The Science of Sales: Pioneers of Persuasion

Recently while working on a book with master sales trainer Eric Lofholm, I got an opportunity to review the history of sales training books and the foundations of sales theory. One of Eric’s key principles is that selling is a step-by-step system that can be learned and taught; you don’t have to be a born salesman to succeed at selling. Eric is the modern master of applying this principle, but the principle itself actually goes back to the 19th century and the foundations of modern business management and sales theory. Here I’ll highlight three pioneers who played a significant role in the early development of scientific selling.

Frederick Taylor

Frederick Taylor

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915)

Scientific selling was an offshoot of a new scientific approach to business management popularized at the turn of the 20th century, named “Taylorism” after industrial efficiency advocate Frederick Winslow Taylor. Born in Philadelphia in 1856, Taylor developed his ideas on business management while working in a steel works company.

Noticing that neither his coworkers nor their machines were producing their maximum potential output, Taylor began systematically observing how employees were operating their equipment, and he envisioned ways to improve their efficiency. He studied motions involved in repeated mechanical processes, looking for ways to eliminate wasted motions in order to save time. He used clocks to carefully track time for accurate measurements and adjustments.

Taylor was quickly promoted from foreman to research director, and finally to chief engineer. He then became an independent engineering consultant, giving him an opportunity to further expand and test his ideas.

Meanwhile Taylor built his reputation by working with Bethlehem Steel and leading the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. His ideas gained international exposure through his association with a major legal case where the attorney for railroad clients argued that railroads would not need to raise their shipping rates if they adopted Taylor’s ideas. By the time he died in 1915, Taylor was famous as the father of what was now being called Scientific Management.

Taylor’s Scientific Management method revolved around four key principles:

  1. Work methods should be based on scientific observation and experimentation instead of traditional “rules of thumb”
  2. Managers should systematically select, train, and develop employees instead of leaving them to train themselves
  3. Trainers should instruct and supervise each worker in mastering the performance of their specific task and its component steps
  4. Division of labor should be organized to enable managers to focus on project planning and workers to focus on task execution

The Taylorist version of Scientific Management reached its peak of popularity in the 1910s. By the time it began to face challenges from competing theories in the 1920s, it had begun to influence sales training.

E. St. Elmo Lewis

E. St. Elmo Lewis

Elias St. Elmo Lewis (1872-1948)

One of the important links between Taylorism and early sales theory was E. St. Elmo Lewis, an advertising agency owner who had studied Taylor’s method. Born in Taylor’s hometown of Philadelphia in 1872, Lewis gained experience in editing and printing before opening his own advertising agency in 1896. At least as early as 1897, he began distilling the process of writing ads into a series of steps. Lewis continued to refine his copywriting procedure, describing it in 1909 as a three-step process:

  1. Attract the reader’s attention
  2. Awaken their interest
  3. Persuade them

By this time several other advertisers had introduced similar formulas, notably Frank Hutchinson Dukesmith, who wrote in 1904 of “Attention Interest Desire Conviction”. Sales historians have so far been unable to establish exactly who invented what and who influenced whom. In any case, this historical period saw the emergence of the formula later copywriters would call “AIDA”: Attention Interest Desire Action. These steps were first known to have been listed in order by advertising expert Fred Macey in a carpet sweeper ad contest in 1900. They were first codified as an acronym by C.P. Russell in an article on how to write a sales letter, published in the seminal advertising magazine Printer’s Ink on June 2, 1921.

Dukesmith AIDA diagram 1904

Frank Hutchinson Dukesmith’s 1904 diagram of steps in the sales process

Whatever his exact role in the origins of AIDA, Lewis’ reputation in the advertising industry continued to grow, and in 1910 he was elected president of the National Association of Advertising Managers. He began publishing a series of articles discussing Scientific Management, which he collected into a book titled Getting the Most Out of Business in 1915. Lewis’ articles contrasted Taylor’s approach to Scientific Management with that of Taylor’s associate Harrington Emerson. Emerson had published a series of books to distinguish his own ideas from Taylor’s, and had become famous in the same railroad case that propelled Taylor’s popularity.

Lewis did not follow Taylor uncritically. Like some of Taylor’s other critics of the time, Lewis called for an approach to improving efficiency that factored in more of the human element of the workplace, and he stressed the need to take into account human emotions and temperament. With this shift of emphasis from mechanical efficiency to human psychology, Lewis heralded the direction management and sales theory would take in the 1920s. He continued to contribute to the advertising industry until his death in 1948. Three years later he was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

Edward Strong

Strong The Psychology of Selling Life Insurance Cover

Edward K. Strong, Jr., The Psychology of Selling Life Insurance (1922)

Lewis’ advertising theory had become famous by the 1920s, when it was discussed in sales psychology publications by influential psychologist Edward K. Strong, Jr., best known today for developing the Strong Interest Inventory career guidance test. Born in Syracuse in 1884, Strong earned his B.S. in Biology from the University of California before continuing with graduate work in Psychology at Berkeley and Columbia University. After earning his doctorate from Columbia in 1911, he lectured there while serving as a researcher for the Association of National Advertisers.

Strong increasingly turned his attention to the task of applying psychology to vocational planning, the work for which he became best known. During World War I, he assisted the Army as a member of a Committee on Classification of Personnel. After the war he joined the Carnegie Institute of Technology to head their Department of Vocational Education and Bureau of Educational Research. His work won the attention of Stanford University, where he joined the Department of Psychology in 1923. In 1925 he took on an additional post with Stanford’s new Graduate School of Business as Professor of Applied Psychology. He continued his career at Stanford until 1949, and died in 1963.

In the midst of making numerous contributions to business psychology and educational psychology, Strong also left his mark on sales and advertising psychology. As early as 1911, he had published a book called The Relative Merits of Advertisements, in which he applied psychological and statistical methods to advertising. In 1922 he followed this up with The Psychology of Selling Life Insurance. His major contribution to the field came in 1925 with The Psychology of Selling and Advertising. He later revised this work and incorporated it into his 1938 publication Psychological Aspects of Business.

Strong’s sales books cited Lewis’ copywriting rules, mentioned modifications of them, and challenged them. He credited Lewis and A.F. Sheldon with influencing a popular advertising slogan of the time that named the steps in the copywriting sequence as “attention, interest, desire, action, satisfaction”. However, Strong believed this theory of advertising was “faulty” and going out of style, and he proposed his own alternative “buying formula.”

Despite Strong’s disagreement with Lewis, his mention of Lewis’ formula was enough to get Strong misidentified as the inventor of AIDA in subsequent literature. Several prominent marketing books incorrectly identify Strong as the inventor of AIDA, as discussed by Ian Moore in the appendix of his book Does Your Marketing Sell?

Even after this incorrect attribution is removed from the record, Strong made important contributions to the development of sales psychology. Both by bringing the advertising slogans of Lewis’ era to a wider audience, as well as through his own work analyzing sales from the standpoint of psychology, Strong took steps towards establishing a scientific approach to sales and advertising.

Since Strong’s time many other sales theorists and trainers have contributed to bringing the science of selling to the point where it is now. Modern sales trainers like Eric Lofholm represent over a century of experimentation, testing, and improvement in perfecting the science of sales.

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