“Art vs. Science” — A false choice in sales success?


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Over the past few years there’s been a lot of talk about “Sales 2.0” as making sales more “scientific.” And, to a lesser extent, more “social.” Both requiring more use of technology.

Given how customers buy, it’s hard to argue that companies shouldn’t be more scientific. But I think sales “art” could stand for improvement, too. Customers don’t want to be treated like numbers, but that’s an unfortunate outcome if companies rely too heavily on technology.

Here’s an infographic from Velocify, a B2C lead management software vendor, that attempts to frame the debate once again.

What do you think? Is “art” vs. “science” the right debate? Why not both?

Source: Velocify


  1. Just because we have the tools & data to be more “scientific” in where we focus now doesn’t mean a scientific approach is better now than 10+ years ago. That said, if it was pure science, then call scripts would work. But they don’t, mainly because every conversation is different.

    Sales will always be a mix of art and science, but that’s probably not the right question or place to focus.

    Who is the customer, and what do they need? How can you make a business case for them prior to selling them a product or service?

    How do you champion their needs vs. yours? Pivoting on those type of questions, and leveraging the available art & science to execute, is where you’ll start to see real sales velocity.

  2. Business debates are full of false choices – “which is most important for sales – prospecting or closing?” . . . “is access to water a fundamental human right, or should companies be allowed to profit by selling it?” . . . etc.

    The sales-as-art-or-science discussion is no different. Thanks for calling this out. As in medicine and scientific research, selling also has elements of both. Friction occurs when the relationships are poorly understood – eg when technology is applied to a process that requires human understanding, or when interpretation of nuance is necessary. How many times have all of us experienced frustration when forced to navigate a system unsupported by human judgement?

  3. It’s a superficially interesting question, but as others have already commented, it reflects a false choice. In complex B2B sales environments, successful sales people – and successful sales organisations – manage to blend art, science and engineering. By engineering, I mean some element of repeatable process that captures best practice and encourages all to use it – and learn from it. I wrote about this a while ago here: http://bit.ly/16SgGt2 – I hope it helps add to the debate.

  4. It takes creative skill and imagination (i.e. art) to create a message for customer executives that they understand when they read it or hear it, that they remember later on, and that changes the way they think or act going forward.

    But it also takes intellectual curiosity and subject-matter knowledge (i.e. science) to capture the unique insights into the customer’s business and articulate the possible solution impacts that will hold their attention and make them want more.

    For a sales person selling at the executive-level, it’s nearly impossible to do the former without building a foundation of the latter. Unfortunately, too many sales people are running too fast, skip the science part, and rely on their “artistic” instincts to sustain an executive conversation. That’s a credibility (and conversation) killer.

  5. I’m with Andrew on this one; it’s a false choice. In fact, a favorite maxim of mine is: Beware folks who hand you dualities. These either/or forced choices, by definition, limit thinking rather than expand possibilities.

    Beyond the philosophical disagreement, here at CSO Insights, we’ve been offering a less charged analogy: Cooking. There are loads of cookbooks with proven recipes that, if followed, yield predictable results. These allow brand new cooks to minimize mistakes and build upon what’s known to work. No need for everyone to personally determine the melting temperature of sugar, for example.

    Yet, these cookbooks and reliance upon them, doesn’t limit creativity or expanding the repertoire of skilled practitioners.

    Similarly, integrating sales process into reps’ daily workflow and implementing higher levels of sales process within organizations yields consistently higher performance year over year. In our research (this year the SPO survey had over 1200 firms respond) we’ve seen the percentage of Level 3 performance firms climb to 34% which is double the number from 5 years ago.

    Maybe the Level 1 firms are still debating whether implementing sales process and enabling technologies is art or science.

  6. Here are my observations:

    1. The infographic is an example of graphic art.
    2. The text is an example of artful writing
    3. The subtext is an example of mind manipiulating marketing – kudo’s to Velocify for creating a conversation platform around an infographic that gives Bob a weighty pulpit
    4. The conversation of art vs. science in sales is amusing to people’s minds because they see – like Andrew Rudin said, a false choice. Art has certainty, but no proof. Science has proof, but no certainty. It might be right to say that sales needs a scientific foundation so that salespeople can practice their art. But how does that help anyone sell more?
    5. I’d like to see an infographic that actually teaches something instead of teasing people into engaging in a conversation that’s going in (artful) circles (science).

