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Breakthrough ideas begin in the R&D lab. Or the IT department. Or the boardroom where the best and the brightest from the executive team gather to brainstorm something transformative. The last place many people would expect to find innovation, on the other hand, is the sales department.

In many organizations -- too many, in fact -- the sales group is often thought of as a sort of fulfillment operation, where the innovation baked into various products and services gets put in front of customers and then purchased. It’s not that the rest of the company doesn’t respect it’s sales team, after all, selling any kind of innovation requires a good understanding of what’s new and different, and why it should matter to a particular target market. To identify opportunities for innovation across the customer experience, though, is usually assumed to be in the purview of other lines of business.

That’s a shame, because sales people are sometimes among the only ones on the front lines actually talking to customers, hearing about what they’re going through and what they’re looking to achieve on a day-to-day basis. The best sales people not only pitch, but ask great questions, learning the kinds of things about their customers that companies might otherwise spend thousands on market research studies to learn. Why not tap into that collective braintrust when you’re looking to stay innovative and stand out from other companies in the same sector or industry?

One answer might be that many organizations simply lack a formal process to regularly engage with the sales team and draw out their insights. There might also be a fear, for example, that any time spent innovating is time that salespeople “lose” to close more deals. The reality is that if sales teams can help drive innovation, they might be able to open up entirely new markets for their organization, increase the volume of business they get from their existing client base, or both.

Here’s how to start changing the paradigm around sales teams and innovation, based on some possible areas for involvement and the approach you could take:
 

1. Product Design and Development


Even if they’re managing to meet their quota every quarter or even every month, the best salespeople are probably hearing a lot of feedback from their customers -- and not all of it is positive.

When other teams in the company are starting to work on new products and services, or even on new features or updates to existing products in your company’s portfolio, discuss the following with your sales staff and offer it to those in areas like R&D or design:

  • What’s the most common thing customers need to learn in order to get up and running quickly with the firm’s products?
  • What other problems are sometimes introduced to customer’s lives, if any, once they’re finding success with the product?
  • What are some of the “extras” or “nice-to-haves”, if any, that customers mention they’d like to see from the product that aren’t already on your product roadmap?
  • What do customers say about the competition’s products and services that they like or dislike?

The answers to any of these questions could spark innovations in functionality, complementary products and services that could be added to your portfolio. In some cases, they might point to entirely new categories of products and services the company hasn’t considered before.
 

2. Testing and Launch


Before anything actually gets put into the funnel to be sold, most companies need to go through at least some process of quality assurance with new products and services to make sure the experience is as optimized as possible. In some situations, existing customers are given a chance to demo or run trial versions of products before they’re fully released, but consider having members of the sales team -- the people who will be touting the merits of what’s developed -- among the earliest adopters, too.

Although the sales team might not need to personally use the products and services the way an actual customer would, they probably know enough about their market to weigh in on things like:

  • Interface: Whether you’re offering a piece of technology or a more traditional product, there will inevitably be new pages added to your website, an app or other digital elements customers will need to visit. The sales team will be quick to notice the information customers need most, the questions they might have or any other issues.
  • Specs: A lot of key launch decisions for any product include things around size, bundles and of course pricing. Don’t overlook this as an area for potential innovation, where sales people could help discover fresh new ways to drive adoption quickly.
  • Marketing: A new product or even a new release might require new online ads, white papers, blog posts, infographics and more. Salespeople should always have a chance to review these in advance, because they’ll know what resonates or not and could even offer ideas on more innovative ways to convey the key messages.
     

3. Customer Experience


Sales people are obviously interested in selling, but they also want to make sure their customers are happy over the long term so that they’ll be willing to purchase again in the future. That makes them prime candidates to influence innovation across the entire customer experience.

A salesperson might know, for instance, whether the company’s particular customer base might be ready to try new forms of self-service like a chatbot, and what an ideal experience using one might look like. They could discuss innovative ways to both drive demand as well as help customers get the most out of their purchase based on the channels they’ve seen customers use most often, whether it’s email or social media. There might even be innovative ways to make the purchase itself, whether it’s introducing a different way to invoice or how to manage the customers’ account information.

Sales teams have long been credited as a key profit centre in almost every kind of business. It’s time they start being seen as a potential source of innovation, too.