The Art and Science of Selling Blog Series: How Does Cooking Correlate with Selling?

In last week’s blog, we examined how dramatically different the data sets are for consumer versus B2B sales. We highlighted that customer data is shallow and available in large numbers and that B2B customer data is very rich and limited in number. This week’s blog examines the art and science of selling from a bit of a different perspective: how we prepare the food we eat!

Baking versus Cooking

Ann-Christel Graham, the CRO of Talend and one of the most savvy sales leaders I’ve had the pleasure to meet, put it this way, “Sales management is like baking. It is much less variable and must be done a certain way in order to yield the best outcome. Selling is more like cooking and is much more variable. When you prepare a recipe, lots of liberty can be taken in adjusting the recipe to your liking. Baking is like science and cooking is more like art.” I love her analogy and I’m going to shamelessly borrow it for this post.

Sales Management is Like Baking

In general, baking requires a high level of precision in measuring ingredients. Too much or too little of a key ingredient like baking soda makes a huge difference in the outcome of the baking effort. The same can be said of sales management. Too much focus on outcomes and not enough focus on activities leads to undesirable outcomes for sales managers. Even within activities that managers focus on, certain ones are far more highly related to better sales performance. Managers who develop a minimum consistent recipe for coaching the highest impact activities outperform managers that don’t. Sales managers who are more formal in their expectations for seller planning, as well as more consistent with their coaching rhythms, have higher performing teams and a higher percentage of their sellers at quota compared with their lower performing counterparts.

Selling is More Like Cooking – Sort of!

It is true that selling is more variable than sales management; however, at first blush saying that selling is more like cooking may be a bit misleading. Here’s why. Cooking for some people is all about finding and following a recipe. They rarely, if ever, veer far from their recipe. The cooks that rarely vary their recipes are often the less experienced cooks. As individuals gather more and more experience cooking, they gain the ability to vary the recipe as desired to achieve slightly different outcomes.

So, what does this have to do with selling? Well, less experienced sellers are the ones that tend to need to stick to a specific process – or recipe – to achieve certain outcomes with a customer. The confusion comes about when we assume that more experienced (and successful) sellers have more variability because it is more of an art than a science. This is the part that needs further examination. My experience and very close examination of seller behavior sheds light on a different possibility. I believe selling becomes more of an art when a seller has a solid foundation of good skills and can then vary those skills based on the situation they face. This is like good cooks varying a recipe with greater success because they’ve got more experience cooking!

Good Cooking and Good Selling is Science Followed by Art

The most successful cooks have the basics down pat and then get creative and try new things; however, they try new things in ways that are not weird. They make mostly logical leaps between ingredients. The more experienced and successful they are as chefs, the more creative they ultimately can become.

Good sellers also have the basics down pat and they also get creative and try new things; however, they try new things in ways that aren’t as random as they might appear. The most successful sellers have a foundation of good, solid selling skills; however, they have patterns they exhibit for how they veer from that foundation based on the buying situation they face. They get creative by incorporating different strategies based on which strategy is most likely to be effective in a given situation. The most successful sellers identify patterns that they can repeat when the right situation arises. They have a broader tool kit and they can pull out additional tools based on the task at hand.

The takeaway is that art is wonderful but it is not as random as it appears. Creativity in cooking and selling tends to be the hallmark of those who have a solid foundation to build upon (the science) and then leverage that knowledge in new and creative ways to create better outcomes. Science as foundation, followed by artistic creativity. Now that is a blend of art and science that makes sense.


VantagePoint’s Michelle Vazzana was recently featured on Gartner’s blog discussing adapting to changing situations. Check out the article here: