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What is Sales? An Art or Science

Updated on March 6, 2017
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The debate has long raged whether achieving success in sales is more of a science or an art. Whereas the science of sales typically means acquired organizational skills, its artistic aspect refers to a salesperson’s innate abilities that can’t necessarily be taught. It all goes back to the nature or nurture argument. Some people feel strongly that only one of these two things can predict a successful sales career while others believe that the new era of sales ushered in by technology, the internet, and data science demands a more balanced approach.

Sales as a Science

Taking a scientific approach to sales means organizing knowledge in a manner that is both predictable and repeatable. One of the overarching goals of science is to eliminate every unknown to gain a precise understanding of cause and effect. The problem with this approach when it comes to sales is that it’s impossible to apply scientific standards to complex human beings. That means sales representatives can only go so far with a tangible approach when they meet with prospective customers.

It's important for a salesperson to control the direction of the meeting as much as possible. This starts by capturing the prospect’s attention and discussing the most critical business issues with him or her. Then it’s time for the sales professional to move on to test the value or his or her proposed solution and report it back to the customer. As important as these steps are, they can all go wrong if either party fails to manage emotions well. Sellers can set the tone by modeling understanding while also ensuring predictability and measurability.

The following four-step model of sales management science can be used by sellers in all industries:

  • Demonstrate the value of the product
  • Create a tie-in between product value and the customer’s most critical issues
  • Investigate and understand how political considerations impact business issues, such as the need to align with the most powerful people
  • Demonstrate how the business value offered by the sales representative matches the beliefs and principles of the customer

Data Science for Better Sales

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In the visualization above by McKinsey & Company, there are four primary areas within sales where data science and analytics offer value. These areas include better prospecting and lead generation, for effective team-building and hiring, improving customer relationships and establishing long-term relationships, and ensuring competitive pricing.

Using Data Science for More Effective Sales Operations

In the video above, John Smits of EMC, a Director of Sales Operations & Analytics, breaks down how his organization uses data science for more efficient and effective sales performance. He breaks down the value of concepts like big data and predictive analytics for enhanced sales and business results.

Sales as an Art

Isaac Pellerin, a sales manager at a company called TinderBox that has enjoyed explosive growth of its sales proposal platform, describes the best interactions in sales as calculated spontaneity. This means understanding the customer and being as responsive to his or her needs as possible. Responsiveness can only occur when a salesperson takes in the prospect’s feedback and acts on it throughout the process.

Pellerin agrees that some aspects of sales are purely scientific. However, he elevates sales to an art form when a seller can bring science together with intention. He feels this is the very thing that separates art from science. All sales professionals know they must complete certain tangible tasks to keep the process in perpetual motion. This includes things like qualifying a certain number of prospects and following up on inbound leads.

The most successful salespeople deliver their message in a way that makes it feel unique to that individual. They can leverage the information collected while following a scientific formula to create a personalized experience for the buyer. These high performers know that nuance must be a part of even the most scientific sales process to exceed the customer’s expectations.

Mastering the "Art" of Selling

By contrast, motivational speaker and sales guru Tom Hopkins speaks much more to the "art of selling" in his presentation above. His emphasis is on communication, body language, emotion, and other skills that have little or nothing to do with data, analytics, or anything science-related.

Art of Sales with the 'Wolf of Wall Street'

Jordan Belfort, the so-called "Wolf of Wall Street" (portrayed on the big screen by Leonardo DiCaprio) suggests that the ability to control linguistic encounters and master the art of persuasion is the key to sales success.

The Great Debate - Sales as an Art vs. a Science

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Why Sales in the Modern Era Must Be a Combination of Art and Science

Before the Internet, sales was strictly a relational game. Representatives met prospects in person or through cold calling and continually nurtured them through the sales funnel. Companies hired new salespeople based on their people skills and the size of their Rolodex. Once hired, employers trusted them to use those strong people skills to turn Rolodex contacts into customers. Since as many as 75 percent of prospective business clients now conduct online research before reaching out to a representative, it’s essential to strike an appropriate balance between the art and science of sales.

CRM software has made it possible for sales professionals to keep in contact with hundreds of prospects at the same time, no matter where they’re at in the sales funnel. The software prompts them to consider who they haven’t touched base with in a while and who is closest to deciding to buy. The insight provided by technology allows sales personnel to provide value to their prospects because they can provide information not available publicly online. Once the CRM software identifies who these customers are, it’s up to the salesperson to deliver a personalized buying experience.

It comes down to one simple fact: Organizations that want to remain competitive in the information age must embrace sales as a balance of both science and art.

You Decide!

Is Sales an Art or Science?

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