  7. Bob – good comparative. I see the answer is that it's part of both – not black and white or art vs. science. It is both. Having a great process or lead generation software or CRM system, etc. is essential…so too is having intuition, experience and coaching…Give the team the right performance conditions AND technology AND management AND possessing the right talent and you'll beat everyone…

    Patrick Seidell
    Senior Consultant
    Sales Benchmark Index

  8. I think this IS a relevant question. Here’s why.

    We haven’t done a study on this, but at ESR we expect that many people wind up in sales because their brain isn’t wired to manage left-brained, science-like stuff, like process, analysis, logical thinking, strategic planning, number crunching, etc. They may try law school, or pre-med, or engineering, but, intelligence aside, it doesn’t come naturally to them. So selling, where right-brained tendencies have gotten many people very far in the past, became a place where they could enjoy a degree of success with commensurate financial reward. Unfortunately for them, as the B2B sales world changed so much, their capabilities became less and less effective.

    The result of this winding-up-in-sales phenomenon is that sales organizations became over-populated with those dependent on the art of selling, with often a disdain for the formal (however flexible) process view. We believe this is the root cause of the underperformance that we’re all so concerned about. In fact, ESR lobbies heavily for more attention to be paid at the point of hiring. But that’s a discussion for another day.

    Think for a moment about the science of selling being focused on strategy, planning, research, leveraging technology, sales opportunity portfolio management, formal (as opposed to tribal) learning, etc., and the art of selling being what happens when a salesrep is one-on-one (face-to-face, on the phone, or though social media) with a customer. We’re not looking to reduce or eliminate the “art” part. Just layer in more “science,” so that the art part will result in more positive outcomes.

    There is too much selling that depends on art (gut feel, personality, instinct) and not enough on science–the formal stuff. That needs to change.

  9. Thank you everyone for chiming in on this interesting topic. I am happy to see that our infographic inspired such a lively discussion.

    At Velocify, we definitely believe this debate is relevant as the pace of sales accelerates and more technology is used to automate what is a very human interaction. While art is clearly important to the sales process, similar to artisans in the pre-industrial revolution era, art simply does not scale. As Dave Stein so eloquently pointed out, sales representatives are often at their best once they get in front of a prospect, whether face-to-face or over the phone. If they can't get the prospect to engage in a conversation to begin with, they simply will not succeed.

    Utilizing science to manage the "less artful” and more repetitive tasks of a salesperson's job – prioritizing prospects, email follow-up, scheduled meetings, reporting, dialing, etc. – allows for complete focus by the salesperson on the art of the sale. If too much time is focused on these processes and not enough devoted to phone time, sales reps can struggle to address opportunities as they arise.

    On the flip side, without art pushing the boundaries, your science can become stale. Our position is that there has to be balance and we encourage all sales managers and leaders to evaluate the balance of art and science they bring to their organizations. It is when companies lean too far in either direction that they begin to impact their ability to sell and drive revenue growth.

  10. Of course this is a false choice. Virtually any discussion of “Versus” or “Either-Or” is an attempt to polarize discussions or force false choices. Rigidly defending one or the other is usually driven from fear of change, lack of openness to new ideas, an unwillingness to explore, learn or improve. Dogmatism in promoting one versus the other means, “hold onto your wallet, someone’s trying to sell you something.” Subtext, “you may pay dearly.”

    We need both. Those stuck on one side, become better by exploring the other. As Dave suggests, too many have been stuck on the art side, refusing to explore and enrich their capabilities by exploring the “science side.”

    It’s also interesting to note, if you hang out in scientific communities, there is great discussion on “the art.” Listen to Feynman’s lectures, you gain a great appreciation for art in science. Likewise in artistic communities, you find great discussions about the science in art. Look at DaVinci, and that leaps out.

