How to integrate sales staff in the innovation process
Naturally, there is a discrepancy between the sales department and the R&D department of a company in terms of time and proximity to the customer. A company's sales force is the direct interface to the customer and is very close to the customer. Budget and planning are usually planned for one year. In contrast, the development of innovative products requires a long-term orientation. The R&D department needs sound information from sales to create innovations that meet the needs of customers.
The challenge is therefore to connect the world of sales with the world of R&D to develop innovations that are also close to the customer. Using a simple 3-step method, we show you how to establish this connection and integrate your sales team in a meaningful and structured manner into the innovation process.
Innovation requires many ideas
Around 100 R&D projects are required to place twelve successful innovations on the market. The number of ideas needed to start 100 projects is much higher. Successful innovation management can only work if you get lots of ideas.
The 3-step method
Sales representatives work directly on the sales front and are a valuable source of ideas. The 3-step method is a tool to integrate this "ear in the market" into the innovation process in a structured way. However, this can only succeed if employees are willing to communicate and pass on ideas - even if only a fraction of the ideas are implemented.
This often requires overcoming the zero-defect culture, which is predominant in manufacturing companies. It must be made aware that many ideas are needed to celebrate few successes. Too high aspiration and demotivation can be prevented. This is not a new principle especially for the sales department, as there are often ten or more calls to be made in order to be able to make perhaps two deals.
In order to be able to make a good contribution to the innovation process as a sales representative, information and ideas have to be brought into a structured form and communicated in the same way. An idea is structured when it is clear for whom one wants to improve something, which trends and needs are the basis for it and who can help.
1. For who?
To answer the question "For whom do I want to improve something?", you need to know your own value-added chain. The more precisely the customer segment and the buyer persona is defined within the value chain, the better. The target segment should be representative, but not too general.
The value chain for the window market in Germany, for example, has four stages. First and foremost are the component manufacturers who sell to wholesalers or directly to window manufacturers. The window manufacturer manufactures the window, which is then installed by the window fitter. This is also the only one who has contact with the end customer.
There are thus three stages between the manufacturer and the end customer. Before the sales representative of a component manufacturer comes up with anything, he or she has to ask himself or herself for whom he or she wants to make things easier - who has a problem?
- Is it the wholesaler who can be made a little easier to handle?
- Is it the window builder you can drill holes for?
- Is it the installer who can make the installation of the window easier with an innovative solution?
- Or is it the end customer who wants a window that closes automatically?
The sales employee must be aware of what the value chain looks like and for which specific customer segment or buyer Persona he wants to invent something. The more specific, the better - according to the motto "If you target anybody - you target nobody".
However, the target segment should not be so specific that it is only developed for a single customer. Assuming the sales representative recognizes a customer's problem and even has an idea for a solution. Then, in a further step, he should find out whether other customers are also benefiting from this solution or whether it is just a stand-alone solution.
2. What is important in the future?
Once the "For whom?" has been clarified, the next step is to consider what will become important in the future. This is therefore about defining the trends and needs of the specific group in the value chain that was selected in the first step.
Let us stick to the example of the window market: a strong trend in recent years has been to insulate ever more strongly. The U-value had to become smaller and smaller, the insulation better and better. The trend towards a well insulated house naturally did not pass the window sector by either. The end customers demanded well insulated windows - the double glazing was soon followed by triple and quadruple glazing. As a result, the windows became heavier and heavier and began to jam shortly after installation. The window fitter then had to adjust each window individually.
And then there was an invention - a sash lifter, which automatically lifts the window sash as soon as it is closed. Meanwhile the part is installed in every standard window. The end customer did not really care about this innovation, because his problem had already been solved with the readjustment.
The innovation was rather a relief for the window fitter. Due to the trend towards ever heavier windows, he had the problem that these windows had to be adjusted afterwards. With the invention of the sash lifter, his need for facilitating his work could be satisfied.
3. Who can help?
The third step is to find solutions to the problem or need. Working with analogies is an efficient method to generate new ideas:
- Who could help with this problem?
- Where do these trends, needs and challenges still exist in other sectors or similar fields?
- Are there already solutions there that can be adapted?
From a technological point of view, for example, windows still have a lot of development potential. If one compares how a soft-close drawer closes today, the technology here is much more sophisticated than with windows.
The Soft Close Automatic allows for a quiet and gentle closing of drawers and doors as if by magic. The window still can't lock itself. In this case, you wouldn't have to search long to find an analog field. The function of windows and drawers is very similar, the soft-close technology can be very helpful for the development of innovative windows.
The implementation in the company
It is not enough simply to explain the method to sales representatives without creating a process for implementation in the company. In order to implement the method for the innovation process efficiently, it is necessary to create ways in which the sales department can communicate its ideas.
You need a contact person and a structured feedback system that ideally includes different levels of detail. This means that it is not only finished ideas in the sense of "I have an idea for X, because this will be a trend/need in the future, and maybe Y could help us do this" should be communicated.
It is also important to create an opportunity to be able to set intermediate results. This could, for example, be a trend or problem that the salesperson recognizes, but without having an idea of how to solve it.
Conclusion: How to integrate sales staff into the innovation process
Sales representatives can make an important contribution to the generation of ideas. The prerequisite for this is a structured method for integrating the sales staff in the innovation process. Statements such as "Now we sales people bring in so many ideas and you don't make anything out of them" lose ground when it is made aware that innovation needs many ideas.
Born in Ried im Innkreis. As former Head of Innovation, he was responsible for the entire project management and specializes in the areas of fuzzy front end and business model innovation.