IBM Reshapes Its Sales Meetings

Lee Green, head designer at IBM, is applying the same design method for creating PCs to guide the tech company's sales pitches

It's a breezy fall day and the trees lining the parking lots at IBM's (IBM) corporate campus in Hawthorne, N.Y., are turning bright red. But the leaves aren't the only things changing here. The site is the first client briefing center where meetings, essentially day-long technology demonstrations and sales pitches for potential customers of Big Blue's consulting services, have been newly structured. And that process has been overseen not by a sales executive or human resources director, but by a veteran IBM designer, Lee Green.

25 years ago, Green, vice-president of brand values and experiences, helped market IBM's first consumer PC. Now, he has applied what business school professors and engineers like to call "design thinking" to reimagine how sales teams bring in new business.

Design thinking is based on observing what customers want and then creating, testing, and refining prototypes of products and services to address those desires. At IBM's briefing center, staff members now have extremely detailed guidelines of what to show and tell at a given time. Before, the company had no standardized model of how to pitch clients. Instead, sales staff had to rely on their own intuition, with varying degrees of success.

In fact, Green likes to tell a story of a sales meeting gone wrong to explain why he came up with the new strategy to redesign the client briefings.

Avoiding Turnoffs

"One set of clients was picked up by an outside driver, who was hired to bring them from the airport to an IBM briefing center in the rain. But the driver couldn't find IBM," he recalls. Details like a poorly orchestrated ride can suggest a lack of organization, a turnoff for some companies being courted to spend thousands or millions on IBM's technologies. Green won't say whether that particular client signed up for IBM's consulting services, but the experience did act as a catalyst for creating a new protocol and a confidential internal document to guide sales staff, an excerpt of which was shared exclusively with BusinessWeek.

One page features sets of text boxes plotted on a curvy time line, pointing out when sales execs should talk about IBM's heritage: after the sales pitch, but before lunch. They should offer clients sample equipment after delivering sales information, not before. The goal isn't to produce generic, scripted meetings, but to "map what we want to accomplish, how to stimulate a dialogue that might not occur," says Green. The briefing protocol is now rolling out in more of IBM's 200 client centers worldwide. And the company is also using Green's design process to shape recruiting meetings for tech staff in India.

"This is the same process we used for improving devices like the ThinkPad," says Green. When creating that computer, Green says he and his staff of designers would observe how PC owners were using ThinkPads on trains and planes. That way they could fix real user problems. For example, Green says IBM added a light on the ThinkPad after seeing business travelers struggle to type in the dark. "We would identify a fault and then change the flawed component itself. It's a method of design starting with the user rather than starting with the technology," says Green.

Designing Client Satisfaction

For remaking the sales briefings, Green followed the same strategy. He and his team spent months creating visual maps of clients' experiences, noting peaks where they said they were pleased ("small touches like signs at reception welcoming clients and national flags go a long way," one client observed) and valleys where they were unsatisfied.

Each valley, Green says, represented an opportunity to address "unarticulated needs," however simple, such as ensuring that sales staff know how to pronounce client names correctly by coaching them in advance.

Using design thinking to tackle business problems isn't unique to IBM. The discipline is also taught at educational institutions such as Stanford's D-school, a program that bridges business and design education. "In some parts of American business, every problem can be solved by design," observes Bob Sutton, a professor at the D-School and a fellow at innovation and design strategy firm IDEO. "As Marissa Mayer from Google (GOOG) says, they see everything at Google as a design problem."

At the Hawthorne campus, Green also created an Industry Solutions Lab, an open space that looks like a mini-trade show, where customers can see technology prototypes of future products, as well as existing ones. It's the only lab that IBM has so far, and such a permanent and detailed display is rare in the consulting world. It's a hands-on area where clients can interact with technology after sitting through day-long sales pitches. They can also experiment with tech from other industries.

Stanford's Sutton also thinks IBM's approach makes sense, because the company is paying attention to feedback of how clients actually experience the meetings, rather than simply projecting what might work in advance. "Any human experience that needs to be changed is amenable to human-centered design," he says, lauding IBM's strategy. "Especially any interactions where you've got a professional services firm interacting with clients, like IBM. It can have a huge impact on the bottom line."

Clients such as Keith Safian, chief executive of Phelps Memorial Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., are impressed. "My visit to the IBM briefing center gave us the opportunity to look at business from a novel perspective, through the eyes of other industries, [like] banking and retail industries," says Safian, who appreciated the more hands-on experience of the redesigned briefings.

IBM won't disclose figures on how much business has been signed as a result of Green's redesign of the meetings, which began to roll out earlier this year. But Mary Jo Frederich, director of the Hawthorne client briefing center, says that Safian's positive reaction is typical, and the whole exercise has been good for client relations. "We've gotten feedback that said, 'you made me feel really welcome,'" she says. "It's good to take them out of Power Point mode."

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