Sell by Design: Achieve Dramatic Results by Combining Design Thinking & Sales


By Ashley Welch & Justin Jones, Co-Founders, Somersault Innovation

When Sachin Rai boarded a Greyhound bus in San Francisco, he had little idea that his trip to Los Angeles would land him a multimillion-dollar sales contract. 

Sachin was an account executive at Salesforce, one of the world’s largest cloud-computing companies. He was searching for strategies to close deals faster while enjoying his job more. That’s when he joined our Sell by Design program, where we teach salespeople how to become authentically customer-centric. For Sachin, the noble and logical idea of putting the customer first paled in comparison to the pressure of meeting his numbers. 

 That’s why we launched Somersault Innovation, to put design thinking tools in the hands of sales professionals and demonstrate how authentic design can drive dramatic sales results. We set out to be coaches and teachers of Design Thinking but given our backgrounds in sales, we quickly realized there was a great deal of overlap between great Design Thinkers and great salespeople: both are curious, focused on the end-customer, looking for insights, and aiming to co-create with their customer for optimal results. With this realization, we started teaching salespeople some of the mindsets and tools from the world of design. 

Customer Experience

We suggested Sachin choose a prospect account which offered services he could experience as a customer. He chose one he’d been trying hard to sign: Greyhound. He packed his things, loaded up his curiosity, and set out on an eight-hour learning journey on a California freeway. On his trip, he talked to everyone, from ticket sellers and baggage handlers to bus drivers and customers. We asked him to pay attention, take notes, shoot pictures, and fully absorb the customer’s experience. 

The long-term goal, of course, was to sign Greyhound as a client. The short-term goal, however, was to conduct deep research so Sachin could understand the bus company through the eyes of a passenger and bus employee. If he could teach the C-suite something they didn’t know about their customers, they might finally engage. As he boarded the bus, the first thing he noticed was a frowning, frustrated driver filling out a lengthy report with pencil and paper. “Why did he have to waste time on that before starting the journey?” Sachin wondered. He asked the driver, who sighed and explained the tedium of filling out maintenance details on the requisite service log form. 

The entire maintenance reporting process was woefully inefficient, and it often resulted in a suboptimal passenger experience such as inoperable Wi-Fi. Sachin was so fascinated with what he discovered through his observations southbound, he decided to take the Greyhound-owned BoltBus on the return trip from LA to San Francisco. The BoltBus offered an automated ticketing process. The “automation” was a tablet, but it was so slow the driver used a “hack”—a workaround to bypass company procedure—to speed things up. 

The hack? You guessed it: he used pencil and paper to record passenger boarding information. When your company’s technology is slower than a five-thousand-year-old technique used by the ancient Egyptians, that’s probably a red flag. Sachin didn’t discover any of these revealing details about the “automation process” during his initial online research. Because he was willing to immerse himself in the customer experience, he was rewarded with these valuable insights. 

He then used this information to open doors with Greyhound’s executives. He emailed them and explained he’d taken a long ride on their bus and asked if he could share some feedback he had as a customer. He received immediate responses from C-suite executives. They were astounded by what he had to say. The problems he described had been invisible to them from their vantage point. In fact, the vice president of digital strategy had never taken an eight-hour ride on her company’s bus. Greyhound’s COO brought Sachin in to discuss the problems he’d witnessed.

Typically, Sachin would have walked into Greyhound’s office with a product to pitch. Before riding to LA he had begun designing a driver app solution, but he later discovered this would have been irrelevant. Without the knowledge from his trip, he would have pitched his app, struggling to convince a junior-level gatekeeper to send him to a decision maker. He never would’ve been in the same elevator as the COO, much less invited into his office.

Instead, Sachin showed the COO pictures he took with Marie, his driver, and he shared her frustrations about the service log form. The COO was awestruck that Sachin knew what the service log was and was eager to look for solutions. The two sat down to work together on a solution. Eight months later, Sachin and his team were able to build a relationship across multiple channels into a $3 million global deal. It was far beyond what Sachin had hoped for. 

Salesforce had initially envisioned a marketing deal, but Sachin’s insights led to ideas that included a much larger solution with a customer community app, a bus app, and a support app. Because of his firsthand experience, Sachin was able to explain how these apps would work in concert to benefit customers and drivers, as well as Greyhound’s bottom line. Sachin and Salesforce credit the Greyhound deal to the Sell by Design process. The most important element of his success, however, was something that occurred before he ever set foot in a bus depot: his mindset. Sachin succeeded where Salesforce had previously failed because he shifted his perspective from salesperson to customer.

Rather than go into a client meeting armed with the pitch of a salesperson, Sachin spoke the language of the company. He understood the service log form and the inefficiencies involved with it, as well as how these impacted the passenger experience. He had educated himself with the knowledge of internal Greyhound operations unfamiliar to most salespeople. When you begin your sales approach with the intent of understanding the client’s issues from their point of view—and their customers’ point of view—you position yourself for greater success. 

We have seen this repeated over and over. This type of approach leads to faster call-connects (the time that it takes to get a response from a customer), leads to higher engagement for both the sales professional and the customer, increases credibility and trust, and ultimately gives you the potential for a bigger deal size. It is also more fun!

Discovery, Insight, Accelerate

Sales and design thinking are more alike than you may think. We simplified a design thinking process to make it fit a sales cycle. It has three stages: Discovery, Insight, Acceleration. Each stage has a strategy and a set of tools. The entire cycle is supported by the design mindsets of curiosity, empathy, and agility.

Discovery. Learn more about your client, their business, and their customers. This stage focuses on real, living, breathing people. Data is important, and design thinking uncovers the human element within the data. Recall how Sachin discovered firsthand various hacks Greyhound staff employed to work around ineffective systems.

Insight. Use discoveries to form insights: interesting points of view that can lead to new solution ideas. Sachin was able to connect directly with Salesforce’s COO to discuss business opportunities at a completely different level thanks to his discoveries. These insights opened the door for Salesforce to connect with Greyhound at a deep level, perfect for building a long-term relationship.

Accelerate. Use visuals and storytelling to co-create with your client and drive deal velocity. Sachin and Salesforce built on these discoveries and insights to develop multiple, cross-platform solutions. Because of Sachin’s authentic customer experiences, he could accelerate the deal into something greater than a one-time engagement.

Get Started

Start by considering your potential client’s ecosystem of customers (internal and external). Who is your client’s customer and what do they care about? Focus your discovery there, and then bring your insights to the client. Be your client’s customer — just like Sachin did. Can you go into a store and make a purchase? Can you get online and engage with customer service?

Scan the web for customer reviews and satisfaction reports. Look at industry groups, what are they saying? Talk to your client’s internal stakeholder groups. Get creative, how can you get close to your client’s customer? Many of the people we work with will make a purchase online from their client, and then make a purchase in a client’s retail store, to compare the experience. Or they will chat online with customer service, call, email, and tweet, and then compare the experience. These approaches provide valuable insight.

The genesis point of value for any business is when and where it comes in contact with its customers. To the extent you can speak to that connection in an authentic way, you will enhance your credibility and overall position as a trusted advisor.

When you are doing discovery on your customer, be authentically curious. Set aside time, and forget about what you are selling for a moment — just focus on learning things you don’t know about your potential client. To quote a young friend, “unawesomeness is unacceptable,” so stop selling and start getting curious about your prospects and their customers. You never know what breakthroughs you’ll have along the way!


This article is from Issue 10 of our Design Museum Magazine. Want design features like these delivered straight to your door? Our magazine is free with every membership – join for just $5 a month.