Sales, Science and Engineering

Published September 4, 2012

Here’s a little insight into how my mind works. When I think about time management — an important issue for salespeople, right? —  I often find myself thinking about Albert Einstein. When I think about Einstein, I often find myself thinking about Sir Isaac Newton too. They were both brilliant scientists, but now you may be thinking, what do either of them have to do with sales? It turns out that you can apply much of what Einstein and Newton theorized to the science and engineering of selling.

Before I go any farther with that notion, let’s make sure that you understand the difference between science and engineering. Perhaps the most basic explanation is that scientists create knowledge; they study the world as it is and seek to understand and explain things. Engineers, on the other hand, apply that knowledge, often in an effort to change the world. Maybe another way to explain this is that scientists are mostly about specifications while engineers are all about application.

Newton’s Laws of Motion

Sir Isaac Newton is probably best known for the discovery of gravity — according to legend, it all happened when an apple fell off of a tree and hit him on the head. His Universal Law of Gravitation was the accepted explanation for gravitational behavior for more than 200 years, until it was superseded by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Newton is also well known for defining three Laws of Motion, and that’s where his main contribution to the science of selling can be found.

Newton’s First Law — sometimes referred to as the “law of inertia”— is usually stated in this way: An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

What does that mean to a salesperson? The best way to answer that question may be to ask you what you compete with when you’re out looking for new business. Please note that I’m not asking you who you compete with, because while it’s (hopefully!) true that you compete with other salespeople and other companies on a regular basis, at the most fundamental level, it’s not those salespeople and their companies that you compete with. You’re really in competition with what they represent: the status quo. Here’s some more Dinosaur Wisdom: You’re always in competition with the current and existing state of affairs as it pertains to your products and/or services. That may mean another supplier, but it also may mean that they’ve never purchased a product or service like yours before.

Either way, a big part of your challenge is to break the inertia. If your suspect is at rest, you need to get them into motion. If your suspect is already in motion, you need to turn that motion in your direction. You have to be the unbalanced force that acts on the status quo. You may be familiar with the term change agent. That’s just another way of describing a great salesperson.

Newton’s Second Law

Newton’s Second Law Of Motion is usually stated this way: The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.

OK, I apologize, but that’s exactly what it says in the basic physics textbook I used to do my research on this point. Newton’s Second Law can also be expressed by the equation F = M x A, or Force equals Mass times Acceleration.

What does that mean to a salesperson? Newton’s Second Law tells us that the more satisfied a suspect is with the status quo, the harder a salesperson will have to work to create the motion that might turn that buyer into a customer. That takes us back to time management, because you always have to be asking yourself if any individual suspect is worth all that effort.

Pushing vs. Pulling

The application of force also represents a very direct connection to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which tells us: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In practice, the force you apply to a suspect/prospect can be processed in one of two ways. It can be reflected back at you in a classic “equal and opposite” reaction—in other words, the buyer is pushing you away—or it can be channeled toward working with you.

This points to the difference between pushing and pulling, and it’s a significant difference in terms of selling strategy. The pushers talk mostly about their products and services. The pullers talk mostly about their suspects, prospects and customers. The pushers lead with statements — my product has been proven to reduce carbon emissions so it’s better for the environment! The pullers lead with questions — do you have issues or concerns with carbon emissions and their effect on the environment?

I think the pullers are much better engineers, but let me come back to that in a moment.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

Albert Einstein was born 152 years after Newton’s death, and he had access to much improved observation and measurement technology — some of which was a direct result of the application of Newton’s science. Einstein himself published more than 300 scientific works, but he is probably best known for the equation E = mc2 — Energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.

E = mc2  doesn’t have any direct application to sales, but Einstein also theorized that space and time are relative — in other words, they depend on the motion of the observer who measures them — and that’s where his main contribution to the science of selling can be found. One of the key elements of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is that the relative passage of time slows as the relative speed of the observer increases. The most common application of this theory suggests that a person who travels to the stars and back at near-lightspeed would be younger on his/her return than a person who stayed on earth during that journey.

What does that mean to a salesperson? I think Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity provides us with a really good explanation of what happens when a salesperson tries to move too quickly in building a relationship or making a sale. If the salesperson is selling at Warp 9 and the buyer is buying at 1/2 Impulse, the relative speed creates a spatial gap that’s far more likely to grow than to shrink. The best selling happens when the seller and the buyer are on the same page — or at least somewhere close to the same place in the spacetime continuum!

Current Customers

Beyond these applications to suspects and prospects, both Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Newton’s Laws of Motion have some bearing on the other half of your sales equation: keeping the customers you already have. The “law of inertia” tells us that that they’ll stay with you if you keep them happy, and Newton’s Second Law explains why some customers require — and are worth — a greater level of effort in order to keep them happy. Newton’s Third Law demonstrates the equilibrium of a solid and profitable customer relationship; one where you get value from the relationship that’s equal to the effort you put in.

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity reminds us that it’s critical to stay on that same page with your customers. If their needs change — or their wants for that matter! — they’re going to gravitate to someone who can satisfy the new need/want equation. The best way to prevent that from happening is simply to stay in touch.

No, wait, simply is the wrong word. This is not just a staying in touch with the buyer issue — Hey, how’s it going? Are you enjoying the summer? Do you need any of my stuff today? — it’s an issue of staying in front of any changes in the buyer’s situation. Hey, how’s it going? Are you enjoying the summer? Do you see anything changing in your usage of my products and/or services? Is there anything you need — or want, or may need or want — that you’re not getting from me, or that you’re not sure you can get from me? Please let me know if there’s anything that can help me to stay out in front of your wants and needs!

Final Thoughts

OK, I hope I’ve made the point that there are valid scientific explanations for many of the phenomena of selling. I’m not suggesting that either Newton or Einstein was in any way driven by the possibility that his knowledge would be helpful to salespeople someday, but I am saying that it’s important to understand the underlying physics and psychology of your craft. The better you understand the science, the more likely it is that you can apply it to improve your sales team’s performance.


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About The Author

David Fellman headshot
David M. Fellman is the president of David Fellman & Associates, a sales & marketing consulting firm based in Cary, NC. He is the author Listen To The Dinosaur (2010), which Selling Power magazine listed as one of its “10 Best Books To Read in 2010.” His articles on sales, marketing and management topics have appeared in a variety of publications, and he is a popular speaker who has delivered seminars and keynotes at events across the United States, Canada, England, Ireland and Australia.