Home > Education > The Science of Selling: What qualifies or disqualifies selling as a Science?

The Science of Selling: What qualifies or disqualifies selling as a Science?

Several discussions on this and other websites have directly or indirectly suggested that selling is a science. In many of those discussions the central theme involved determining if selling is an Art or a Science. In your opinion, "What qualifies or disqualifies selling as a Science?"

To be clear, when I use the term "Science" I am not using the term loosely as in the example "the sweet science of boxing". By "Science" I mean any systematic knowledge that is capable of resulting in a correct predictions and reliable outcomes.

Additional clarification of terms:
  • Prediction: a statement, usually quantitative, about what will happen under specific conditions, as a logical consequence of scientific theories.
  • Reliable: that is giving the same result on successive trials.
- by Jeff Blackwell
I appreciate your insight and demand for certain ideas to meet specific qualifications before being elevated to the lofty perch of being called "scientific." This is grossly missing from much of what is being sold to the public as "science" in the area of sales.

If selling were a science we would not need this or any other forum to discuss the vicissitudes of selling.

Unfortunately, “gurus” such as Kevin Hogan who wrote, The Science of Influence, and Robert Cialdini, who wrote, Influence, Science and Practice, continue to misread, misinterpret and actually falsify test cases for commercial gain while generating the illusion that segments of selling have scientific validity when they do not.

To “influence” someone is blatantly not a science: there are no specific steps to take, that consistently generate the same predictable results among all targeted subjects. Imagine how the field of psychiatry would change if their claims were true.

Selling is an Art Form by concretizing the metaphysical. That is, through the concrete process of speaking and listening, abstract ideas, which transcend the physical, are employed to guide the mind of another.

Just as an oil painting is a concrete expression of non-physical ideas, designed to induce the sense of beauty for example.

From my experience, each successful sales rep has his or her own "scientific" approach that is valid and works for them. - by John Voris
I was tempted to say selling is more of an art, but perhaps it's actually more like a sport. Take motor racing - there are established ways to do better and go faster but we continually have to adjust for changing conditions, new technologies, bends in the road (and changes in the rules) and our competitors. - by Care Promote
I posted this elsewhere but will post it again in this thread for those who are interested:

I am of the opinion that if we are to have a productive discussion on whether selling is an Art or a Science we will first need to settle on what is meant by “Science” and what is meant by “Art”. With that common language under our belt we can then begin the process of comparing and contrasting Science and Art.

Not everyone understands the meaning or the purpose of “Controlled Conditions” so I offer the following quote: “It means that variables that can affect the data collected from an experiment are monitored and held constant. Control is essential for two reasons:
  1. Natural phenomena involve many interrelated variables, and if some of these variables are not held fixed over the course of the experiment, patterns in the data may be difficult or impossible to discover.
  2. To ensure that the data is reliable, an experiment must be repeatable and the data must be reproducible. Controlling conditions makes it possible for others to duplicate the experiment.”
I would like to propose the following definitions for the terms below:
  1. Science: “any systematic knowledge that is capable of resulting in a correct prediction or reliable outcomes”.
  2. Prediction: “a statement, usually quantitative, about what will happen under specific conditions, as a logical consequence of scientific theories”.
  3. Reliable: “giving the same result on successive trials”.
  4. Reproducibility: “is one of the main principles of the scientific method, and refers to the ability of a test or experiment to be accurately reproduced, or replicated, by someone else working independently.
  5. Predictability: “is the degree to which a correct prediction or forecast of a system’s state can be made either qualitatively or quantitatively.
  6. Consistently: “in a consistent manner; constantly; always”.
  7. Art: “the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements (e.g.; Language) in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions, and/or intellect”.
Of course, if you want to use the term “Science” loosely as in the example “the sweet science of boxing” then no further discussion is required.

Using the definitions provided…

A.) IF “Selling” was a “Science” anyone with access could refer to a systematic knowledge (of selling) that is capable of resulting in…
  1. a correct statement, usually quantitative, about what will happen under specific conditions, as a logical consequence of scientific theories (i.e.; correct prediction)
  2. predictable outcomes meaning giving the same result on successive trials. (i.e.; reliable outcomes)
An individual (e.g.; salesperson, sales trainer) may claim to possess such a systematic knowledge (of selling) however as mentioned previously to ensure that the data is reliable, an experiment must be repeatable and the data must be reproducible meaning; accurately reproduced, or replicated, by someone else working independently. This is key since reproducibility is one of the main principles of the scientific method. Against this standard “Selling” does not qualify as a “Science”.

I would suggest however that some individuals approach Selling as if it were a Science meaning that they strive for correct prediction and reliable outcomes by building their own body of knowledge with the resulting data from systematic execution, observation and adjustments in their own sales practice.

B.) IF “Selling” was an “Art” we could say that selling was a process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements (e.g.; Language) in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions, and/or intellect. Against this standard “Selling” does qualify as an “Art”. (Note: An artist might not achieve the desired audience response from his/her Art but that does not disqualify it as Art.)

With all that being said… Those engaged in selling will find it difficult to escape the influence of “Social Science” disciplines such as economics, linguistics, sociology, etc. but that is a different story. - by Jeff Blackwell
Selling is a business practice.

There are parts of that practice that can benefit from creativity which is a right-brained thing often ascribed to people who engage in an art.

There are parts of that practice that can benefit from research and study which are activities often ascribed to people who engage in a science.

I am intimately familiar with both those areas, but I would refrain from calling selling a science or an art except when I use the terms "loosely." Similarly, I might call it a game. However, in a serious expository discussion, I will continue to call it a business practice on those rare occasions when someone asks for a definition. - by Gary A Boye
Selling is a science in the sense established sales processes are known to yield results consistently even to well-trained newbies.

