Innovation is creativity channeled into productive use. Sales leaders look for opportunities to take a creative approach to problem solving and even finding problems. A study at Bell Laboratories on creativity sought to understand what led some people to be more creative than others.
What the study found as a common denominator was that creative people all thought they were creative. They approached problems in a creative manner and, as a result, were more likely to come up with creative solutions. They knew there could be multiple solutions to problems, so they looked for them. People who are creative are willing to tolerate, even encourage, the initial disorganization or confusion that creativity generates before it leads to concrete ideas.
Creative people use a variety of techniques to find creative solutions. The common factor, in many cases, is the ability to get engaged in an unrelated relaxing activity, letting the subconscious go to work to come up with solutions that the conscious mind could never imagine. Creative people tend to have an intense focus on their work, to get immersed in it, but they tackle diversions with just as much attention. Creative people also like to talk with other creative people and throw around ideas that lead to unexpected results.
I won't go so far as to claim that I'm a creative person, but I have my moments, and they tend to be when I'm relaxed and not actually thinking about a problem. It could be when I'm exercising, when I'm just awakening in the morning, or when I'm doing a completely unrelated activity. When you are facing what seems like an insurmountable problem and you have been working on it for some time, the best action might be to step away from it. That may seem counterintuitive, but it allows the subconscious to go to work.
MIT professor Eric Von Hippel suggests that companies work closely and continuously with their lead users in order to keep up with the changing needs of customers. Lead users are those who push the boundaries for solutions. Customers are often inventive with solutions, adapting what they use to better fit what they need. They may see needs that the supplier didn't when developing the product or service. Sales leaders can gain good insights by making their lead customers a priority when it comes to research and onsite presence.
But be careful when asking customers what they want. For example, when customers are asked what they would like, they say what they think they would like—but when they get it, it isn't what they want. What happened? The salesperson didn't probe and go beyond the initial request to find out what the real problems, desires, or needs were.
He might have looked at the symptom, but not the cause. He never identified the outcomes the individual wanted. He focused on processes and features, not benefits. He didn't observe how the customer actually used the product.
Creative people tend to draw on the right side of the brain for creative ideas and then use the left side of the brain to organize and implement. The right side works best when it is not working. You have probably gotten creative ideas and solutions when you weren't really thinking about them but instead were relaxed.
To develop innovative customer solutions means getting as much information as possible to frame the problem and then thinking creatively about what can be done to solve it. Creativity is like working out. You need to stretch your creative mind and build your creativity for it to be developed. Here are five suggestions for approaching problem solving creatively.
Be curious. If something puzzles you or strikes you as unexpected, don't ignore it. Investigate it. What can you learn? What is unexplained? Why? Don't accept a quick, standard response to your query.
Challenge your beliefs. What do you believe to be true? How might the situation or problem or solution be different from what you believe? What do others believe about the situation? Why? Suppose the opposite were true? Just because a belief is common doesn't make it true.
Follow your instincts. If you feel something isn't right, it probably isn't. Look into it. Don't blindly follow the well-worn path without at least thinking about whether you want to. Be aware of boundaries and rules, but don't take them as the truth. Rules are for convenience; boundaries help control. Neither of those is helpful to creativity.
Consider all possibilities. Don't reject a creative solution (or let someone else do it) by saying, "That will never work." If you prematurely reject an idea because it seems unfeasible, you may be rejecting the best solution before you've even evaluated it. At an early stage, don't focus on "how." If a solution is compelling, people will figure out how to make it work.
Ask the right questions. When you encounter a roadblock, start asking, "Suppose . . . ?" Suppose we did this? Suppose we did that? You will encourage others to start thinking creatively along with you.
" Creativity in an organization starts where the action is—in the laboratory, in R and D sites, at a customer's place, in manufacturing."
—Samuel J. Palmisano, chairman and CEO, IBM
I call the use of creativity in a sales environment salesivity™. Salesivity gives you a powerful strategic advantage. It allows you to create solutions that uniquely position you with the customer and differentiate yourself from the competition.
Creative solutions lie beyond the boundaries. Standard approaches are, by definition, within the boundaries, so if you are faced with a unique customer problem and need to come up with a unique customer solution, you will need to go beyond the boundaries. There is an inherent risk in doing so; success is not guaranteed and there could be a monetary cost or a perceived loss of power. But there is also an inherent risk in not doing so. The risk in not addressing the customer's unique problem in an innovative way is that someone else will.
Boundaries exist to limit options. In most cases, there is a relevant reason for this. If businesses didn't have budgets, for example, people would spend too little or too much. You need to respect ethical and legal boundaries (and take care not to push them). But when it's time to come up with creative solutions to customer problems, ways to do things better, faster, or cheaper, boundaries are the wrong place to start. The right place to start is by looking at what's possible or desirable, not what's feasible or manageable.
As many times as I have asked people to do the "nine-dot exercise," most people who haven't seen it before aren't able to come up with a solution (there is more than one), and about half the people who've seen a solution can't recall what it is. (The goal of the nine-dot exercise is to connect all nine dots in a pattern of three rows of three dots with only four straight lines without lifting your pen or pencil from the paper once you begin.) That's understandable. The key isn't really remembering the solution; it's remembering the principle behind the solution, which is what is often referred to as "thinking outside the box."
