The history of sales management is a history of two competing narratives about the nature of selling.

The first narrative is built around the concept that “selling is an art.” In this narrative, the activities of the sales professional are seen as essentially mysterious and tied to the basic personalities of the individuals involved. This narrative creates a management style that emphasizes personal development and sales managers are primar­ily seen as coaches and “people pickers” who can find the sales stars with the innate skill.

The second narrative is built around the concept that “selling is a sci­ence.” Here, the activities of the sales professional are seen as easily replicated behaviors that can be taught to virtually any employee with basic social skills. This narrative creates a management style that emphasizes sales process and sales managers are primarily seen as administrators who measure sales activity and take corrective ac­tion as necessary.

Sales trainers and sales training firms have traditionally fallen into both camps. There are many sales trainers such as Art Mortel, Jeff Keller, and Anthony Robbins whose seminars are primarily moti­vational. However, the bulk of the sales training presented today by firms fall into the second category, emphasizing process and measurement, and the replication of “best practices” skills.

In other words, it appears that the “selling is an art” camp is, in a certain sense, retreating from the success of the “selling is a science” camp. This is not to say that motivational programs and personal develop­ment seminars are useless, but only that the overall trend in terms of how managers think about selling, and how they invest in sales train­ing, is toward the “selling is a science” narrative.

This “victory” (if that’s the right word for it) is the direct result of a rapid increase in the amount of data, and the types of data, that com­panies can gather, both about individual salespeople and about the performance of sales teams and groups. Now that most companies track sales processes, they can use analytical tools to draw conclu­sions about sales performance, make better forecasts, and build stronger and more effective organizations.

These new ways of measurement often result in surprising insights about selling. For example, it was once widely assumed that sales professionals who are highly success­ful at one type of selling will be equally successful at some other type of selling. However, when sales performance is actually measured, it becomes clear that a top performer is LESS likely than an average performer to be successful at a different sales environment.

When it comes to measuring themselves, sales teams (and their management) are prone to measure success and then attempt to strengthen or replicate the behaviors that created that success. That’s why the vast majority of sales training and sales technology is positioned as a way to implement “best practices” or “what the best salespeople do.”

However, the behavior of the top salespeople may be something that’s inherent rather than teachable. Top salespeople may, in fact, be near savants who are uniquely talented and peculiarly well-suited to a cer­tain kind of sales task and may not be able to articulate what they’re doing or why it works.