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Sales—Science Or Art?

by David Brock on May 15th, 2019

Recently, I read an article about sales being more science than art.  Perhaps, I was a little unfair in my comments, but the author’s premises were flawed.

I think we want to see sales being more like science because of what we perceive as the predictability and certainty that seems to exist in science.  We want to be able to say, “If this……then that…..,” applying rigorous formulas that drive our success.

Books and thousands of articles focus on creating rigid structures and formulas that create predictable success. 

For example, in the referenced article, the author used the example, “Water always boils at 100 C.”  His premise was that we could apply scientific principles in selling to 100 customers discovering the secret formula for success.  By rigorously applying these formulas, we could be perfectly predictable in our success with customers.

But there’s a huge flaw in the example, and in the thinking of how we apply science in selling.  Water doesn’t always boil at 100 C.  If you are on a mountain, about 2.3 KM (7500 feet), water will boil at 92C, of if you add a little salt to water, the boiling point is raised slightly. 

A scientist when responding to the question, “At what temperature does water boil,” will always answer, “It depends…..”

What we miss in these discussions is the essence of science and the inherent beauty, or art, that underlies all scientific query.

Science is about incessant, sometimes obsessive, curiosity.  Scientists are consumed with questions like, “Why does matter behave in this way…..?”  or, “If we did these things, what changes in the behavior might result?” or, “What happens if….?” or, “How might we change that….?”

Scientists are consumed with the why’s, what’s, how’s, what if’s. 

Isn’t this what great salespeople do?  Aren’t great salespeople inherently curious about their customers and their businesses?  Aren’t great salespeople consumed by the why’s what’s, how’s, what if’s?

Scientists aren’t satisfied with just the questions; they are driven to find answers to those questions—to seek solutions.

As scientist pursue the answers to those questions, they do so in a very structured manner.  They conduct experiments—less to prove what they think the answers might be, but more to see if anything might disprove their theories.  They know that 1000 successful experiments are meaningless if they find just one failure.

Scientists recognize the answers they get will vary, so they seek to understand, “What causes these behaviors in these specific situations?”  They seek to understand these and to develop solutions based on those situations.   They seek to understand what changes in those situations might cause different results/outcomes.  They learn from their experiments and refine both their theories and approaches based on the results of their experiments.

Isn’t that what great salespeople do?  They don’t blindly apply formulaic approaches, instead understanding the specific situation and what solutions best fit those situations.  Don’t great sales people constantly learn from their experience, refining their approaches based on those experiences?

Great science is inherently collaborative.  Scientists realize they don’t have all the answers; they understand the great complexity in the things they seek to understand.  As a result, they recognize they need to work with others—both to generate the questions and to discover answers. 

Isn’t this what we have to do in being successful working with our customers?  Our success is less about giving our customers the answers, but more about helping them discover the issues/opportunities, and collaboratively developing the best answers in moving forward.

There is great beauty and art in science.  We can learn a lot from what scientists do and how they work.

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3 Comments
  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    It’s a great topic, and one I have spent 2 generations of Salespeople and 40 Years looking at.

    Is there a science of selling? NO.

    Can scientific ‘method’ be applied to selling and Selling skills identified? …it depends!

    I have used Behavioural Analysis since the late 1970’s
    to examine Sales Skills. Opening, Closing, Need Discovery and Need Development, Presentation, Demonstration, Negotiation, Reaching Agreement.
    I’ve looked at Creative Thinking, Problem Solving, Decision Making & Taking. Thousands of hours, thousands of Salespeople, a variety of Statistical methods and algorithms.

    In reviewing my own research, and others, like Rackham’s Work what we MOSTLY identified was Dysfunctional Skills and Dysfunctional behaviours.
    In that sense, ‘scientific method’ worked.

    Edison said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
    “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

    We now KNOW a few thousand things that don’t work is selling. Yet, most are still taught in Sales School!
    The evidence that closing too early, or too often LOSES Sales is a repeatable Test. DON’T DO IT.

    The evidence that “Handling” Objections LOSES Sales
    is overwhelming. AVOID Objections don’t Close to early or Close too Often
    and DON’T TALK FEATURES!
    Both of these dysfunctional skills CAUSE objections.

    As I replied to the original poster.

    “A Sales is a created singularity. It is like a Work of Art [hence the Salesperson is like an Artist] AND its like a Scientific Discovery a unique, non-repeatable event [Hence the sales person is like the Scientist who exposes themself to the opportunity of discovery, by investigation]

    I have Extensive Research, well past the expert’s ‘10,000 hours’ this has enabled me to identify many dysfunctional behaviours, and some behaviours that work in some situations. What cannot be done is to distil a set of ‘winning behaviours’, in all situations.

    In general published Selling Skills are ‘Folk Psychology’ based, they do at least as much harm as they do good. Which goes a long way to explaining why current Sales figures show a drop in average Sales Performance.
    Wiki “Eliminative materialism is the claim that folk psychology is false and should be discarded (or “eliminated”).”

    My research, and every body else’s, eg Rackham or the Challenger Sale, now has to be reviewed in light of Behavioural Economics, and fMRI scanners.

    I can see flaws in my interpretations from the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s

    We have recipes to avoid failure,
    but sadly, no formula to guarantee success…
    It Depends.

    Thanks for opening the discussion out, Dave.

  2. Excellent article David and I agree that Brian added a lot to the discussion. Having worked with some truly outstanding sales teams, my vote is for “art trumping science”. Just as with any profession, those who perform at the highest levels are true artists, even if they aren’t practicing what is considered an artistic endeavor. Yes, there are systems and best practices to follow but heart, passion, curiosity and a willingness to serve are what truly differentiates top sales professionals – not to mention the hunger for recognition that comes from performing at the highest level.

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