    So the discussion draws eyeballs, reads, creates attention, but really doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the practice of selling.

  11. Too often “science” (in selling anyway) is taken to mean using technology, like process automation, analytics, etc.

    But science really means the study of how something works. That could include processes but also people, no?

    Science: “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

    And art? In a selling context I think it should mean using creativity to engage with the customer, and create an emotional bond.

    Art: “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

    One last thought: Could science help sales professionals be more “artful” in their work? Isn’t psychology (study of the mind and behaviors) a science that might help sales art?

  12. Bob: to the above, I would add:
    – craftsmanship has always been a blend of science and art
    – we need more craftsmanship in sales as a profession
    – getting there requires more and better science
    – done well, the science hones the art and the art shapes the science
    – from the experimentation it enables + the learning it provokes.

    Craftsmanship requires deliberate practice. Informed with science. IMO, more of both is where we are collectively headed. Trust this adds some value – John

  13. Great comments and I'm sure we all agree that we need both. But I feel that the pendulum for sales training has swung too far into the science field. So I'm grateful that this controversial topic has got everybody talking. Just imagine, for instance, that you're a VP of Sales for a large software company, and you're trying to get funding for a sales training program that is going to focus on further developing the character of your sales force. The CEO & the CFO would think you're nuts. But when people are in trouble, even the CEO and CFO, where have they traditionally turned for help? To the most read book in the world- the bible. And when many people drifted away from organized religion, the self-help section became the biggest section in all book stores. Why? I believe that the answer is that before people can work on How to Change, they first have to resolve the question Why Change.
    So give me a sales person with character (works hard, leans into adversity, genuinely cares about their customer) and I feel that almost any sales training science program could make a positive difference. But if a salesperson has little character, don't you agree that they won't be able to implement your science based sales training, because they will get bogged down in all of the soft addictions of sales such as excessive email, research, busy work. Imagine if they instead had the strength of character to lean into adversity and do the difficult things that make a difference?
    Well, I believe that the sales training company that can help salespeople get their head screwed on right (Why Change), before they teach them the basic math, sales process etc. to sell successfully (How to Change), I believe will be the company of the future. And with all of the advances in neuroscience and psychology, I hope that that this goal will soon be achieved, since I feel it could really help a lot of people. And if salespeople go through this process to improve their business, don't customers go through a similar process when they look to improve their business by implementing your offering into their change initiative?
    But maybe the CEO & the CFO would still think you’re nuts trying to implement this type of training and you’d never get funding? 😉

  14. In Gorgias, a Socratic dialogue (380 B.C.) – which I first read during my undergraduate days – Plato argued that cooking, like public speaking (rhetoric), is a ‘knack’, the alchemy of a developed skill, craft and expertise which blends art and science. So, at the end of the day, selling may be more like the artful application of scientific approaches….or the scientific application of artistic concepts. Professionally, I’ve always endeavored to think of sales and selling in this way. From my perspective, I can easily agree with Bob. Selling is the combination of both art and science.

  15. I think the art of sales scares business people. In a world in constant change- things are either growing or dying- people crave certainty. Chaos scares people, so when they see a new pattern, they tell themselves a cause and effect story. They do this so that they feel they can then predict it; otherwise, it could whack them when they least expect it. So because business swims in a sea of uncertainty, businesspeople crave certainty, and that's why I believe that sales training has gone down the scientific road. And yet after 30-years of scientific sales training, and all of the sales methodologies, we're still fighting the 80/20 rule where 80% of the business is done by 20% of the salespeople. And despite this failure, we still want to believe that sales can be boiled down to a process that can be controlled. The art of sales, however, is one of those patterns that scares people, because it's emotional and that's something that we don't feel that we can control. It's considered one of those flakey skills. But sooner or later, we'll have to accept that people are not computers, and that we can't just appeal to the rider of the elephant (rational mind), but that we also have to persuade the elephant (emotional subconscious mind). The rider is in control as long as the elephant doesn't care where it's going, but the rider can't will the elephant to go where it doesn't want to go. That's where I think the art of sales comes in. So you’ve got to sell to both the rider and the elephant.


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