Is B2B selling art or science – or is it engineering?


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Is sales an art or a science? Traditionalists used to think of sales as a combination of art and heroics. A recent article in the Financial Times suggested that it was moving from an art to a science. Many other commentators have observed that successful selling – particularly in complex buying environments – involves some combination of art and science.

I think it’s clear that in today’s business environment, sales people have to draw upon elements of both art and science, and that any sales person that relies exclusively on one or the other is unlikely to be successful – or if they were, they would probably be a nightmare to manage, and impossible to replicate.

But there’s a third perspective – one that seems to be entirely more appropriate to the world we all live and sometimes compete within, and it’s that successful selling actually owes a tremendous amount to the disciplines of engineering.

Artist Scentist Engineer

The lure of the unknown vs. the comfort of certainty

So what’s the difference between science and engineering? A number of observers have characterised scientists as preferring the unknown as opposed to engineers who prefer certainty. They see one discipline pursuing learning into order to achieve dramatic breakthroughs, the other to achieve progressive improvement.

At the individual level, I’ll accept the notion that sales success requires a subtle combination of art, science and engineering. But at an organisational level, where the goal must surely be to a establish a scalable process that is capable of identifying, attracting, engaging, qualifying and converting more of the right sort of prospects, the primary discipline must surely be one of engineering.

Effective process vs. acts of random brilliance

Of course, you have to first believe that the key to sustained sales success lies in effective process rather than random acts of brilliance, and there’s a (fortunately dwindling) proportion of the population that still believes in the latter (and in miracles as a sales strategy). If you fall into this camp, I suspect that you won’t have made it this far through the article.

Engineers tend to have a process mind-set. They dislike looking at the world as a series of random acts. They believe in cause-and-effect. They look for patterns. They seek to understand how processes work and how they can be improved. They measure the success of processes in terms of the outcomes they achieve.

Measuring what does and doesn’t work – and doing something about it

We live in a world where outcomes can be measured with greater precision than ever before. We no longer have to succumb to John Wanamaker’s oft-quoted frustration that “I know half of my advertising is wasted – I just don’t know which half”. We can work out what works, and what doesn’t – and we can do something about it.

Now, I happen to believe – particularly in today’s increasingly complex world of buying behaviour – that an engineering mind-set provides the perfect foundation for driving sustained B2B sales and marketing performance improvement. We have tools that allow us to recognise patterns, to measure and model, and to identify winning behaviours and propagate them.

The legacy of Hewlett and Packard

I started my career at Hewlett-Packard, in the days when that company was a true innovator, pioneer and thought leader. HP had a respect for engineering that went far beyond product development or manufacturing – it permeated every aspect of the company’s thinking. And it created a culture where sales and marketing was seen as a process that lent itself to engineering discipline.

It may not have resulted in the world’s most creative marketing, but it was remarkably effective, and subject to continuous improvement. Fast-forward to today, and there is no excuse for any organisation to not have access to the data that could allow them to systematically understand and improve their sales and marketing processes.

All a matter of mind-set – and of respect for process

It’s all a matter of mind-set. The information (and associated insight) is potentially accessible to every organisation – no matter how large or small. We all have the potential to systematically engineer a more effective sales and marketing process. We all have the capability to identify and eliminate the bottlenecks that are holding us back and slowing us down.

We all have the ability to see what’s working and what isn’t, and to do something about it. We can all engineer more successful outcomes. All we have to do is to abandon out-dated notions of selling as either art or science and to think of it instead as a series of processes that if understood, can be refined.

All we need is to have a respect for process. And to pay tribute to the engineers that have built so much of the world around us.

One last thing…

If you think of your sales and marketing as processes that can be systematically improved, I’d like to suggest that you invest 10-15 minutes in our recently updated B2B sales and marketing self-assessment. It incorporates the lessons learned from some of today’s most effective sales and marketing organisations – and the insights should appeal to your inner engineer. Why not take the test today?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


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