Taivara Blog Post by Kevin Dwinnell

Involving Sales in Innovation: Ideation

Company Culture

Highly publicized leaders in innovation, like 3M and Apple, are known for anticipating customer demand before the consumers themselves are aware yet. This rare form of predictive innovation at these companies is lead by a culture of disruptive engineering and design. For the majority of innovators, however, strategic innovation starts with an ideation process that includes a customer with known demands and clearly identifiable pain points.

Enterprise innovators that coordinate cross-functional input and embrace diversity of perspective should include the sales team during the early stages of ideation. Giving the sales team a seat at the table gives you access to customers and a unique set of skills that adds value to the innovation process.

Intrapreneur Led Innovation

Innovation initiatives led by intrapreneurs are built from a foundational business case, with market and customers as a key component that drives product development. Managing innovation to have repeatable success can weigh heavily on the role your customer plays in your innovation value chain (IVC) process. When we work with an enterprise on their IVC, the voice of customer plays an important role in the Innovation stage (ideation). We work with companies to determine when and where to involve a sales team in the innovation value chain.

Where does sales fit?

The first step of the innovation process has 3 parts: idea generation, idea conversion, and idea diffusion. Think about the strengths of your sales team and how they can best contribute in each of these three areas. A sales person’s experience and general skill set makes them an asset during idea generation and idea diffusion, they just need to have the proper direction and motivation so they will actively contribute and enhance your innovation process.

Idea Generation from the Customer’s Perspective

The day in a life of a sales person is great for some and a nightmare for others. Hours on the phone, hours in the car, hours in meetings, and a few more hours to research the companies that they are prospecting. All that time equals a lot of listening and a great sales person listens more than he talks. We love when a sales person is involved in an ideation team and can translate what they are hearing from the customers into actionable insight for the ideas being generated. This collaboration across business units also sets the stage for acceleration and launch.

Speaking For the Customer

The sales team in your organization can play a role in communicating the voice of customer to your ideation team. Each organization will have different business objectives and resource constraints that will determine how a sales team can participate in innovation. If you are involving sales in ideation for the first time, I’d recommend choosing 1 or 2 of your sales rockstars. Define expectations for their involvement and determine if asking volunteers or assigning the task will deliver the best results. Your best sales people will be pulled kicking and screaming from anything that detracts from their commissionable activities. Don’t forget to consider incentives, it’s hard wired in your top performers and you want it that way.

Taking The Sting Out of Idea Diffusion

Organizations are turning innovation management into a core competency to bring repeatability to their innovation with a big focus on the idea diffusion process to make sure any idea being seriously pursued has legitimate potential.

Let your dedicated innovation team focus on the Idea Conversion step of ideation and bring your sales team back to the table when it is time to start spreading the ideas and gathering feedback. Customer-buy-in is an important part of the Idea Diffusion stage. If you don’t get broad customer buy-in, then you don’t have validation yet (one customer “YES” does not qualify). Get your idea out there and risk that someone will call your proverbial baby ugly. But that can still hurt for someone that has spent a ton of time and effort thoughtful crafting ideas through generation and conversion. So how can your salesperson help?

  • Rejection Handling: a sales person’s thick skin is ideal for collecting honest feedback without inventors bias and insulate your ideators from 1st person feedback
  • Information gathering (but not selling): Don’t ask leading questions to get the customer saying “Yes”, but let the conversation happen naturally so you capture the customers opinions of the product and their willingness to consider it
  • Identifying Opportunities for Innovation: Customers are a great source for innovation input (as long as there input is scalable and more than a one-off need)

Involving Sales in Ideation

Your sales people have specific skills that have allowed them to be top earners and contribute to your bottom line. If innovation is a priority for your business, consider involving sales earlier in the process. In two following blog posts, I will discuss the role that sales can plan accelerating and launching innovation.

When inviting your sales team to participate in your innovation initiative:

  • Involve sales early in the ideation process
  • Solicit their ideas and feedback on ideas during Idea Generation
  • Don’t forget to incentivize your sales people
  • Use your sales person to collect feedback during Idea Diffusion
  • Cross-functional involvement early on in the Innovation Value Chain will initiate buy-in across departments to support the next stages of acceleration and launch

Intrapreneurs, next time you see a sales person at your company, ask them what they are hearing from their customers and invite them to an ideation meeting!

Share This