales training is disparate and rarely, if ever, linked to formal educational qualifications. The only formal sales degrees I know of in UK are the MA Sales Management at University of Portsmouth, and a MSc in Sales Transformation at Middlesex University. Worse still is the lack of structured coaching and mentoring for the sales professional linked to recognised standards. So, Design Thinking that is developed in a structured and academically recognised form can be adapted for the specific needs of the sales professional. A good example of such widely available education is the distance, online learning courses and certification made available by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University ( in the US.

Instead of interpreting Sales Enablement as just the enforcement of a method in a CRM system that all sales people must follow, as with designers, the sales person should undertake formal academic learning and have this blended with continuous learning, reinforced in the field through mentoring. The academic learning can be built on a curriculum, such as the Stanford and its pragmatic approach to Design Thinking expressed in five steps: empathise; define; ideate; prototype; and test. These Stanford steps are not simply five linear stages, but a journey to be repeated in rapid, iterative cycles. So, the method embraces the five step iterative cycles, and the curriculum for learning includes the online distance learning from Stanford or similar. Now the sales professional is learning alongside the design professional.

Making Design Thinking work in sales

In the real world there is one further thing that needs to be added to method and curriculum: mentoring. As with the architect or product designer, the sales person requires mentoring in the ‘heat of battle’ – the real world buying and selling cycle, and the realities of surviving and then succeeding in practicing the art of the high value, high touch sell. In Sales Enablement today, not only is the curriculum for learning missing, so too is the mentoring for each sales professional employed. Companies, large, medium and small, have effectively stopped training sales people, somehow expecting to hire people who can ‘hit the ground running’ from a narrow subsegment of their industry, and in the hiring process, paying too much attention to who they worked for, and very little on who they are, and crucially, who they can be.

In a larger sales organisation, mentoring can come from within the business, but in the smaller organisation, mentors should come from the outside of the firm. Mentoring should be built around a Design Thinking curriculum that also embraces commitment to academic study, alongside field learning. Mentoring sales professionals should be treated in the same way sports professional treat training: something to be embraced as ‘continuous professional development’, not as something restricted to the early stages of a sales career. From a Design Thinking in Sales perspective, the most important thing to learn is illustrated the first step in the Stanford process: empathise. In common with the design professional, the sales professional must learn how to empathise: building sufficient trust with a buyer, where receptivity and rapport are the key human characteristics here – not some narrow product, service or industry knowledge that almost anyone can acquire.

Just as not everyone can be trained to be a great design professional, so too, not everyone is cut out to be a great sales professional. But what the successful designer and sales person have in common is an opportunity to apply Design Thinking in an effective way to improve how they work. This combined method, coupled with continuous learning and mentoring can realise better Sales Enablement and yield better results.

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