Design thinking for sales is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. When salespeople think like designers, they can zero in on the customer’s needs and design a solution that meets them. But far less-talked about, and equally as critical, is the importance of sales thinking for a software designer — particularly an enterprise software designer.

In the design world, this might seem like a strange ask. After all, the historic enmity between design and sales is stuff of legend. But it’s time to put that tension behind us. Effective collaboration requires a synergistic relationship between design and sales. Each must inform the other’s work and ideas have to flow in both directions. If you’re striving to achieve this at your own company, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Customers don’t want to waste their time on companies that don’t listen to them. The research bears this out: Two-thirds of customers expect companies to meet their needs and expectations. Furthermore, some 84% of business customers are more likely to buy from companies that understand their needs, according to a 2020 Salesforce report.

But in enterprise design, the designer doesn’t always have a relationship with the customer. That’s usually left to the sales team. So the design team has to close that gap. Sales has the most exposure to the customers, so they’re a designer’s best bet for understanding user needs and requirements. You have to solicit and implement their feedback if you want to succeed. There’s simply no substitute for that input. If you’re still carrying around baggage containing negativity with regards to sales, this is the time to check it.

To collaborate fully with the sales team, you’ve got to have a basic understanding of the types of sales — particularly the differences between transactional and consultative sales.

In transactional sales, a salesperson simply hands over the goods the customer has asked for in exchange for compensation. There isn’t much interaction. A customer chooses a coat, pays for it, and leaves.

The real promise for enterprise design lies in consultative sales. In our store example, a salesperson might ask some questions and discover that the customer’s current coat is warm enough for most situations, and that what they really needs is a warm set of long underwear for infrequent excursions to colder climates. By taking the time to understand the customer’s needs, the salesperson has identified the best solution for the problem and more importantly, has gained trust and maybe some brand loyalty. This is consultative selling.

A salesperson employing a consultative strategy is going to take the time to really understand the customer’s needs and then craft a pitch — or even an entire product — to meet that need. Consultative sales allow for a back-and-forth between the customer and the salesperson that has the potential to unlock a new deal. In the case of a customer coming to you looking for a specific technology, you might recommend another tool to address their problem — and end up selling them both.

Simply connecting more directly to the customer isn’t enough, though. To design wildly successful products that will wow clients and build loyalty, try involving the customers directly in the design process. IKEA’s co-creation platform is a great example of this. The furniture giant solicited product suggestions from customers and offered cash rewards to those whose designs were chosen. As a result, the company was flooded with thousands of ideas from fans — creating a real-time snapshot of what its customers want.

You can recreate this on a smaller scale by inviting customers or a group of end-users to a “design sprint” where you can walk them through part of the process and get their feedback. You’ll be able to meet their needs more effectively and they’ll feel heard and valued.

You can also incorporate end users into a beta test group that will receive early software features. This provides them an outlet for their opinions and suggestions, and helps you strengthen your design to solve their problems. They feel valued, and you get a new perspective on your product.

Designers should participate in the sales process because that is where a lot of the design decisions get made. When you’re too downstream of the decision-making, you can find yourself scratching your head over an impossible design or working with strange constraints. These kinds of situations can be avoided when the designer is involved in the sales process.

For example, maybe a company has requested a “Name” field that has 300 characters to accommodate job titles as well as names. A sales person probably agreed to this requirement without realizing that this problem could be solved more neatly by incorporating a “Job Title” field.

As a designer, if you’re in the room where it happens, you can ensure reasonable requirements and constraints for your design from the get-go.

So how do you get into that room, anyway? By having a good relationship with sales and making sure that you are always adding value. By showing that you’re a team player and that you understand how to talk to a customer in regular language that won’t make their eyes glaze over. (Don’t make this mistake). Otherwise, the salesperson won’t be motivated to let you in. And you’re not always going to get in there. But when you can, take the opportunity to add real value and improve the product and relationship.

You might also suggest to sales that bringing a designer into the meeting will help the customer feel like they are getting ground-level input into their design. It’s as though you’re enjoying a very special meal at a restaurant you can’t really afford, and the chef makes a personal appearance at your table to inquire how you’d like your steak seasoned. That level of personal attention can really make a customer feel valued.

Ultimately, when designing for enterprise, it’s important to understand how you as a designer fit into the rest of the organization’s key roles, especially sales. When you understand how to leverage that relationship, you can design better products that resonate with customers.

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