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Innovation In Sales

by David Brock on August 2nd, 2011

Innovation In Sales—sounds a little like an oxymoron, something like sales intelligence.  I was intrigued by the question my friend Lauren Harper posed on Focus.

Innovation is critical.  The pace at which customers are changing the way they buy, demands rapid change and innovation.  Without it, we  will be left behind.  We will become uncompetitive, our products and services will be commoditized, we will be left to fulfilling orders at the lowest possible price.

Yet innovation is tough–or we make it tougher than it need be.  I think the problem is that we have a tendency to associate innovation with “The Big Idea.”  Coming up with the big idea is tough.  It takes a huge amount of time, very smart insightful people, lots of research and debate.  Implementing the big idea is tougher.  It probably means aligning lots of disparate interests, many moving parts, great change management efforts, and huge risks.  It may take months or years to know if there is a payback.

I tend to like to think of innovation in sales as dozens to hundreds of little ideas or experiments.  Innovation starts with each sales person looking at what they do every day.  Trying something new–perhaps a new way to do a prospecting call, perhaps a different way of engaging the customer in a conversation about what they are trying to achieve, perhaps a different way of presenting a solution.  It’s looking at each deal and asking, “What if I tried something a little different?”  Perhaps it’s exploring personal performance, asking “What can I do to shorten my sales cycle?” “How do I improve my ability to win?”  It may be asking the customer, “How can I be more effective in working with you?”  Perhaps it’s getting rid of some bad habits.  The biggest enemies of innovation at a personal level is being on autopilot, sticking rigidly to the script, not paying attention, going through the motions.

At an organizational and managerial level, the same principles apply.  It’s encouraging your people to try some different things.  It may be seeing one high impact thing a sales person is doing and sharing that “best practice” with everyone else — letting them experiment and adapt it to their own territories.

Ideas can come from learning from other organizations in other industries (that’s one reason networking events can be really powerful).  It maybe seeing someone or organization doing something clever; then adapting it, tweaking it, and trying it in your own situation or organization.  Reading, attending conferences, constantly learning, also provide great ideas.  It may not come from a conference speaker focusing on the big idea, but from that conversation you had with someone during a break.

Not every idea will succeed, but since you are working on dozens to hundreds of little ideas, the risks of failure are probably very small or even inconsequential.  Plus, even for those ideas that fail–there is something to be learned, perhaps even a new idea or innovation.

Set a goal for yourself and your team to come up with 5 new ideas that can be implemented tomorrow at no cost.  Try them out, throw away those that don’t work, adapt those that do.  When you’ve exhausted those 5, come up with another 5, repeat the same cycle.  Dozens of ideas and innovations, executed rapidly can have a higher and faster payoff then the one “Big Idea.”

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  1. Yuegang Zhao permalink

    Great post as always, Dave. One thing I would like to add to the innovation in sales is to really listen and understand customer’s needs, and come up with creative ways of solving it and differentiate from the competitors. It can be a different product solution, or a new business venture. An innovation without a customer focus is not much useful for the business.

    • Great point Yuegang. Pragmaitically, involving the customer in your innovation process dramatically reduces risk and accelerates the market ramp. Product developers have leveraged this very well. I think sales and marketing professionals need to look incorporating the customer more actively in their own innovations processes. Thanks, as always, for the insightful comments. Regards, Dave

  2. Perhaps the pace of innovation is linked directly to the size of the problem being solved by the customer. In other words, most customers don’t need massive innovation until they have truly been disrupted (by new technology, market demands, etc.). And by disruptive I truly do NOT mean inconvenienced. But there are sooooooo many inconveniences in the constantly moving/evolving world of customers that the approach you outlined for small, consistent innovations is such a vital part of healthy business. Therefore, until something disruptive occurs (or is needed), taking the philosophy of kaizen (continuous improvements) is truly the best approach.

    What do you think of my ramble, Dave?

    • Tim: I always love your rambles, they broaden the conversation so much.

      I’m tending to have a negative reaction to the concept of disruption, first it is becoming too common in the language — disruption is becoming too common. I’m looking for the next “big” word to explain what’s beyond the “common every day disruption.” Perhaps it will be supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

      Anyway, back to the topic. I don’t know about the “pace” of innovation and improvement. We must constantly change and improve. We have to drive it at as fast a pace as possible–certainly faster than our customers or competition. We have to improve our capacity to absorb, drive, and manage change within our own organizations and with our customers.

      Personally, I love kaizen and the approaches to change in lean. They provide the framework and focus for us to change, innovate and improve.

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