The scientific method of sales

When we think of sales, we usually think of it in terms of art or personality rather than hard science and data. In his 2016 book, The Science of Selling, sales consultant David Hoffeld brings together a wide range of data and studies on the psychology of sales to give a practical, grounded, and fascinating approach to sales.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One, “The Foundations of Selling With Science,” lays out the basic principles of why old methods of sales training and old models of successful sales strategies fail. In Part Two, “The Salesperson’s Toolkit,” Hoffeld hones in on the principles of psychology and behavioral economics that can help you close deals consistently. Part Three is a brief conclusion on “Merging Science and Selling.”

When Hoffeld says that traditional methods of sales fail, he means it. The studies cited in the book show that, among other things, only 37% of salespeople are consistently successful, while the methods of the remaining 63% actually drive down sales. Furthermore, research also indicates that up to 90% of modern sales training does little or nothing to improve performance.

Hoffeld emphasizes that successful sales must be grounded in empathy and a deep understanding of the buyer’s perspective. Salespeople too often get caught up in how great their product is, while giving too little thought to the buyers actual needs. To do this, he recommends walking through the “Six whys” that go into every buying decision, from “Why change at all?” to “Why this product?”, “Why this particular company?”, and “Why spend my money?” Understanding a client’s why helps you connect with them and make them feel connected and understood.

This is critically important, as emotions play a huge and under-appreciated role in sales. People are not purely rational, and it happens that you might be unable to close a deal just because the client happens to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed. The research presented in this book shows that attempting to elevate a clients mood through attentive small talk, a positive attitude, or even offering them a snack can drastically improve sales performance. This is not a matter of having a magnetic personality. Anyone can learn to be empathetic and engaged.

In order to understand the buyer’s perspective, you have to first learn what that perspective is. This means asking the right kind of questions. It turns out that just asking questions can influence decision making. A study by the Journal of Applied Psychology showed that asking someone if they were going to vote, made it 25% more likely that they would go and vote.

Asking questions triggers a process in the client’s brain called “instinctive elaboration.” Without necessarily even being consciously aware of it, they will shift their thinking toward the subject addressed. According to the social penetration theory model of interpersonal relationships, you need to layer your questions from the broadest level and work down from there to the details.

The book is full of meticulous research well organize and presented that can revolutionize how you approach sales. Hoffeld is also a very clear writer. There are 40 pages of notes and references at the back, but he seldom gets bogged down over-proving some point. His methods are grounded in scientific research rather than personal experience and are therefore very broadly applicable. The “Six Whys” for example, are as important to selling yourself in an interview as they are to you selling a product.

Another great takeaway is the importance in sales or any other profession to be constantly learning. One of the first concepts Hoffeld explores in the book is that of neuroplasticity and growth mindset. He draws on a lot of different psychological and sociological research created largely in the academic world. What makes this book so special and so engaging is that he takes a lot of interesting academic information and applies it to business in a practical and actionable way. Besides the direct lessons the book teaches, it also shows the importance of seeking out new and diverse information and integrating it into your life.

The Science of Selling is available for purchase here.

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