Sales Skills: 18 Skills Every Salesperson Should Master
The sales profession is undergoing some pretty radical changes. The buyer is in charge, field sales is moving inside, technology is transforming the profession. It’s so bad that some people are predicting that 15M sales jobs will disappear in the coming years. To survive in this environment, salespeople need a new set of skills. We’ve identified a core set of 18 sales skills by analyzing these trends and watching what makes some of the world’s best salespeople successful in the new sales environment. The best salespeople:
- Understand what the buyer wants
- Sell in a buyer-responsive manner
- Use psychology to engage the buyer
- Establish trust with the buyer
- Communicate succinctly
- Act on what the customer is saying
- Demonstrate subject matter expertise
- Help (as opposed to close) their prospects
- Tell really compelling stories
- Are great copywriters
- Sell effectively over the phone
- Are socially active with target buyers
- Personalize their interactions
- Use a variety of marketing skills
- Help prospects achieve next steps
- Are more productive because of sales technology
- Tie daily activities to quota achievement
- Manage their pipeline like a portfolio
Here’s some detail on each of the aforementioned sales skills.
Understanding the buyer
The most important of today’s sales skills is simply understanding the buyer. It’s the foundation of effective selling. But it involves more than just understanding who the buyer is. As my partner Craig Rosenberg likes to say, “This isn’t just about knowing what brand of coffee the buyer drinks”. Instead, it’s about identifying the experience that the buyer wants to have as they consider making a purchase in your market. You buyer has a set of expectations about that experience and your job as a salesperson is to exceed those expectations. You can’t exceed them if you don’t understand the experience that the buyer wants to have.
When a salesperson understands the buyer, they can engage in what’s called buyer-responsive selling. The idea here is to provide the buyer with what they want, when they want it. For example, if your buyer needs a trial to evaluate your product but can’t allocate more than 30 minutes to it, give them a free trial. But don’t just give them any free trial. Give them a free trial that is easy to set up, easy to use, and really demonstrates the value of your product in five minutes or less. One other point – buyers like salespeople who have skills!
The psychology of buyer engagement
It’s remarkable how few salespeople know how to use psychology to more effectively engage the buyer. There are a variety of techniques you can use to create deeper engagement with your target buyers. One really effective tip is to make sure that the customer knows that you won’t take too much of their time. To see a full list of psychological techniques you can use, make sure you read our post on Customer Engagement and Psychology.
Establishing trust with the buyer
Buyers like to do business with people they trust. The stereotypical used car salesman just isn’t relevant anymore. Good salespeople view their ability to establish trust with the buyer as a core sales skill. Helping the buyer goes a long way in this regard, as does understanding what the buyer wants.
Given how busy the average buyer is today, a critical sales skill is to make sure that you communicate succinctly. The days of the silver-tongued, overly verbose salesperson are coming to an end. Buyers value how information is presented more than the information itself. Today, the preferred form of presentation is conciseness. A good rule here is to never try to communicate more than three important points in a single conversation with a buyer.
A lot of sales leaders and pundits like to talk about good salespeople are good listeners. We think that goes without saying and that the best salespeople take action based on what they hear from their customer. It’s not good enough to just listen. You need to internalize what the buyer just said and then do something about it.
Sales subject matter expertise
Salespeople aren’t just vacuous portals anymore. They actually need to be subject matter experts in two areas. First, they need to understand the buyer. This involves knowing about the pressing issues that the buyer is facing and what the buyer wants as they work their way to a purchase. Second, salespeople need to know a lot about their own product or service.
Always be helping
Buyers don’t want to be closed; they want to be helped. That’s why always be helping is the new always be closing (we just published a post on Always Be Helping). ABH is more of a mindset than a skill. A lot of salespeople struggle with this, but you should try to remember it every time you interact with a buyer.
Buyers also don’t want to hear about your product or service. Good salespeople know this and weave the product or service they’re selling into larger story that has an arc and ends with the customer receiving what they want (which is usually not your product). For example, when a business buys phone system, they don’t really want to buy a phone system – they want to grow their revenues and recognize that the phone is an effective tool for doing that.
