Industrial Design: sales or order taking?
My dad has had a career in sales. He’s sold a number of different things in his career, and not surprisingly he has some good stories to tell. There are characters and situations some inspiring and others horrifying, but all engaging. They also culminate into lessons that can have impact far beyond the world of sales.
A key thing I recall hearing is what he calls the difference between a sales person and an order taker.
An order taker does exactly that — on presenting what they’re selling to someone, the person either wants it or they don’t. If they want it, an order is taken. If not, they move on.
A salesperson on the other hand, listens to who their customer is and what they’re saying and also what they’re not saying, all the while configuring their pitch in a way that not simply confirms a sale, but often solves a problem. By looking beyond the simple transaction, a relationship is created that can be a whole lot more effective than simply the taking of an order.
Early in my career I had the opportunity to spend a day with a sales rep for a client visiting some of his key accounts. What I learned that day was inspiring and at the same time a little unnerving. He had spent a significant amount of time and energy building relationships with his clients. He also built a portfolio of products to sell that he believed in. On visiting his clients, the product lines he represented were secondary to the relationships he had built — that was the inspiring part. Now the unnerving part — as the designer of the products he was selling, I of course wanted the success of the sale to be solely due to the exceptional design! Somewhat soberingly it had more to do with his ability to listen to his client and solve their problem with the products in his bag. Fortunately for me in this case, one my products was in his bag.
In the taking of an order, the request is usually made based on what is known to be available in the market place, what we think is available to us. But to ask the question, why we might want a particular thing it may become clear that what we might actually need is not what wer’e asking for. When this is challenged it can sometimes be a little unsettling, but can reveal that the problem we are hoping this new thing will solve actually lies somewhere else, and the request for a product was simply our view of a solution based on what was known. A deeper dig into the request can reveal more about the problem, and if the sales person digs into that, challenging the initial request, they may just create a better match and more than just a sale is made, a relationship is made.
I tell this story because it casts a light on a problem I’ve experienced throughout my career in industrial design.
People often laugh when I meet them and they find out what I do. They always seem to have some example of a terrible product design and ask what I think of it and the poor soul who must have designed it.
It’s a difficult question. On my better days I laugh it off, but on other days I struggle. I have perhaps an unhealthy compunction to link a conversation like this to the broader problems in our relationship with the built environment and my seemingly ineffective, or even worse complicit role in it all. I’ve certainly been in the position of having to use a certain material or make a connection between 2 parts in a certain way rendering the product impossible to repair, all as directed by the client in the ongoing drive to be competitive in a difficult marketplace.
What we perceive as bad design is rarely the direct fault of the designer. Of course it sometimes is, there are better and worse designers just as in any field, but it’s more a result of a lack of awareness, bad process, a lack of understanding about the role of design, and the rub between a designer standing up for the better way against actually remaining employed. There is significant complexity in bringing any physical object to market in any sort of production volume, and managing the relationships between all these parties is tricky. The product can fail at any one of these contact points.
Here the designer needs to play a role perhaps more like that of a conductor. This means listening to all the parts striving to work together toward a common goal, all wrestling with their own particular challenges. A designer who is listening has the potential to hear these challenges and put them in the context of the bigger picture seeking to resolve them. One designer I worked with says a key skill of an industrial designer is to zero in on a very small detail and then zoom out to see how it affects the whole. This zooming in and zooming out requires a lot of listening and reframing throughout a process. There are of course times when this zooming in and out either doesn’t or can’t happen — at this point the designer executes much as an order taker takes an order and delivers what is asked for but perhaps not what is needed.
The link to sales feels a little like a tenuous one I know, but what I see is this — if we can be better at listening to all those involved in a project, really hearing them, discovering ways to dig deeper into what they’re asking us about, we may well have an audience and a willing partner in making better choices and better products.
Here’s another way to look at it — Michael Beirut is a wonderful writer, and in one piece I read of his recently he cites Wilson Pickett and calls him a design theorist. The story goes that for song writing (Wilson Pickett being a significant song writer), he says the secret formula is to harmonize, then customize. To harmonize is to listen, it’s to know the people you’re working with and designing for. To customize is to inspire, creating something new and connecting it to the known parts resulting in something glorious that we can all relate to.
This is sales, not order taking.
It’s leading though empathy, reframing the view, not dictating and not simply complying — it’s listening and leading.