Why Sales Is Both an Art and a Science

What’s better: a relationship-driven approach, or a data-driven approach?

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I recently asked the CEO of a billion-dollar distributor about his philosophy on consultative selling.

What’s better: a relationship-driven approach or a data-driven approach?

He told me you can’t get to the consultative level without the foundation of a good relationship. After all, people only buy from people they like. If you’re too analytical and impersonal, you won’t get to use the insights the data reveals. Your customers will gravitate toward friendlier vendors.

But if you only care about the relationship side of things, you’ll leave a lot of money on the table. You can’t be so chatty with a customer that you forget to talk about the products your data suggests they’d benefit from ordering. 

If your company hopes to successfully embrace consultative selling, you need to find the right balance between the art of salesmanship and the science of data analytics. 

A brief history of art and science

This CEO is right: art and science aren’t “either/or” things. In fact, they’ve always been related. The ancient Greek word for art was “techne,” and the words “technique” and “technology” are derived from it. Artists like Leonardo da Vinci didn’t just paint; they infused their work with science. Leonardo combined his knowledge of anatomy, physics and geometry to improve painting. He made it as respected as math and philosophy. Take the “Mona Lisa,” for example. Da Vinci’s studies of human anatomy and light helped him depict her mysterious smile. This set a new benchmark for art.

And it’s not just a one-way street. Today, companies such as Apple and Pixar merge great design and storytelling with advanced technology, demonstrating their business value. For “Elemental,” Pixar used AI for impressive visuals. AI enabled Pixar to realistically depict elements like water and fire beyond traditional methods.

Think of it this way: Art is how we express our humanity, and science is how we better understand the world around us. In sales, it’s crucial to have a bit of both. On one hand, you need to genuinely connect with customers, making sure they feel listened to and valued. On the other hand, technology lets us learn more about our customers, identify their needs and find ways to improve our relationships with them.

Technology shouldn’t replace the human element — it should enhance it

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been on the tip of everyone’s tongues lately, especially as it relates to art. In 2023, the debate intensified as actors went on strike. They demanded protections against the potential misuse of AI in their industry. Salespeople can certainly understand this fear. It seems like AI is getting so powerful that companies could soon just employ robots to do all their selling. 

But I think any company, whether a movie studio or a distributor, would be making a huge mistake by replacing their human artists with AI. Instead, AI should be a tool, much like it was for Pixar’s creative team when they were bringing to life characters made of fire and water in “Elemental.” It wasn’t AI that dreamed up the movie’s concept. Instead, AI played a role in turning that creative vision into something we could see and enjoy on screen.

The combination of art and technology is also evident in the following: 

    Netflix uses sophisticated algorithms to recommend shows and movies from users’ viewing habits. These AI suggestions account for 80% of Netflix’s viewership. The company also uses data analytics for content decisions, notably for originals like “House of Cards” and predicting “Stranger Things” as a major success. Spotify blends music with machine learning to craft personalized playlists, keeping users engaged. Its algorithms study song characteristics — tone, tempo, lyrics — and user habits to recommend new tracks that match listeners’ tastes.

    Apple excels not as the pioneer of smartphones or tablets, but with its innovative design and emphasis on simplicity. Steve Jobs highlighted this, stating, “It’s technology married with liberal arts...that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” The 2007 launch of the iPhone, with its touchscreen replacing physical buttons, was a game-changer. Apple’s dedication to merging technology with artistry has transformed our device interactions, showing that uniting science and art can lead to industry revolutions.

Your customers want you to be a “preferred supplier”

In a recent study, Harvard Business Review defined five types of customer relationships. Distributors relying too much on AI might end up as just “transactional vendors,” churning through customers quickly with minimal personal interaction. This approach might suit consumer-facing e-commerce but B2B clients prefer “preferred suppliers” who deeply understand their needs and provide managed services to ensure they never run low on supplies. AI has a valuable role in analyzing customer behavior, enabling sales reps to predict their clients’ needs. Armed with this insight, reps can personally engage with their customers and offer timely, relevant recommendations.

I recently spoke with a VP of Sales at a large distribution company. He emphasized the critical role of their CRM in detecting potential customer decay early on. “Our customers don’t want to have to purchase from multiple distributors. They really want the ease and convenience of ordering from one. When we use the information [our software] gives us, we can stop decay before it happens,” he explained. 

And that’s where the “art” of sales comes in, isn’t it? Nobody likes being sold to, even though everybody needs to buy things. When distributors solely use science and tech for sales, their customers can feel dehumanized, like cattle being pushed through the sales pipeline. Most people don’t like feeling that way, no matter how accurate and useful the recommendations AI can generate might be. Just like artists and storytellers bring their visions to life, making us believe in the worlds they create, effective salespeople make their customers feel uniquely valued.

In the past, for a sales rep to give that personalized attention, they had to do a ton of groundwork. Imagine them sifting through heaps of data to track a customer’s order history, analyze spending patterns, and pinpoint new sales opportunities. It was a massive task, especially when juggling hundreds of customers. Thanks to science and technology, this process has been streamlined. Now, CRMs and data analytics tools can instantly provide all that information, making each customer feel special without reps getting lost in spreadsheets. This not only saves time but also ensures every customer feels like they’re the only one, even in a sea of many.

Be a sales team that combines art and science 

Despite technological advances, customers still need answers to basic questions like, “What do you know about me?” or “What value do you add?” AI helps provide richer, better answers to these timeless questions, but it can’t simulate the human connection at the heart of the customer relationship. When you lose that, you lose everything that sets your company apart from faceless ecommerce giants. 

Distributors should strive to be polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci. Just as da Vinci’s anatomical studies informed his masterpieces, distributors can use AI to deepen the valuable human connections with their customers.

Embracing science doesn’t mean forgetting about your art — it means making your art better. 

Benj Cohen is the founder and CEO of Proton.ai.

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