I hesitate to use this term, because it has become almost counterproductive to do so, but this is where classic brainstorming rules apply. There are two parts to the creative approach: The first is to generate as many ideas as possible within your given time frame. (The key here is to think quantity, not quality.) The second is to prioritize the solutions identified in the first step. (Now you think quality.) The difficulty often is that it isn't easy to stick with the rules, and unless you are actually in a formal creative session, people will often knock down a creative idea as soon as it is proposed.
It is up to you, the sales leader, to have a creative mind-set and explain to people ahead of time what you are striving to do so that you can create the right expectations on their part and then have a more effective creative dialogue. So even if you are having what may amount to an informal discussion of a problem and possible solutions, take care not to eliminate potential solutions before they have been given a chance to prove themselves.
After analyzing more than thirty companies around the world, W. Chan Kim and Renee A. Mauborgne, in their paper "Value Innovation: The Strategic Logic of High Growth," found that the difference between the high-growth companies and their less successful competitors was in each group's assumptions about strategy. The less successful companies took a conventional approach: they sought to stay ahead of the competition. High-growth companies employed a strategy of offering unprecedented value. In essence, slower-growth companies compete with other companies. Higher-growth companies compete by challenging the status quo. The authors of the study suggest, "Most companies focus on matching and beating their rivals, and as a result their strategies tend to converge along the same basic dimensions of competition. As rivals try to outdo one another, they end up competing solely on the basis of incremental improvements in cost or quality or both." Value innovators question what an industry takes for granted.
A committee from The Industrial Research Institute, Inc., summarized the concept this way: "Value innovation is customer driven and the goal is a product or service with radically superior value. The innovation may use new or existing technology, but the solution usually does not follow conventional practices.
"Value innovations redefine the problems to:
Discover hidden demand: expand the existing market
Create new demand: identify new markets"
Put another way, technology innovation may or may not lead to greater value. It depends on what customers want.
Sales leaders apply these concepts in a sales environment by questioning the norms, standards, and assumptions that their customers, industries, or companies take for granted. Sales leaders gather information about the customer's situation, then step back and creatively assess what the situation is in the context of the customer's business goals and strategies. When they do this successfully, they will be in a position to deliver unique solutions to their customers. They will enlist the backing of a team of designers, engineers, or others in their efforts to develop the solution. Sales leaders aren't bystanders.
A good way to understand the dimensions and differences of high- and low-value and innovative versus existing solutions is to place them in a grid I developed to help explain the concept. But let me begin by giving the definitions of high-value and innovative solutions.
High-value solutions are solutions that solve problems customers see as high priority, delivered how they want them. Innovative solutions are solutions that address or anticipate changing customer needs.
Thus, sales leaders, the consistent top producers, deliver high-value, innovative solutions, the combination shown in quadrant 1. Sales professionals deliver solutions built around high-value, existing products and services, shown in quadrant 2. Taking advantage of both existing and innovative solutions allows top producers to draw on the appropriate solution to meet a variety of customer needs and internal opportunities. Because innovative solutions require a larger investment of time and aren't always needed by the customer, using existing solutions for appropriate problems can be cost effective. But when existing solutions don't address the customer's changing needs or take advantage of new technologies to develop those needs, that's when sales leaders seek different or new applications.
Technologists provide innovative solutions to problems that customers see as low priority or deliver them in ways that are ineffective, as shown in quadrant 3. This is a solution looking for a problem.
Salespeople who work from existing solutions and just don't get to the right customer issues, if they make the sale at all, are going to provide low value from the customer's point of view. These salespeople, who are often new to the profession, are going to struggle to make higher-margin sales and develop repeat business (unless they start to deliver higher-value solutions). They are often going to have to compete on price and will spend a great deal of time trying to get a sale that ultimately won't lead to another sale. It will be difficult for them to remain in the business.
It is possible to go from quadrant 4 to 2—that is, to go from being a salesperson to being a sales professional. Salespeople who avail themselves of training, develop industry and business knowledge, and use a consultative approach to uncover customer needs can become sales professionals. It is possible to go from quadrant 3 to quadrant 1—from a technologist to a sales leader—but I suspect that the route is more likely to go from 3 to 2 and then to 1. This may be more likely if the individual understands what is missing and receives the support of his or her company to fill in the gaps. This is often the case in my sales workshops, when I have, for example, former engineers, designers, or IT people who sell. They have a strong technical background, and with the addition of the right selling skills they can become the sales professional, looking for customer problems first, not "data dumping" technical solutions on low-priority customer problems.
What are the distinctions between high and low value and between innovative and existing solutions?
Solves high-priority customer problems
Convenient and cost effective
Consistent and assured results
Solves low-priority customer problems
May be harder to use, requires extra time
May not perform quite as promised
Address changing industry and market conditions
Initiate a new perspective on old problems
Use a new framework or new approaches
Address current situation
Use traditional approaches
Use current framework
Innovation doesn't apply to technology alone. It can apply to the people side of the customer interaction. For example, you may want to look at the skills of people who work with your customer. Are their skills up to the level they need to be? Or does a lack of skills create errors or inconvenience for customers? Innovation can also apply to the customer process, which may or may not involve technology. If the customer, or people in the customer's organization, would find it beneficial to have a different arrangement for interfacing with your organization, accommodating that preference can lead to higher customer satisfaction.
Remember that innovative salespeople do the following consistently:
Ask "What if?"
Use creative thinking time
Don't first ask "How?" but "Why?"
Have a balance between results and process
Give credit to others when deserved