Sale teams and product teams rarely speak the same language, or agree on much of anything. It seems that sales people are wired differently than their engineer and designer counterparts. Yet, ultimately their goals are the same. It’s just the steps to get there that put them at odds.

I had the opportunity do enterprise software sales for six months in my first job out of college to develop my “hustle” skills. I knew I’d need more charisma and persuasion skills when I started or joined a small scrappy team. What surprised me, however, is that sales translated directly into making me a more effective designer and developer.

Raw courage

I’ll be the first to say—sale isn’t my calling. I knew that going in and coming out. I closed a couple deals in the enterprise software offering I worked, but I was no prodigy. For an introvert like myself, it’s exhausting to process interactions with people all day, often in intense situations. Also, I just grew frustrated with what felt like reduced impact on the organization through 1:1 conversations. What I love about design is the ability to launch something new that scales immediately. That said, I grew to respect sales as a craft, equal in importance to design and other roles.

Growing the courage to pick up the phone and make a deal is just a good human skill. It lowers barriers between “us” and “them,” and aids us in understanding how we can help one another. Furthermore, having the skills to ease any interchange with banter, humor, and small talk just makes it more pleasant to do business. These are diridingly called “soft skills,” but they make magic.

Experienced salespeople are tough as nails. They face so much rejection that they become immune to failure, and view each ‘No’ as positive because it let’s them spend time with people who are a ‘maybe.’ For design, we must recognize that our work doesn’t suit 100% of your user base. Learning from failure’s helps you focus your energy on understanding the people you can address.

Empathy and ego as ingredients for success

I had some amazing mentors that taught me some invaluable lessons. First off, the best salespeople have two qualities in spades: empathy and ego. You need the ability to completely grasp the situation and pain your prospect feels in order to frame your solution to their needs. Also, you have to value you own time and not be a doormat to prospects, who tend to string your along with delays and other waffling. A salesperson must also carry a confidence that that you are knowledgable and can help with their problem. It also just means you pick up the phone again after getting five No’s before lunch. Ego is critical for resilience.

World-class designers often share these same characteristics. Empathy is an obvious one, but the ego part is often a knock against designers and artistic types, that they’re hard to work with and snobby. But, harnessed into ones work, ego is a driving force to perservering through tough problems and tough people.

Learning about buying psychology

Like a design project, each sales engagement starts with problem discovery. What is the situation they’re in? Why did they even come to your website? What is the micro-scale emotional pain they’re feeling (i.e. spreadsheets are becoming unwieldy), and how does that result in a broad-scale business problem (e.g. lost revenue or time)? These are the probing questions sales people use to qualify leads and then lead them to wanting the solution.

The phases in buying decision map directly to the multi-step design flows prospects must go through to get to the desired outcome (e.g. signing up or buying something). I always ask myself where the in the “funnel,” or degree of readiness to buy, my user is. This avoid wasting precious user attention on forcing a decision too early, and instead look to education them before asking for money.

Getting internal stakeholders bought in

Most truly bold designs carry a lot of risk, and can be derailed by one of the many stakeholders (senior leaders, marketers, engineers, or PMs). However, framed correctly, innovative approaches can be shown to benefit each role. The sales methodology my team practiced was SPIN Selling. It’s based on a a great book I’d highly recommend. Applied to fighting for design projects, I use that framework to go through the exercise of trying to empathize with my colleague’s situation and pain, then show how what I’m designing solves that problem.

Making decisions on behalf of the customer

It’s not my customer’s job to know about my domain. I should be expert in whatever solution space I operate in. At Intuit, it was finance, and I approached my designs as if the entrepreneurs we served knew nothing about software or finance. That’s idealistic, but it resulted in simplying choices, flows, and even copy. In sales, you want to be able to say “we’ll take care of that for you” and proceed to tailor a solution for them. In design, it’s implied, but the solution should take a load off your customers.

How to get some sales experience

Okay, doing sales is great, but how to designers get that exposure? I’ll list a few ways:

  • Shadow your sales team on calls. A lot of sales call software enables you to listen in on calls. Or, you can have a sales rep record the conversation. Either way, get the raw audio of a sales call. Make sure you get different phases of the call, from initial opening call to hearing objections to close. I always pulled away some nuggets of usefulness from hearing a call.
  • Observe people trying to sell you. Recognize when it’s effective. Usually it speaks to some pain you’re having. It could be as simple as being at a store, or seeing a banner ad or email that you want to click.
  • Pick up a book on sales. Sure, you won’t be in the trenches, but the mindsets and advice are very valuable and can be incorporated into your mindset for new projects. I recommend Influence, SPIN Selling, 3 Steps to Yes to start.