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The Scientific Method and Selling

by Hank Barnes  |  March 19, 2019  |  2 Comments

In grade school, I remember learning the scientific method.  It is a formalized process for learning that has been around for centuries.  And, like anything that has stood the test of time, it offers a great approach that can still be used today.

Source: pixabay via pexels

But not just for scientists–for anyone that wants to learn.  Including sales and marketing teams that are trying to understand their customers.

Think about it, when we are working with a prospect, we are trying to learn (or we should be trying to learn) quite a bit.  Where they are in the buying process.  The relative importance of this in the project that the purchase is part of.   What else they are considering.  Their willingness to change.   The list goes on and on.

But all too often, it seems we ignore what we were taught as children.  Instead of applying a structure to these efforts, we simply follow our sales process–instead of trying to learn we focus on telling (yes, buyers need to learn too so we need to do some of that–it is a too sided coin).

There is growing conversation about the importance of critical thinking.  Many feel it is hard to hire great critical thinkers.

I disagree.   I believe everyone has the power to think critically–but they may need to jump start their critical thinking “genes.”

Revisiting the scientific method is a great place to start.

As a reminder, here is a list of steps that I pulled from Wikipedia):

  1. Define a question
  2. Gather information and resources (observe)
  3. Form an explanatory hypothesis
  4. Test the hypothesis by performing an experiment and collecting data in a reproducible manner
  5. Analyze the data
  6. Interpret the data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
  7. Publish results
  8. Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

Now, in sales, you don’t have to publish your results (other than having a better forecast, a cleaner pipeline, and more success).  But by simply breaking out the questions you need ask to learn about your prospect and their situation, and then following the scientific method, I am confident you’ll get better answers faster.

For example, let’s say you are a startup vendor.  A key question might be:  Will this company (your prospect) do business with a startup?

  • You then can spend some time understanding the other products they have installed (and who they acquired them from).  Let’s say that most of them are from established vendors, but you identify a couple of products from smaller vendors around customer experience initiatives.
  • Your hypothesis:  They prefer to use larger vendors, but are looking for alternatives to address a critical need to improve customer experience.
  • You test it by using that to guide your discussions and research with the prospect. “Why did you choose that product?” “Is  customer experience a critical priority?”  You research their annual report and other sources for clues.
  • After analyzing the data, you decide, “They will probably only do business with a start-up if it is tied to a customer facing business initiative. Since that is what we do, let’s continue to the pursuit.”

Pretty straightforward, right.  And you may do some of this already.  But by reminding your teams about the scientific method, the importance of making assumptions (hypotheses) and then testing them, you provide a foundation for them to think critically about their prospect, making better use of their time (and the prospects.

Category: go-to-market  

Tags: b2bmarketing  b2bsales  sales  scientific-method  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes provides research and advisory services on go-to-market strategies for technology providers. His research efforts focus on understanding the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. He then applies that research to explore the implications on vendor strategies, supporting the efforts of product marketing, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and CEOs. Read Full Bio


Thoughts on The Scientific Method and Selling


  1. Dave Brock says:

    Brilliant post Hank! It’s ironic, virtually every child gets exposed to some aspect of the scientific method or other critical thinking models, starting in grade school. Somehow, as they enter the workforce, we tend to “train” that out of them.

    The trend in sales is very disturbing. In our efforts to create predictable revenue, we increasingly script and direct all the activities of our sales people, in effect dumbing them down.

    It’s no surprise that sales results (e.g. reps meeting quota), continue to plummet. We aren’t encouraging and training people to figure things out or to help customers figure things out.

  2. Richard Nockolds says:

    Or, for the purists out there, here’s what John Dewey set out in his book ‘How We Think’ back in 1910.

    Upon examination, each instance reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps:
    (i) a felt difficulty;
    (ii) its location and definition;
    (iii) suggestion of possible solution;
    (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion, and
    (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection.



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