Salespeople as copywriters
Salespeople must be able to write. It’s one of today’s most important sales skills given how much sales now uses email to communicate with buyers. There are a few rules to keep in mind when it comes to sales copywriting. First, the less you write, the better. Try to keep written communications short and sweet. Second, avoid using generic copy. You should take the time to personalize as many of your communications as possible. Third, use bullets to format your copy – lists are just easier for customers to digest. Finally, start and conclude your written communications with a call to action that asks the buyer to take a next step.
Field sales is definitely moving inside and the face-to-face meeting is quickly becoming the 60 minute teleconference. As a result, salespeople need to be effective at managing sales calls using the phone. This requires different skills such as the ability to read the tone of someone’s voice or measure the cadence of the conversation to determine whether the prospect is satisfied or not. One important tip here is to make sure that you can use tools such as Clearslide to bring as much of the face-to-face experience to the phone.
Social engagement with buyers
Social media has given rise to the field of social selling. A lot of good salespeople now view their participation on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn as one of the more effective sales skills. That’s all fine and good, but we’re not just talking about tweeting every now and then. We’re talking about really engaging your buyers socially. Some of the best salespeople out there do things like organize dinners for groups of buyers that they are interested in getting to know. There’s very little selling that takes place at these mini-events. And it’s the salesperson who organizes them; not the company they work for.
A lot of buyers want context when they have an experience with sales or marketing for that matter. They don’t want the generic message or sales pitch. They want something that’s specific to them. One way to do this is to weave messaging and content that is specific to the buyer’s demographics into your sales efforts. In a B2B setting, this might involve using specific industry examples when selling. On the consumer side, this might involve tailoring how you communicate with a buyer depending on their age and gender. You can also reference recent events in the buyer’s personal or professional life (depending on the sales context) to personalize your interactions.
Marketing skills in sales
Some very smart people think that marketing is eating sales. We’re not willing to go quite that far, but we do agree that sales has a lot to learn from marketing and that sales people who possess advanced marketing skills will fare well. For example, content selling (you can learn more by reading our post on content selling) is an emergent, but important sales skill that salespeople can use to move the buyer through the buying cycle. Some sales organizations are also using a campaign format to structure how they conduct traditional sales activities like prospecting. These activities used to be unorganized and non-standardized. Now, sales management is borrowing from marketing and enforcing campaign-like structure on many sales activities.
Helping prospects achieve next steps
The buyer has less attention to give to you than ever before. That’s why it’s no longer good enough to agree on next steps. You actually need to help the buyer achieve those next steps. Let’s say a buyer that you’ve been working with needs to get the CEO’s approval before they can make the final decision. You should help the buyer achieve this next step by providing them with the information, content, and tools they need to persuade the CEO that your product or service is the right one.
Using sales technology to boost productivity
Many sales organizations are using technology to become more efficient and shorten the length of the average sales cycle. Salespeople are actually busier than ever as evidenced by a recent CSO Insights report that shows that salespeople only spend 37% of their time actually selling. The salesperson that can use technology to become more productive has a significant advantage over their peers – they are able to spend more time selling. For more on what technologies are helping sales increase productivity, check out our post on Sales Productivity.
Linking daily activities to quota
Achieving quota isn’t something that magically happens at the end of the quarter or increasingly at the end of the month. The best salespeople focus on the daily tasks or activities that they know will set them up to achieve their quota. This sales skill is usually learned over time, but it’s invaluable. For example, a sales professional might know that if they have a certain number of meetings with prospects this month, that this will allow them to achieve quota next month. It’s like the old Zen proverb on how to achieve enlightment: “chop wood, carry water”.
Managing the pipeline like a portfolio
The best salespeople manage their pipeline much like a hedge fund manager would manage their portfolio. They invest time in a number of opportunities knowing that some will close and some will not. They track the performance of each opportunity, as well as the aggregate performance of their entire pipeline on a weekly, if not daily, basis. They are also able to conduct a “bottoms up” analysis of their pipeline at any time to determine where they sit relative to their quota target.
The sales profession is changing fast enough that we probably didn’t identify every essential sales skill. What do you think? What are the sales skills you think salespeople should possess today? Let us know in the comments below!
About the author: Scott Albro is the CEO and founder of TOPO. TOPO is a research, advisory, and consulting firm that believes in a really simple, but powerful idea – that the most important thing in business is to deliver a great buying experience. By connecting everything we do back to this core idea, we help sales and marketing organizations exceed their revenue targets. Connect with Scott on Twitter.