Central to good design theory is the idea of knowledge in the head versus knowledge in the world. When designing a product (a device, tool, piece of software, anything involving human interaction), it is important to consider where a person’s knowledge to use the thing will reside. You can assume the user will have knowledge in the head (memory, experience, common sense), but that is risky. As the famous saying goes, “everyone knows next to nothing about everything.”

For example, years ago I frantically called the front desk at my hotel right after arriving for the first time in London. “The fuse is blown in my room, none of the electrical works!” I said. “Did you stick your key card in the slot near the door?”, the desk clerk patiently asked. “No”, I said. “Try that.”, he replied. I did, and the lights came right on. I avoided the front desk the rest of my stay. Anyone who has stayed in hotels with this feature has this knowledge in his or her head. Being my first time in such a hotel, I didn’t and I embarrassed myself.

When you cannot rely on knowledge in the head, you have to rely on knowledge in the world. The trick in design is making that knowledge simple, clear and easily accessible when the product is being used. And even then, no design is foolproof.

Design thinking is at the core of sales enablement. A successful commercial system is the product. But it is human beings (salespeople) who interact with and enable the system every day. If you talk shop with enough sales enablement professionals, you see a consistent pattern in their complaints: “sellers won’t do their reporting”, “they’re not absorbing the training”, “managers aren’t coaching”. Because human beings are easily distracted and live in a world of constant interaction with technology, we’ve come to expect these issues. Don Norman, in his fantastic book, The Design of Everyday Things, puts it this way, “when humans fail to meet the arbitrary, inhuman requirements of machines, we call it ‘human error’.”

But ‘human error’ is a poor excuse. The real reason for failure is never human error, it is a design flaw. The system was not designed to account for human error – which will always be there. As Don Norman says, “Why do we put the requirements of machines above those of people? – when people interact with machines things will not always go smoothly. This is to be expected. Designers should anticipate this. It is easy to design things for when everything goes as planned. The hard – and necessary – part of design is to make things work well when things don’t go as planned.”

At Challenger, we recently published an interesting case study about a company called Integrate. Their Sales Enablement lead, Sam Carlile, along with his colleague Emily Gregov, recognized the need to design around human error in their sales enablement strategy. I won’t provide all the details in this blog (please read the linked case study or check out our Webinar interview with Sam and Emily), but I did want to highlight three principles they followed and three key questions they asked, and the solutions they found in optimizing their program design.

  1. Salespeople (like everyone) struggle to keep knowledge in the head. They rely on knowledge in the world. Sam and Emily asked, are we putting as much knowledge as we can at the fingertips of sellers in systems they use every day? In their case, this meant integrating learning content and tools from their sales methodology partner (Challenger) with their sales enablement platform (Showpad) and designing content atoms that were clear and simple so sellers can navigate to information they need when they need it.
  2. Knowledge in the head gets stronger with practice. Sam and Emily asked, how can we make ongoing practice of our commercial conversation as easy and effective as possible? This involves bringing multiple capabilities together, including customized e-learning around the commercial message and a video coaching platform to practice the message and receive coaching feedback. Showpad’s learning management system and Pitch IQ video coaching platform (all part of Showpad Coach) are perfectly suited to support this effort.
  3. Measuring success in sales enablement initiatives too often relies exclusively on knowledge in the head. Enablement leaders gather opinions and anecdotes from sellers on the impact to the business, but do not go as far as using hard data to prove the business case. Sam and Emily asked, how can we gather data and empirical evidence to truly show the value of the program? With a little effort and design, today’s sales enablement tools can integrate with CRMs and tie seller behaviors to opportunities that can be tracked through the funnel and measured.

Human error is frustrating, but it is human nature and we need to expect it and design for it. Salespeople who know the exact right thing to do and say in every situation are characters made up by a Hollywood screenwriter. They do not exist in the real world. Real world sellers cannot keep everything in their heads. In fact, they – like all humans – keep very little in their heads. They need learning, tools and guidance at their fingertips. They need coaching and practice to get the conversation right. You shouldn’t rely just on their memory and experience to prove the value of your sales enablement program. A proper balance of knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world can make all the difference in designing, implementing and succeeding with our sales enablement programs.

Spencer Wixom

Spencer Wixom

Spencer is Senior Vice President of Marketing at Challenger, and has helped transform sales and marketing teams in some of the biggest and best companies in the world.