How to Tap Sales to Drive Innovation

Salesman illustrationWhat role can the Sales organization play in a company? Is its proximity to the customer a benefit? Or do sales incentives stymie a salesman’s motivation to share knowledge?

Those were some of the taxing issues tackled at today’s Innochat, a weekly Twitter conversation attended by innovation experts, practitioners and assorted hangers on from around the world. It can be found using the hash tag #innochat.

This week’s session was hosted by Pam Roes (@pamroes), a Princeton, NJ-based business writer with an interest in how the Sales force can drive innovation. The framing post for the chat is here.

How Can Sales Lead Innovation?

Roes first asked for ideas on how a customer-centric sales organization could lead innovation. Jason Fishers (@jawbrain) in Indiana pointed out that “front-line access to market and customer pain points” can provide insights and opportunities.

“Keeping close to the customer experience, pre- and post-sale can identify ‘jobs to be done’ more readily,” said Drew Marshal (@DrewCM), a principle at Think Primed in New Jersey. “Keeping the total customer experience visible helps drive challenge identification and solution design,” he added.

Cathryn Hrudika (@CreativeSage) founder of Creative Sage agreed. There are “low-lying fruit” that allow the sales force to focus on client solutions, she said. Fishers took it a step further, saying, “Pain points may be new fruit, not simply low-lying opportunities.”

“In very many ways, other functions, especially Marketing, may be more important than Sales,” said John Lewis (@JohnWLewis), an Innovation Specialist based in the UK. Kevin McFarthing (@InnovationFixer), another UK-based specialist, agreed. “My view: Marketing should lead. Sales, R&D, etc., all input.”

Gwen Ishmael (@Gwen_Ishmael), a Senior VP of Innovation at Decision Analyst, Inc., in Texas, urged a structured approach to tapping Sales for innovation. “Don’t count on it to ‘just happen’,” she said. Sales must be actively encouraged to gather and share customer input, she added. “Often it’s too passive in nature.”

“Don’t pigeon-hole or segment feedback or insights from sales peple in to a process or channel,” agreed Lois Martin (@LoisMarketing) in Atlanta, GA. “Welcome the free flow of information.”

“A company’s true ‘front line’ is in their Sales staff, not in Customer Service,” Martin said. “Sales feedback and insights must be welcome.” But Lewis said, “All this depends on whether sales people really have most contact with customers, and on who the customer is!”

Returning to her theme, Ishmael said Sales should be equipped to “gather objective input. Unfiltered anecdotes can be overly emotional.” Bo McFarland (@Bo) in California said, “I’m a bit wary of putting customer contact in silos. In fact, the whole organization should be listening to customers.”

“Many tech companies are already there and a lot of brick-and-mortar firms are making their way to that understaning,” Marshall said.


Roes then asked how current business models and sales compensation impede innovation.

“The walls between Sales, Marketing and all other functions contrain business model innovation,” said Saul Kaplan (@skap5), author and founder of the Business Innovation Factory in Rhode Island.

“Current compensation models drive time spent selling, not time spent understanding,” said Ishmael.

“[The company is] frequently too focused on what we can sell now as opposed to what could we sell in future,” agreed Boris Pluskowski (@bpluskowski), author and Senior VP at

The “constant pressure to sell for comissions can make salespeople ‘deaf’ to listening,” said Hrudika. They “can resent customers who talk!” Pluslowski agreed, saying, “Traditional commission and compensation structures probably do more to create wall than break them down.”

But “done right, good sales people can add great value to innovation, whether product, service or business model,” said McFarthing. “Sales will be happy to let the whole org relate as long as it is understood that all commission belongs to them,” said Mike Parker (@sysparatem). He added later, “Sales people that effectively open up the organization’s resources and people to clients are innovators by nature.”


Meanwhile, a special “brass neck” award goes to the UK to add to their 2012 medal haul. Commenting from America, where NBC’s coverage of the games was reportedly poor, Marshall congratulated Lewis and Marshall on a “good job pulling off the [London] Olympics.”

Quick as a flash, McFarthing had snatched that coveted brass neck award. “John [Lewis] and I are happy to take all the credit,” he said.

Illustration courtesy of Mister Kha under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.