The big idea: A design-thinking approach helped IBM reimagine its trade show experience as a conversation, rather than a one-way monologue, that fostered deeper relationships with customers and helped them to learn how IBM could better solve their dynamic problems.

The scenario: IBM’s “Smarter Planet” initiative inspired the development of groundbreaking innovations for its global customers. However, IBM was concerned that customers at its 8,000-plus events might miss this powerful new message. While IBM’s customers were getting advanced solutions, the exhibitions and trade booths were not as innovative as the solutions these booths were supporting.

IBM addressed this imbalance by drawing on its core competencies and long heritage of design excellence. This move away from traditional trade show exhibits gave IBM the opportunity for innovation-based growth and enduring customer relations.

The resolution: Senior leaders with responsibility for IBM’s marketing and trade shows teamed up with longtime partner George P. Johnson, a global event and experience marketing firm. The new team quickly realized that because the problem they wished to address was clearly human-centered and complex, they believed that using a design-thinking approach made sense.

The GPJ team interviewed more than 100 experts on how people learned from one another. This research revealed insights about how an environment could shape people’s willingness to share, absorb and engage with new information. While physical environment was important — think about a boardroom conversation versus one in a coffee shop — the way their own experts approached and led a new conversation was also vital to success.

They built prototype spaces with different styles of furniture. Equally important, the IBM experts staffing the test booths were trained in techniques to help customers feel comfortable and to inspire a conversation.

Using insights from those prototypes, the team launched a pilot at a small but important conference. Customers stayed in the booth for hours, producing a level of “hot leads” far higher than the traditional format. Subsequent events incorporated these designs with measurable success: deeper relationships and rising revenue.

The lesson: Design thinking helped the team focus on building and iteratively testing environments that encouraged customers to engage in meaningful dialogues with IBM experts. The conversations gave IBM a chance to inspire customers with its depth of expertise and gain crucial insights for meeting their most pressing needs.

Andrew King and Jeanne Liedtka

King is a senior researcher and Liedtka, professor, at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. They are co-authors with Kevin Bennett of the book “Solving Problems with Design Thinking: Ten Stories of What Works.”