Why Sales Is as Much an Art as a Science
The following is adapted from Moving from Models to Mindsets.
Sales is both a science and an art. When working with sales managers, it’s a lesson we can’t emphasize enough.
Too often, sales training methodologies, especially those regarding conversations for opportunities, focus on the science of selling at the expense of the art. The failure to recognize context is never more of an issue than in these conversations. There is no better example of how traditional sales training companies have gotten this all wrong than in the sales pursuit form.
Here is what the failed current state of sales training pushes:
Form-driven: Filling out the form becomes the answer. We find that the form approach to selling is attractive to people who don’t really want to sell—think accountants and engineering firms. Few high-performing salespeople embrace a complex pursuit form.
Diminishing context: Current thinking pushes a one size fits all to selling, when in reality it is impossible for one way of selling to meet the needs of the many company cultures salespeople engage with.
Important issues are lost in complexity: Many sales programs say that treating companies as complex entities confuses a salesperson and will distract from the task at hand. We find appreciating complexity actually helps sales by uncovering even more issues your company can help your client with.
The cognitive biases are AWOL: Most importantly, all the biases we hold for different generations are typically nowhere to be found in average pipeline training. While not all biases are true, they can help identify the underlying inference, assumption, and meaning making that all humans engage in.
The Limitations of Tools and Forms
Humans have a tendency to make the subjective seem objective. A completed form that is correctly and thoroughly completed may appear objective, but in reality, all the information is actually subjective.
Companies that manufacture these forms follow a one-size-fits-all approach because they follow an intellectual property model. Customizing forms is expensive without a lot of margin, but if you can sell people on the idea that your tool works anywhere and everywhere, you can virtually print money. It boils down to margins, and margins are the basis for the way these companies run their business. Unfortunately, this is not in the best interest of the company purchasing the forms or in the interest of the people using them.
So what happens when the training on these forms fail? Well, this is truly interesting: the training providers blame their customer. They blame the participants, the managers, and even the customer’s corporate culture.
The problem is never with the actual form itself. No one ever says, “Maybe our tool is too complicated for your culture. Let’s try a simpler version, and you will not have to pay for the intellectual property that is not being used.”
You certainly never hear, “You know what? Maybe only four of the twenty-four boxes we have listed really matter.”
This isn’t to say that forms are never helpful. They are—when in context and when aligned with the art of selling.
When you’re forced into a particular way of thinking with a form that doesn’t value your own judgment, no matter how accurately you complete it, it may still give you the wrong answer. The form may say that you will secure the business, but as the people understanding the customer and the ins and outs of their trade, you may know it’s a lost cause.
Rethinking Conversations for Opportunities
I see whole companies dedicated and committed to completing forms and using tools that don’t fit their culture or solve their underlying needs around improving pipeline quality and quantity—and better face-to-face selling skills.
Dr. William Edwards Deming, a polymath who excelled in the fields of academia, engineering, and business, noted that, “The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.”
He argued further that process and culture were more to blame for performance than an individual person.
I believe it is the same with pipeline quality. There’s something called a fundamental attribution error, which is when you pick one reason for the source of your problems and run with it. Maybe you believe someone is lazy, so you blame their laziness as the reason they didn’t accomplish something, when in fact, this isn’t the case.
It is easy, and common, for leadership in organizations to first get seduced by the form (it’s been out there since 1985) and second, to blame the sales organization when the form does not have the impact that they (leadership) wanted. This is the fundamental attribution error in the sales world.
The wrong incentives (pipeline growth), culture (unable to admit ambiguity, time required in other sales areas), management commitment, or other factors can cause any and all forms to fail.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast, so when implementing a new pipeline or opportunity pursuit approach, I would suggest implementing one that fits your culture and not the other way around (change your culture to fit the form). Also, any training in this area needs to highlight the inferences and biases that impact your judgment and then use cognitive questions to gain additional understanding and insight.
 John Hunter, “Dr. Deming Called for the Elimination of The Annual Performance Appraisal,” The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog , accessed October 1, 2018, https://blog.deming.org/2012/10/dr-deming-called-for-the-elimination-of-the-annual-performance-appraisal,
John Reid is the author of Moving from Models to Mindsets and is Founder and President of JMReid Group, whose clients have included Ernst & Young, ProAmpac, Global Healthcare Exchange, Ryerson, and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group. In 2015, JMReid Group’s work was featured in Training magazine’s Top 10 Hall of Fame Outstanding Training Initiatives.
For more advice on sales, you can find Moving from Models to Mindsets on Amazon.