Many are enamored by sales science. They believe that applying science to selling can improve their results. They look to behavioral science to light the way toward a science of selling. Selling, however, isn't a science. To understand why there isn't a science of sales, we must start with what science does.
You and I are sitting in my dining room. You say, "It's raining." I respond by telling you, "It's not raining." You walk outside, and when you come back in, you are soaked. I still don't believe you, and you tell me to go outside and see for myself. When I come back in, I am drenched. But I am still not sure it's raining. I ask my neighbor to go outside and tell me if it is raining. He confirms it is raining.
This is how science works. A person with a hypothesis runs a test to see if they can confirm something to be true. After they publish their results, other scientists run the same experiment to see if they can replicate it. Sometimes the later experiments confirm the theory. Other times, the later experiment can't replicate the earlier results.
In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “The Pretense of Knowledge,” Fredrich Hayek accused economists of having a "'scientistic' attitude—an attitude which, as I defined it some thirty years ago, 'is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thoughts to fields different from those in which they have been formed."
Hayek was criticizing economists for treating economics as if it were a physical science, like biology or chemistry, or physics. Hayek continued, "in economics and other disciplines that deal with essentially complex phenomena, the aspects of the events to be accounted for about which we can get quantitative data are necessarily limited and may not include the important ones."
Science Is Repeatable
For there to be a science of sales, one would need to suggest that something is true. Others would have to replicate the result. Salesperson A would do something that allows them to win a new deal. Salesperson B would do the exact same thing in the same way and produce the same result, namely winning the client's business. But when Salesperson C does the same thing as A and B and fails to produce the same outcome, you can quickly see that sales is not science. As Hayek suggested, "the complex phenomena" provides quantitative data that may not include what is important.
Salespeople, sales leaders, and marketers have tried to turn selling into to a science for more than a hundred years. You can trace this search for scientific principles to Claude Hopkins, who published Scientific Advertising in 1923. Hopkins may have invented the A/B test, running advertisements to learn what worked and what failed. Once he had a winner, he'd spend the client's money. We also owe a debt to Hopkins because, according to Wikipedia, his Pepsodent advertisement popularized tooth brushing.
Our recordings of sales calls suggest that certain things cause clients to buy. For example, if the salesperson and their prospect both cuss in the sales call, the salesperson will have a greater chance of winning the client's business. There may be a correlation here, but it isn't causal. I will allow you to imagine all the cuss words that would also end the call and ensure you never speak to the client again.
The Sales Process as Science
To improve their results, sales leaders looked to "the sales process" to ensure that each salesperson had the conversation in the same way and in the same order. When a salesperson succeeded, it was attributed to following the sales process. The salesperson that failed was accused of not following the "proven" sales process.
I have always been skeptical about the sales process. In sales, there are too many variables, including the client, to follow a formula. Each client is different, and each may need something different from the salesperson. The client may also need different conversations at different times. When we add the need for consensus within a client’s organization, we face Hayek's "complex phenomena" writ large, placing the certainty of anything scientific out of reach.
In Search of Sales Science
A recent Harvard Business Review article reported that scientists believe that 89 percent of our buying decisions are subconscious. If true, this means we don't know why we buy what we buy, but we pretend we can discern why our client buys and why they prefer one salesperson over another. While it's not science, I believe the person who creates the most value is likely to win the client's business. But it could also be that the salesperson reminds them of their best friend from high school.
The behavioral sciences are worth studying, even if they don't provide a sales science that ensures that every salesperson can hit their targets and grow their company's revenue. The data points to human tendencies that, like us, are not always reliable. But not to worry, in our long history of selling, we seem to do just fine—even without a true sales science.