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Moving From Selling As An Art To Selling As A Science

by David Brock on December 21st, 2017

We seem to be approaching or passing the tipping point where leading sales practitioners view successful selling as a disciplined, focused, engineered approach to engaging and creating value for customers.  Stated differently, moving more toward selling as a science.

I hope the days of the sales person being the most gregarious person, always quick with a joke or story, slapping people on the back, are long past.  I hope we no longer live by the mantra, “When the going gets tough, the tough take a customer to lunch/golf.”

But, as with many swings of the pendulum, I worry that the implementation of selling as a science often goes too far, losing people, relationships, and humanity, in the process.

We see too many signs of mechanization, losing the person, treating customers as widgets to move through our highly efficient selling process assembly lines.  We lose sight of the dreams, fears, hopes, aspirations that people whom make buying decisions have.  We’ve focused more on the mechanics and less on the people.

As I thought how best to make the argument of not forgetting the humanity side of selling as a science, I realized what better way to prove this than through the work of our most famous scientists and engineers.  As you really dive into the work of people like Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Richard Feynman, and others, you find it is deeply people centric and humanity driven.  The reasons underlying their work and their drive to discover wasn’t to come up with cold scientific formulas, but to help understand who we are, why we are here, what is the meaning to our lives.

Too often, we look at the results of their work, we see an equation like E=MC(2).  We think of cold, hard, deterministic equations, where really they are the results of great thinkers trying to put meaning to the things that surround us.

All you have to do is read some of their essays and work to understand how important humanity and people were to their research.

Bohr’s, “On Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge” is a series of brilliant essays about this link.

Feynman’s, “Surely, You’re Joking….” is a remarkable story about his work on himself and what makes us human.

Einstein published dozens of essays, but look at “Out of My Later Years: The Scientist, Philosopher, and Man Portrayed Through His Own Words” or Isaacson’s biography on him.

Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific investigations was driven by his curiosity on phenomena and their impact on people.  Read Isaacson’s bio on him.

Even things as basic as Heisenberg’s work show us that things are not completely deterministic, and the we impact and interact with the science, impacting the results.

Yes, science is disciplined, process oriented, fact based, data driven, analytic, logical.  Yes, all scientific theories are tested by their repeatability and predictability in producing the same results every  time we apply the same inputs.  But to really understand science, we have to look underneath the formulas and data to what science really is and does.

The scientific literature is filled with people, relationship centric, humanistic views underlying all our major discoveries.

Many have written about the mechanization of sales, focusing more on the mechanization, losing people in the process.  Advocates of these approaches view people as widgets to be moved through the process.  Yet when you study the Toyota Production Process–which underlies all modern manufacturing processes, you find it’s core principles are built around people and continuous learning. (Send me an email for my eBook on applying the Toyota Production Process to selling).

The problem I see with much of the effort around the Science of Selling, is they are driven by people that don’t understand Science.  They think science is not about people, who we are, what drives, us, how we work, why we achieve.  They think relationships aren’t important.  They focus on the actions, but not the underlying meaning.

We learn these things when we really understand science.  Perhaps in understanding what great science is, we can develop a more meaningful understanding of what it means to more impactfully look at Selling As A Science.


From → Innovation

  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Interesting… I hadn’t thought about this for some time, though we do often talk about the science AND the art of selling within my group, as we actively seek to use both.

    For example, as you know our sales team are engineers – very logical people, rooted in the physical sciences. They appreciate structure and process, and they like to understand more beyond the ‘what and the how’ – they want ti understand the ‘why’ too – why are they better off bringing too much tension in to a conversation rather than too little at the start – what’s the neuroscience, where’s the evidence etc – all great challenges.

    AND – sometimes these challenges are framed around a desire for understanding but can actually be a coded pushback – “I’m not doing no stinking new selling trickery – I’ve been great for 20 years, no need to change” – and they’re looking for the 1 outlier data point to prove the validity of their tacit rejection!

    However, the vast majority are genuinely interested.

    We believed, and our experience is in line with this, that by having some(!) focus on the science aspect, we create the environment and space that enables the sales person to bring much more of the humanity and art in to the interaction with the client.

