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The key to striking more deals with customers is to understand what their customers want. And the more curious you are during the discovery process the better. Join Ashley Welch, Co-Founder, Somersault Innovation, as she shares the secrets to applying design thinking to the sales process for a more customer-centric, more successful way to sell.

Your first step as a salesperson is really to understand 'what does your customer care about?' and 'what does your customer's customer care about?”

Ashley Welch | Co-Founder, Somersault Innovation

Micalizzi: Today we’ll be discussing how to use design thinking in sales to build pipeline with Ashley Welch, Co-Founder at Somersault Innovation. Welcome, Ashley.


Ashley Welch: Thank you. Thank you for having me.


Micalizzi: Ashley, would you share a little bit about yourself for our listeners?


Welch: Yes, I’d be happy to. I am the co-founder, as you said, of Somersault Innovation with Justin Jones. We started Somersault Innovation because we have a passion for teaching others the skills and tools of design thinking, and in particular, are very passionate about how to bring the tools of design into the sales environment to increase revenue. I, myself, have been in sales for over 20 years, so I’m keenly interested in this space.


Micalizzi: Excellent. I’m Kevin Micalizzi, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Salesforce, and I’m joined today by my co-host, Colin Nanka, Senior Director of Enablement at Salesforce. Welcome, Colin.


Colin Nanka: Thank you. You got it. I’m happy to be here.


Micalizzi: So, let’s jump into this, Ashley. I know you’ve joined us for the Quotable video series before, but we really haven’t talked about design thinking on the podcast. Would you give our listeners a picture of what you mean when we talk about design thinking?


Welch: Sure. Yeah, design thinking is a very population innovation methodology. I think of it as three things: It’s a process for innovating, it’s a set of tools that map to that process, and it’s a mindset, or mindsets, of empathy, curiosity, and customer-centricity.

The whole thing about design thinking is, it’s all about starting with the customer and understanding what’s desirable from the customer’s viewpoint or the end user’s point of view and then working backwards into your innovation, and using what you learn about them as your inspiration for what you innovate around.

And so, it’s very popular today in many different organizations to innovate, like the Apple mouse was developed out of a design thinking process, Lufthansa is using design thinking to rethink the airline experience for all of us, and many other organizations that you know of are using design thinking to innovate.


Nanka: Ashley, it sounds pretty straightforward and pretty simple, but I know it’s not. Why did you originally start Somersault and how did design thinking iterate from the first day that you decided to bring this to market?


Welch: Yeah. Good question. You said it sounds simple but it’s not, and I think it’s actually both. I think it is very simple in many ways. And yet, there’s a reason for us as human beings that we don’t stay curious or we don’t stay customer-centric. I think there are many reasons for that, and we can talk about that.

We started Somersault because design thinking is fun, and it taps into human creativity. When people tap into their human creativity and start to connect with others, magic happens.

And so we wanted to play in that space, and in particular, bring it to sales to really change how people sell and help them become more consultative, more curious, more customer-centric.


Nanka: One of the things you mentioned is curiosity, and if we could instill one thing in all of our sales reps at Salesforce, it would be curiosity.


Welch: Yeah.


Micalizzi: We work on it quite a bit. How do you start to instill that curiosity as you teach people your methodology?


Welch: Yeah. Just got a question last week in one of the classes we were teaching here around: “Do you really think you can teach curiosity?” The person who was asking the question did not think you could teach it. I do think you can teach it, and I think that’s why design thinking actually is a great methodology — because it provides a toolkit to help those who are not, perhaps, naturally curious, to be more curious.

We talk about what do you look for. If you’re going to be curious, what do you look for? In particular, we say — and this is from the design thinking world — “Look for things that surprise you.” If something surprises you, instead of just moving on, that’s a place to double down and say, “Actually, I want to learn more about that.”

Or look for places of value. If all of a sudden, you see people, let’s say, congregating around something, or everybody is buying this, or everybody is lined up here —that’s because they value something. What is that? Another place to dig in and learn more.