Selling is an art in the sense there's scope for creativity, and the best salespersons won't exactly say the same things in similar situations, and won't get the same results.

So, selling is an art and a science. It's gray, and has shades of black and white.

Ganesan. - by ezynes
On managing top #salespeople: You can't cage an eagle, but you can align them with company success! - by bettersales
Selling is a science in the sense established sales processes are known to yield results consistently even to well-trained newbies.
Hello Ganesan. Out of curiosity, which sales processes are you referring to? - by Jeff Blackwell
Hi Jeff,

Sales processes I'm referring to could vary based on the business and the company's own style.

At a macro level, it refers to the sales cycle: e.g. one such process could be:
research the net -> identify prospects -> tele-call -> fix appointment -> sales call -> follow-up calls -> negotiation -> close

At a micro level, it could be, e.g.:
Initial Benefit Statement -> Probe -> Dialogue -> Close -> Handle Attitudes -> Close

All these can be taught and fine-tuned in salespersons.

However, a few things can't be taught. For example, when the prospect drops some hints, wittingly or unwittingly, picking them up and creatively using them to phenomenal advantage is a less teachable art. You could show several case studies, but only the intrinsically great/ good salespersons will learn fully from these.

There's no single right or wrong process to sell. Each company may adopt its own methodologies. Some small companies have no methodologies and they just recruit salespeople, tell about the product, and let the salespeople fend for themselves.

Crudely speaking, on a sales effectiveness scale of 0 to 100, if a fresher is recruited and left to himself/ herself, the person may start at level 0, and work his/ her way to 5 or 10 if he/ she is average, and even 25 if he/ she is top class, say.

If well trained, it is possible to get the person on the street at level 10, to start with, and get him/ her to perform at level 20 to 25 in steady state, if the person is average. But if the person is top class, he/ she could be facilitated to perform at level 100 in steady state.

Don't attach too much significance to these numbers; I gave these just to give an idea of how training and individual excellence super-impose to contribute to sales effectiveness.

Sales delivery is different. It could be 100s and even 1000's times higher for top salespeople compared to average ones.

Have I clarified?

Ganesan. - by ezynes
One of my missions is to explore and expose exaggerated claims made by segments of the sales training industry. Currently, there are books claiming that influencing others is a science. They use this terminology to sell books and get the authors speaking engagements and sell seminars. Sales is not a science on any level.

Science demands valid, repeatable, standard processes, based on community-recognized principals that generate consistent results.

You were right! “There's no single right or wrong process to sell,” which violates acceptable scientific practices.

I have seen many successful sales agents violate one or two of the several “Golden Rules” of sales: some do not dress for success; many are poor listeners or actually ignore what the prospect is saying; others tell them what they should want; many ignore standard interpretations of body language; some have even been rude, aggressive and insulting.

One of our best salesman we had simply walked into a clients place of business, tossed a menu on their desk and asked, “Hey, I’m pressed for time. What do you want? Delivery is next Tuesday.”

Ok, what methodology did he use that is taught anywhere?

He didn’t say who he represented, never mentioned his name and if the client talked too long, he would cut them short. Of course there are many sales environments that this approach just couldn’t work. But this demonstrates the degree that successful sales practices are very individual and change with the commodity being sold.

Many here try to direct people away from the many pseudo-sciences that want your money and calling sales science is simply fraudulent. - by John Voris
I have a different take on this. I don't take either of the extreme positions about trainability of salespersons (or otherwise).

I believe potential salespersons with no prior experience can be trained to an extent, and they would deliver to some extent. (Obviously, a person without aptitude and commitment can't be trained, as in any other realm.)

However, for high levels of delivery in sales, the intrinsic sales capabilities of an individual would help.

I'm still not commenting on the effectiveness of any specific training program that someone may be peddling, as I don't know anything about it. All that I say is that even average persons can be trained to deliver a certain level of results.

There aren't enough intrinsically top class salespersons in the world (or any country). So, companies are forced to make do with average persons with training, to make up for shortage of top class salespersons. The better the training, the better will the delivery of the average people, but they won't deliver beyond a point.

I'm not a sales trainer on hire (- I don't train except to meet my own business needs), and so I have no axe to grind in taking this position. I don't hire external sales trainers, not because I don't believe in them (I have had good results from some of them in the long past), but because I find it easier this way (in my own current small business) . If my business volumes were as high as it was when I was a professional CEO of a company with over 200 franchisees, I may have used them.

Ganesan. - by ezynes
The thread questions if there is a science to selling.

But I will address this post specifically:

Anyone (the average person) can sell someone some of the time. (And that is in the absence of sales potential.)

Or, everyone can do some things well--to some extent.

That is not what we are after.

It is like saying anyone can make some plumbing repairs some of the time.

The question is, "Can that person make a living at it?"

If recruiting techniques were based on science and sales training was based on science--we would not need "salespractice." - by John Voris
I know of many average salespersons who tripped into selling as the last alternative (who manage to sell average volumes) who have been making an average living. Simply due to the high growth and high profit industry and/ or company they tripped into, some have even managed to get fat salaries and benefits. The companies have also retained them (though not given them any promotions, etc.) as they always find it difficult to get enough salespersons. Since they are not too sure about themselves, they almost never leave their current employment, and companies consider them as loyal soldiers. So, even average salespersons have a place under the sun.

So, my answer is, "Yes, they can make a jolly good living at it."

I'm not saying recruiting techniques are only based on science and sales training is 100% science -- so, we would still need "salespractice", more the merrier.


Most things in life (including sales), are neither white nor black; they are most often gray; how gray may be open to debate.

Since I have expressed myself sufficiently, I'd like to voluntarily stop posting further to this thread unless others show interest and express their views also.

Ganesan. - by ezynes
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