    You know Dave from the time you spent with us at one of our boot camps that we have a big focus on the “2 way conversation” with the client. Conversation is, moment to moment, an art… but the science can help you with the preparation, the ‘after action review’ and also give you some options and possibilities in the midst of the conversation itself, for you never know where the client might really take the conversation – other than to somewhere that is important to them…

    Too much art, and you run the risk of being ill-prepared, even irrelevant.
    Too much science and you just don’t connect at the emotional level, and as recent advances in neuroscientific knowledge suggest, human decision making is ALL emotion, and logic is used to rationalise it after the fact.

    You need a balance, and perhaps on occasion, but only on occasion, a touch of the Jackson Pollock!!

    Merry Christmas.



    • Martin: Thanks for the great comment. In reality, we find “art” and “science” in everything we do. I could re-write this post from the point of view of great artists and we could explore the discipline, structure, process, rigor that is involved in the “creative” process. And there is great creativity/art in science.

      Largely, I think the people that focus on sales as a Science OR Art discussion, actually don’t know much about either. Instead, I think they are applying labels in rather naive manner.

      Stated differently, there was a method to Jackson Pollock’s madness 😉

      Two days in a row…….. We must jump on the phone 😉 Happy Holidays! Dave

  2. David,

    Thanks for your interesting and thoughtful article. You said:

    “I worry that the implementation of selling as a science often goes too far, losing people, relationships, and humanity, in the process.

    “We see too many signs of mechanization, losing the person, treating customers as widgets to move through our highly efficient selling process assembly lines. We lose sight of the dreams, fears, hopes, aspirations that people whom make buying decisions have. We’ve focused more on the mechanics and less on the people.”

    I believe you are closer to the mark than most people on this idea of “selling as a science”. And I definitely agree with the slant toward humanity.

    However even you are misconstruing what scientific approaches (“the manufacturing approach” really mean, and the errors are costing people billions of dollars.

    Please consider my thoughts here, and let me know if they change your perspective in some way:

    If I may paraphrase from what you said above and elsewhere, it seems you (and many others) have the following assumption:

    “That the goal of “the manufacturing model” is to eliminate variation, waste, and to minimize people through mechanization.”

    With all due respect, while these are partially true they all drop the context of what “the manufacturing model” is really about. Let’s consider each of these mistakes one by one:

    Mistake #1: Eliminating variation.
    “The manufacturing model” is NOT about eliminating variation. It is about eliminating defects.

    Variation is inherent in nature and cannot be escaped. Some variations are good (diamonds in the rough!) and some are bad (a fly in your salad!). You could say that manufacturers are attempting to create certain very specific variations (what the customer wants), while avoiding others (what the customer doesn’t want).

    The issue isn’t eliminating variation, but detecting it and understanding its causes. Only then can you make changes that produce more of what you want and less of what you don’t. This begins with defining your terms and may require applied statistics (i.e., six sigma).

    Mistake #2: Eliminating waste.
    “The manufacturing model” is not PRIMARILY about eliminating waste. It is about creating what people want.

    The term “waste” is meaningless outside the context of what people want. Clearly, sales produces value when done correctly. And just as clearly, sales is filled with waste: Brochures no one reads, thousands of cold calls producing no leads, proposals that don’t sell, and on and on.

    Again, the challenge is detecting and understanding variations, such as good versus lousy prospects, and in alternate methods for communicating value. This also begins with defining terms, learning what customers want, and may require value stream maps, and just-in-time thinking (i.e., lean).

    The thing is, manufacturing management has made organizations hundreds of times more productive, compared to 100 years ago. At that time, people like Frederic Taylor and Henry Ford advanced civilization through huge productivity gains that increased the standard of living.

    Unfortunately, they also made a huge mistake. They assumed that human beings could be treated like machines, i.e., ignoring the thinking and feeling of other people. In doing so they created huge waves of resentment (strikes, etc.), and overlooked an incredibly obvious and powerful resource: employees. Perhaps that is why this last perception lingers on so strongly today:

    Mistake #3: Minimizing people
    “The manufacturing model” is NOT primarily about minimizing people through mechanization

    In fact the most productive enterprises, like Toyota, have figured out how to engage their people’s minds. They have a saying, “We build people before we build cars.” This is where Deming’s crucial concept of “respect for people” comes in.

    Truly lean organizations are very interested in what their people think, and how their people think. Automation, when it is applied, results from ideas of the people themselves seeking ways to improve. The quality of work life in these companies is just as important to management as profitability.