And then lastly, look for hacks or workarounds. What do people do to get around a system? People are very creative. We’re all very creative. If a system doesn’t work for us, we find a way around, and that means that there’s an unmet need or interest there. So, another place to dig in and be curious.


Micalizzi: I know one of the things you’ve talked about in the past is, with that curiosity, it’s also understanding your customer and your customer’s customer, which I think a lot of folks don’t take that second step and think about not just who am I trying to sell to, but who did they sell to and what challenges do they have. So, I’m curious — how do you approach that, especially in your training?


Welch: Yeah. We talk a lot about your first step as a salesperson is really to understand what does your customer care about, and what does your customer’s customer care about. And we talk about it as a daisy chain of value. Because at the end of the day, if the end user doesn’t want to buy or engage in your services, you’re dead in the water for your customer.

If you, let’s say Salesforce, can think about how to help your customer, let’s say PWC [PricewaterhouseCoopers], support their customers, you’re adding huge value. So, you need to understand who are their customers and perhaps even their customers.

We also think about the ecosystem of customers, and really paying attention to all the different sets and what they care about is really where you can add value as a salesperson. So, the question is how do you get close to them, how do you understand what customers care about? The first step is understanding who are the customers and mapping out that ecosystem, and then thinking creatively about how to get close to them.

In a retail environment, that’s really easy. Let’s say your customer is the Gap. Their customer is you and me. You can easily go into a store and start to pay attention to what people care about. You can get online and apply for their loyalty app, for example, and see for yourself as a customer what works or what doesn’t work.

Let’s say your customer is a B2B client, or let’s say PWC or another consulting firm or even an airline. Then you just need to get creative about how do you get close to who their customers are and figure out what they care about. And you can do that by getting on any kind of customer SAT [satisfaction] reports. Let’s say you might have a cousin, a friend, a sibling who works there. Talk to somebody who works there.

Someone came up with a great idea the other day. They said, “These big, let’s say, consulting firms often go to college campuses to recruit. Why don’t you go to a college campus and talk to them and see what they’re recruiting for employees?” There’s so many different ways to start to understand your customer that often we don’t even think about. We’re just online looking at 10-Ks, analyst reports, annual reports, and we stop there. And that’s not a differentiator — everybody is doing that.


Nanka: As I’m listening to you talk, Ashley, what’s flashing in my head is some of the top sales reps that I’ve worked with over the years. These are things that, whether naturally or learned, they do. But where some of the sales reps who don’t do that, they struggle. That goes back to: Is curiosity natural, or can curiosity be taught?

What are some of the fundamentals? If we’ve got a sales leader listening and they’re thinking, “How do I teach the fundamentals of curiosity?” what would you say?


Welch: Yeah. We’d say, “You need to give them an experience to start building that muscle.” When we work with sales teams, one of the first things we do within the first hour of being together is we’ll send them out into the city that we’re working in.

Let’s say we’re here in New York. We put people in pairs and we tell them, “Your customer is a paint store,” and we send them to different paint stores. They have to go in and pretend that Benjamin Moore or Sherwin-Williams is their customer, and we give them observation tools or discovery tools that they have to use to start to notice things that they wouldn’t have noticed before. All of us have been in a paint store, and all of us whip in and whip out, and we don’t really pay attention to all these things around us.

Sherlock Holmes said, “The world is full of things that nobody ever notices.” What we’re trying to get people to do is start noticing things that are right in front of them about what people care about or unmet needs, for example. And so, I come back to, like, we want them to build that muscle, so we give them an experience of that and have them do that, and then come back and then start to translate that into “What could you do with your customer in a discovery space to learn something different about them that you wouldn’t have otherwise learned?”


Nanka: It sounds like you’re bridging the gap for them to helping understand what that process looks like, and at the same time it’s immersion. It’s getting out there and experiencing it, which, as we know through learning, people really take that into a much deeper place when they learn that way.


Welch: Exactly. I think once people have a taste of this, it becomes a much more engaging way to engage with your customer as well. Because once I experience investigating my client in this way versus just online, it’s much more interesting. Both need to happen. I’m not saying don’t get online and do all your due diligence. That’s important. But this is another way to understand your customer at a different level that becomes engaging for you as a sales rep as well.

