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Sales as Art and as Science

Businesses aren’t rational customers—they just look like it.

Key points

  • There are more sales techniques, methodologies, and frameworks than one could count.
  • Buyers don’t make rational decisions; rather, they make emotional decisions and then justify those by rationalizing them after the fact.
  • Appealing to a consumer's inner child and applying a trial-by-error approach are just two ways to make sales more effectively.

I consider myself rather lucky in my career because I avoided having to think about sales for a long time. It just so happened that in my first three companies, our product was the only one available on the market to fulfill our clients’ needs.

Once a potential client learned about our product and verified that it could indeed be used for their use case, we were more or less done with the onboarding process.

When I say, “We didn’t do sales,” it’s only half-true, of course. You could say that everything at a new company is sales: talking to investors, hiring people, even the actual product or service. Just think of Elon Musk’s Tesla truck: its unique design in and of itself is a sales technique.

Some might even go further and say that everything in life is sales. Best-selling author Dan Pink writes in his book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, “Parents sell their kids on going to bed. Spouses sell their partners on mowing the lawn or putting the cat out. We sell our bosses on giving us more money and more time off. And in astonishing numbers we go online to sell ourselves on Facebook, Twitter, and in profiles.”

Not for sale

It’s probably more precise to write that, at both of my early companies, we didn’t use any of the techniques that an average member of the public would consider “sales.” We didn’t run adverts, didn’t send emails, and didn’t even spend much time building our website.

Marketing is as much an art as it is a science. It’s quite unlike physics in that even people without much formal education can get the marketing right. However, knowledge usually still helps. Most sales teams set up a similar structure to coordinate their effort:

  • On top of building a marketing funnel, they scout for people who might be interested in their product.
  • They develop messages for talking to those people.
  • They convert as many of them into customers as they can.

These three points are broad on purpose—to allow for creative interpretation. Every product is different, so it’s only fair that the marketing approach be different too. For example, for our own startup, we found that the Challenger sales model works pretty well. Our customers are businesses, and they are too busy to meet vendors, so instead of asking them to meet with us to describe their problems, we do the legwork for them and pitch the solution directly.

We’re probably not alone in having busy clients. Gartner, a technological research and consulting firm, highlighted business-to-business as a growing trend in the customer-buying journey. They found that, when considering a purchase, B2B buyers only spend 17 percent of their time meeting with potential suppliers. Instead, they’re spending 27 percent of their time researching independently online.

According to Michael Bosworth, author of Solution Selling: Creating Buyers in Difficult Selling Markets, sales used to be about persuading, overcoming resistance, handling objections, and closing the sale. He also wrote, “Today, my definition of selling is helping [people]. It’s helping your customer achieve a goal, solve a problem, or satisfy a need.”

Let the child decide

Buyers don’t make rational decisions; rather, they make emotional decisions and then justify those by rationalizing them after the fact. This is true even for business customers, who have to use spreadsheets and numbers to support their decisions.

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.”
— Robert A. Heinlein, Assignment in Eternity

In the 1950s, Dr. Eric Berne developed the theory of transactional analysis to better understand how people communicate. According to the theory, people have three ego states that influence their behavior during social interactions: the adult, the child, and the parent.

The salesman David H. Sandler, together with a psychologist colleague, used some of the theory of transactional analysis to develop Sandler Training. According to the Sandler Selling System, a buying prospect must be emotionally involved in the sale; the “pain” of not having the product has to affect them on an emotional level.

When we make buying decisions, we like to think that our ego’s “adult” state is the one that’s working the hardest, that the logical, analytical, rational part of our behavioral framework weighs both sides of the argument and comes back with a solution. However, Sandler recognized that neither the “adult” nor the “parent” state is at work until the “child” wants the product. Many of our buying decisions originate in the ego’s child state, where our inner 6-year-old tells us they want something without delay.

How do Sandler-trained salespeople talk to someone’s inner child? They get a customer emotionally involved, perhaps by helping them discover something they didn’t know before. “I want to learn from this person” is almost the same as “I want to buy whatever this person has to offer.”

Trial and error

There are more sales techniques, methodologies, and frameworks than one could count. Most of them probably work when they are correctly applied, and then there are some that might even hurt the business rather than help it.

As a startup, we’re used to applying trial-and-error to anything we do—this is how we build our product—so it only makes sense to create a similar feedback loop with which to sell it. And so, we might be experimenting with the Challenger sale model today just to jump on another bandwagon tomorrow. Sales are like exercise—the best approach is the one that works for you.

With most successful endeavors, half the work is in the preparation. We like setting goals and thinking about problems in a structured way. Measuring outcomes and trialing ideas is surely part of the solution.