    It is true that manufacturing has machines and automation. It is also true that manufacturers waste billions of dollars on automation systems and machines that do not really make themselves more productive. Likewise, many manufacturers use lean as an excuse for cutting costs and jobs.

    The culprit? Their own failure to understand the problems they are trying to solve. Old fashioned hierarchical organizations are notorious for having leaders who have lost touch with reality. Businesses are in desperate need of ways to keep employees and management in touch with reality. The primary method for doing that is reason.

    *General Managers Need More Scientific Thinking, Not Less*

    The lean philosophy comes closest to a fully developed rational mentality applied to business. And I suspect this mentality is the characteristic people mean (but don’t really say) when they refer to “the manufacturing model”.

    They see mechanization, consistency, perfection, and discipline in manufacturing. What they do not see is the work required to build the context for this high productivity. They don’t see the discussions, observations, definitions, data gathering, formulation of theories of cause and effect, and ongoing experiments. Lean and six sigma are essentially ways of “packaging” scientific tools and methodologies for manufacturing environments. That is why they are synonymous with the manufacturing approach.

    Unlike manufacturing management, sales and marketing has failed to make much progress improving productivity in the last 100 years. The reason is it has NOT learned how to apply the principles of reason. Heck, we WANT some things in sales to be automated and mechanized. For example, we love ordering widgets from Amazon and having them arrive the next day. Amazon eliminated thousands and thousands of boring sales jobs. So did Walmart a decade ago, when it resorted to reverse auctions to fill its store shelves. This frees up sales labor for more valuable work. Like actually understanding what customers want and finding better ways of giving it to them at a profit.

    The trouble in sales is, we don’t usually have agreement on what is value, and what is waste, and how to create more of the former, and less of the latter. I’ve seen companies double sales productivity and achieve 96% forecast accuracy, merely by applying the principle of operational definition to which prospects are most likely to buy and which are not.

    Nor do most executives understand the power of systems thinking in sales. I’ve seen companies increase margins and reduce costs by figuring out how to motivate prospects to engage rather than attempt to push them into doing things they were not ready to do, as many sales training methodologies do.

    If you’ll forgive the weird analogy, saying “there are some serious limitations to applying the manufacturing model within sales” is like saying “There are serious limitations to applying barbecue recipes within plumbing.”

    Both barbecue recipes and plumbing are the product of reasoning minds. So is manufacturing and so is sales and marketing. The common denominator across all is reason and thinking. The “model” we are talking about is the management model: How do we best deploy and utilize resources?

    • Do we rely on the “Highest Paid People in the Organization” to call the shots? Or whoever has the strongest personality? Or political pull?


    • Do we establish a due process for engaging our people to conduct experiments to find evidence and data for making decisions?

    There isn’t much of a middle ground here. Scientific methods are founded on observations of reality. In business, people are a key component of reality – Customers, employees, owners, and suppliers. What do they want? What do they think? What makes them do the things they do? And why? Isn’t that leadership 101?

    Identifying and distinguishing value from waste – like proposals that don’t sell, and prospects who don’t recognize your value frees up sales labor for more valuable work. Technology and automation have just as much potential to free the human spirit in sales as they have in manufacturing.

    But this potential can only be realized by helping people learn to think in ways that are more “disciplined, process oriented, fact based, data driven, analytic, logical”.

    Truly scientific management recognizes the fact that, unfortunately, you can’t make other people think. You can only make like Socrates, and ask them questions to encourage them to think for themselves.

    So, my question to guys in general management, and sales and marketing management is this: What is holding you back from thinking more rationally and scientifically?

    Michael Webb,,

    • Wow Michael! Where to start? Actually, I think we are in wild agreement. You may have missed a series of articles are wrote on applying TPS Principles to Selling. As I walk through your “Mistakes,” we are virtually in lock step when you look at those articles.

      I would tend to agree we need to apply more lean thinking, more scientific thinking, more “manufacturing/scientific” thinking to sales and marketing. The problem is, most people expressing those opinions have little knowledge of what that really means, instead focusing on some of the wrong issues (e.g. automation, mechanization, etc.) without having applied the underlying principles, analysis, rigorous thinking that accompanies more lean, more scientific, more manufacturing thinking. That was a primary point of this article and the series of articles over the past six months that have preceded this one.

      Thanks for taking the time to add to the discussion.

  3. Dorcas permalink

    Hi, sir! I hope to know more about applying the Toyota Production Process to selling. Is your ebook still available?

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