And then when you discover something interesting and you’re able to feed that back to your customer, and your customer says, “Kevin, how did you know about the M7 report?” All of a sudden, you have a different type of conversation. It’s fulfilling and translates into a deeper relationship.


Micalizzi: Are there specific tools that you work with? I think once you get that creativity going, translating that into actionable insights, I think, can be challenging.


Welch: Yeah.


Micalizzi: Is there guidance or are there tools you recommend for folks to make that leap to not only being curious, but really leveraging it to the best advantage?


Welch: Yeah. We teach people a model. We teach a three-step model that’s discovery, insight, accelerate. In each phase of the model there’s a set of tools, and we give people an experience of each one of them.

In discovery, some of the tools are an interview, which is our most common discovery tool. Show me, which is “Can I actually see what you’re doing? Can you show me that Excel spreadsheet that you use?” Because people often tell us things that are different than what they actually do. We do that all the time. I’ll give you an example in a moment.

Another tool is “fly on the wall,” which means just go and observe, and pick up things and notice things that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen.

Back to show me. There’s a great example of Jamie, who was a rep at a software organization, and he had a bank as a customer. So, he went to the bank. He was talking to the people there, and they were talking about their loan system. He said, “Can you show me your loan system?” and she said, “Sure,” and she took him on the other side of the computer and showed him this loan system which ended up being this homegrown loan system because their current software didn’t fit their need.

So, of course, he left there thinking, “Bingo.” Here’s another sales opportunity that he never would’ve known if she hadn’t have shown him. Because she would’ve said, “Yeah, I’ve got a great loan system.” So, those are some of the tools in discovery.

Insight is about translating the “what” — what did you observe and discover, into “why.” Why? What does this mean? What motivation underlies what I see, or what unmet needs are here? It’s a little trickier to do this, and some of this is based on hunches or assumptions that you want to test. But there’s basically how people look at patterns and themes that they’ve noticed, and then start to derive their insight based on the themes.

Insight is a big word right now in sales. Everybody is looking for the insight that’s going to change the world, or at least change their customer. We talk about firsthand insight. Secondhand insight would be, “I’ve read the reports. The analysts say this about you as CIO.” Firsthand insight is something that we’ve observed, and that’s what we’re looking for. It doesn’t have to be brilliant. It just has to be true.

When I say it doesn’t have to be brilliant, doesn’t have to mean that it’s just going to rock your world, but it’s something that you’ll authentically react to and be like, “That’s interesting.” Either, “Yeah, that is what I care about, and let me tell you more” or “That’s interesting. I don’t actually care about that, but this is what I care about.” So, that’s insights.

And then accelerate is all about testing your ideas, getting feedback, and trying to move faster into providing value to your customer. The tools we talk about there are around using visuals to communicate your solution, because visuals stick much faster and much more compelling if I draw something on a board and engage you versus putting up a PowerPoint. Also, the power of storytelling to tell you a character-driven story is a way to increase collaboration and retention of information.


Micalizzi: I love, on insights, one of the stories you’ve shared in the past was around a bus company and an AE. Would you share that story? I absolutely love that one.


Welch: Yeah. That was the “M7.” I just referred to it, too. Sachen, who’s a great account executive here at Salesforce, he has Greyhound as an account. We were working together, and he had not been able to crack into the account. And so, in working with us, he said, “Okay, let me do some different type of discovery.” He had done all the usual things online.

So, he decided to go down to the bus station in San Francisco and started to talk to people. He talked to the bus drivers, he talked to people selling tickets, he talked to the customers, he talked to the baggage handlers, and he learned all sorts of things.

Then he took a bus from San Francisco to LA. During that bus ride is when he learned about the M7 report, which is a report that the drivers have to fill out, that keeps track of what’s going on on the bus. Is the Internet working, is the bathroom clean, all those kind of things. He realized that it was actually, and the bus driver said so, quite inefficient because it was paper and pencil, and then information wasn’t necessarily getting back to headquarters on time.

Long story short, he collected all this information, and then he started writing executives saying, his opening line on the email was, “I’d like to talk to you about my trip from San Francisco to LA on your bus.” He said he got a hundred percent open rate because it was about them, it wasn’t about Salesforce.

He finally got a meeting with the CEO, and he said, “I’d like to talk to you about your M7 report.” And the CEO was like, “Hot damn. How do you know about the M7?” Completely changed the conversation, and it went from a zero to a $3 million account in less than a year.


Nanka: That’s an awesome story. It reminds me when you say insights of CEOs and executives, the value that a vendor can provide, maybe if it’s a current vendor or maybe a potential vendor, is sharing the insights that they don’t know about their own company.


Welch: Yes. Exactly.


Nanka: That’s a great example of that. They’re willing to pay attention when you can bring value to the table. So, that really hit home for me when you shared that story.


Welch: Yeah, and I think the farther leaders get up in an organization, the farther they are from the ground floor where the customers live. And so, when you can provide something interesting, they are interested. Of course, people are always interested also in what their customers think, say, do. It’s a very compelling way to create a meaningful dialogue.


Nanka: Just naturally by the way that they’re doing the research, you are setting up for an experience and a story that you can share. As we know, humans are attracted to stories. Everyone loves hearing stories. And so, that’s just a really nice way to share your research and really open up the eyes of your potential prospect.


Welch: Absolutely. I think one of the myths of discovery is that it takes more time. If you do it this way it can take more time, and certainly it can. Taking a bus from San Francisco to LA was I don’t know how many hours, but it was multiple hours. But we’re not suggesting you always have to go to that depth. You have to decide what level of depth you want to go into. It may be as easy as getting online, looking at Glassdoor and figuring out what the employees of your customer are saying, and just using that as a way to change the conversation because it’s about them, not about you.


Nanka: Ashley, one of the things that I think is really interesting about the training methodology is you don’t just train at one point in time. There’s follow-up, there’s homework.


Welch: Yeah.


Nanka: Can you tell the listeners a little bit about that?


Welch: Sure. Ideally, we like to engage in a three-month process or so. We get together for a day and a half where we’re face-to-face and it’s all action-oriented. It’s all learning new tools and then getting out in the city trying them, and then interviewing real customers and doing some other things. Then at the end of that day and a half, they each have to pick two accounts where they’re having trouble either expanding the footprint or it’s a greenfield account where there is no footprint and they’re interested in getting not that account.

One of the criteria for which accounts to choose is something that you’re excited about, like, what do you have energy [around] to focus on? Because that’s another principle of design: Follow the energy.

So, they pick two accounts, and then over the course of the next three months, we coach them on those two accounts. We have three virtual check-ins where we’re saying, “Colin, you picked this account. What have you been doing?” It just keeps people focused. All of us need a little help staying focused, so that’s what this does.

Then we come back three months later and they report out and present out on all the work that they’ve done and how it’s translated into pipeline, and hopefully later into booked revenue. It’s been amazing. I always say, it’s like pouring Miracle-Gro on a plant. The revenue grows every single time in the history that we’ve been doing this, over 100% for each team. It’s been really rewarding and fun to watch.


Micalizzi: That’s fantastic. What I want to ask is, for folks who don’t have the benefit of a structured program, there are so many areas we’ve already talked about. Where’s the best place to start? If I’m going to introduce something new either to my team or just to my own personal workflow, what’s going to give me the biggest bang for the buck to just start on now?


Welch: Yeah. I think the first place to start is thinking about who’s your customer, and who’s your customer’s customer, and what do you know about them. What do you know about what they care about and value? Start there, versus “What’s my play? Because this is an insurance company, so I know what I’m going to sell them.” Or “What are all my marketing questions that I want to ask in getting ready for that?” Refocus on who’s your customer and what do they care about, not what do I want to sell.

The second thing I’d say is, I think for managers, instead of coming out of the gate and asking their employees, their account executives, “Where are you in your pipeline? How much did you sell? When can I be sure I’m going to get that $50K by the end of the week?” Ask, “Tell me about your customer. Tell me a story about what your customer cares about.” Start there. And then, of course numbers matter, and you’ll get to that. Numbers aren’t going away, but start with stories about your customer.


Micalizzi: You’re emphasizing, “Do you have a strong understanding of your customer?” versus just, “Okay, what number are you guessing right now?”


Welch: Exactly.


Micalizzi: Okay.


Welch: I hear all the time people talk about the plays they’re going to run in an account. I’ll say, “Have you talked to the client yet?” and they’ll say, “No.” I’m, like, “How do you know the play when you haven’t talked to the customer?” It’s this reorientation to the customer first and your organization second.


Nanka: It sounds like, in the coaching you’re giving for managers as well, you’re asking them to model empathy and curiosity, and show their sales reps the way. You can only do that by having that as an ongoing cadence in meetings with them.


Welch: Absolutely.


Nanka: One of the things, Ashley, that I’m curious about is your view, because you see a lot of different clients in the market, of how the buyer has changed. I know you wrote about that in one of your recent articles. I think, again, for the sales folks and sales leaders that may not have access to your structured programs, what advice can you give to them about how buyers have changed in the market?


Welch: I think buyers have changed in that, if I think about myself, I’ve got access to so much information. I’ve got access to all the customer reviews about your product or service. I’ve talked to people who use your products or service. I see what the analysts are writing about it. So, I’ve got all this information by the time you come to me.

And so I want to have a dialogue with you. I want you to show up as a partner as a way to not sell me, but help consult with me as to whether you can really add value to the problem that I have in terms of fixing the problem I have. I think it’s just the education of the customer and the expectation of the customer has completely changed.


Micalizzi: So, going to the somewhat overused term of “trusted advisor status.”


Welch: Yes, exactly.


Micalizzi: Yeah.


Welch: I mean, it’s true. I just think if I go anywhere for any kind of service, from a restaurant to house construction or anything like that, I know a lot before I make a decision. And if it’s not working out, I can quickly move somewhere else.

If you come to me as a trusted advisor, though, like on my side of the table, and have a conversation, let’s say [it’s even] about construction, it’s a whole different vibe and I’m much more interested in engaging. I’ll even buy something that I don’t even need because now I like you and I want to work with you.

It’s all quite intuitive. But somehow, I think in the pressure of sales, we start to become less customer-centric, less curious because we’re so focused on the number we have to make or the payments we have to make at home. We start to lose our natural curiosity, or empathy, or focus on the other.


Nanka: Ashley, as we were talking about trusted advisor, it made me think of something that you were mentioning earlier, and it was really around the curiosity. In order to establish trust, you really need to drive value for your customer. Can you talk to us a little bit about how you see [a] trusted advisor and how value fits in?


Welch: Yes. Trusted advisor is very popular now, and it’s important. I think what’s important about it is that you really become a partner to your customer and really understand where value is created for them. So, when I say, or when you just said “value,” I think about as a salesperson, you have to understand the ecosystem of customers and where is value created for your customer so that you can be consultative to them about how your solution may or may not fit into creating value for them.

What it takes is really putting yourself in their shoes and letting go of what you’re selling for a moment so that you can truly understand who they are, what they care about, and where value is derived for that organization.


Nanka: It sounds like taking care personally of your customers, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations, perhaps maybe helping them grow in their career, there’s those types of opportunities when you drive value and you create that human-to-human connection.


Welch: Absolutely. Nothing can replace the human connection. You make me think of one of my favorite quotes from one of your account executives, Adam, who said to us during a course — he said, “Wait a second. You’re teaching us to fall in love with our customer, not the other way around.” And I thought “Exactly.” If you fall in love with your customer, you really care about them and they’re going to feel that, and it’s going to translate into really good things about your relationship, versus feeling like all I want to do is have them fall in love with me and what I’m selling.


Micalizzi: Absolutely love it. Thank you so much for joining us today, Ashley.


Welch: You are so welcome.


Micalizzi: And Colin, thank you for co-hosting.


Nanka: Thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.


Micalizzi: For those of you listening in, remember, the best way to stay on top of all things Quotable is by subscribing at Quotable.com/subscribe.

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