The 6 Core Sales Skills That Underlie Success
Today, anyone can google “sales”, read some, and start hustling. In theory, there should be great salespeople wherever you look. In reality, performance varies hugely.
However, these how-to-guides mostly focus on techniques, tips, and tricks. What really tells decent sellers from great ones is a small number of platform-independent core skills that are built over years.
Here are the 6 sales skills that make for a powerful sales rep.
Conscientiousness is one of the Big Five personality traits and widely viewed as the one most predictive of overall job success. All its facets, like orderliness, dutifulness and self-discipline describe the basic skill of organizing yourself.
Organization is a platform-independent skill. Whether it's sales, marketing, or development, conscientiousness is about tracking progress, knowing when to take the next steps, and keeping your to-do-lists well-stocked.
In sales, good organization means maintaining a schedule in which you always have the time you need for any prospect, from initial research to sealing the deal, while keeping the pipeline filled up.
This requires keeping track of progress and knowing when to follow up with what material. Tools like Pipedrive act as a memory extension and give you overview. But you still have to feed them with data.
If I’m checking Facebook or Twitter more than I should, I take that as a clear sign I’ve lost interest in the topic and should write about something else.Nir Eyal on self-restraint
You still have to make counter-intuitive decisions, too. Being organized can also mean being able to reflect and restrain yourself when not making progress with a prospect. No software will encourage you to hand over a case to a colleague better specialized on that customer type. Even when that is the best course of action.
The best way to cultivate self-control and organization is to form the right habits. These persist even when we lack self-control, University of South Carolina’s Wendy Wood argues. An example of forming the right habits in sales would be to follow a post-call routine of…
- immediately documenting relevant information in a CRM
- setting realistic dates for the next time you plan on touching base or delivering requested material
- gathering feedback from customers after a predefined time prior to the finalization/rejection
When a prospect asks you to introduce your product, she expects you to take the stage for a few minutes and deliver a compelling pitch.
Successful sellers are prepared for this and resort to a proven routine in which they cover the product’s key parameters. But it’s their occasional deviation from that routine, which makes them so convincing. By momentarily giving up control they are able to create a feeling of participation in their audience. By provoking direct feedback or through rhetorical questions, they make the pitch seem like a fair debate.
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The approach is based on the premise that persuasion is most effective when the other side doesn’t realize how you’re changing their views. To pull this off, sellers require a type of poise that transcends the mere confidence in their paper notes and product.
To facilitate this, they exchange script for structure. Both give the speaker orientation. But while a specific script dictates both flow and content, a certain structure allows for more creativity. Popular structuring techniques include the FAB (features - advantages - benefits) and the gather - respond - deliver - close technique, which we covered in our post on direct sales techniques.
Apart from a good structure, sales reps also need a cool head. Even virtuosos in their disciplines can get paralyzed by performance anxiety, a common issue rooted in irrational fears and false assumptions about ourselves and others.
Great speakers, artists, and athletes internalize a set of strategies that helps them keep their calm or smoothly bridge their insecurities. Below video demonstrates an escalation of performance anxiety and one (quirky) way to deal with it.
How top sales reps defeat performance anxiety:
- They got their facts straight.An in-depth knowledge of the product they’re talking about decreases the chances that they’ll be thrown out of rhythm by questions they didn’t anticipate, which could then lead to self-doubt.
- They attain a quasi-meta state when talking and can listen to themselves.They reality-check arising self-doubt before it can cause them to panic. The result is a smooth, steady rhythm and good pacing of speech.
- They know how to calm themselves down with positive visualizations.When somehow still caught off-guard, they have a coping strategy. For instance, they reimagine the outcome of what they are trying to do (convince their counterpart) to trigger a relaxation response.
We speak to get our point across and we listen to understand someone else’s point. Who would contest that both things are essential to selling?
Yet, most salespeople know how to speak while few know how to listen. Likely, that’s because they rarely do and, worse, are even oblivious to this fact. A Saleshacker study showed that the majority of sales professionals talk more than they think when interacting with a prospect.
What's more, the top performers in the study invariably spoke less than that they listened. The results prompted a golden cut of 57/43 in favor of listening.
This ratio strongly suggests that listening skills and a sense of customer empowerment set great sellers apart.
Still, you shouldn’t think too hard on such numerical values while speaking with a prospect. As HubSpot’s Pete Caputa explains, most salespeople are already too concerned with their own script and planning their next move. Eying a chess clock would only make things worse.
Too often, salespeople are waiting for their turn to talk or thinking about what to say next, instead of truly listening to the prospect.Pete Caputa, HubSpot
Instead, potent sellers engage in active listening – the often ridiculed but highly effective way to have a balanced, fruitful conversation. By listening intently, they don’t miss any information. Meanwhile, they also limit their own speaking time.
When their conversation partners express important points and feelings, active listeners recognize and paraphrase these in their words. This signals understanding and mitigates buying resistance.
But more importantly, it helps uncover the prospect’s needs. While any consumer wants a lot of things at once, underneath there always lies a hierarchy of importance.
Open-ended follow-up questions (closed ones can appear pushy) are a good way to entice prospects to speak their mind and uncover what really matters to them.
Once an important need seems to be out in the open, the attentive seller summarizes it and asks for a final confirmation by the prospect that this is what she means.
Respelling the need, the prospect reinforces it as an argument to buy your product, given that the latter caters to the need. The confirmation also prevents misunderstandings that could diminish trust at a later point.
In sales, rapport emerges when prospects feel like you understand their world. A convincing presentation and active listening help, but outstanding sellers also know how to guide a conversation on a more personal level:
- They find common ground and history by looking for subtopics, in which there likely is mutual agreement. For example, they come up with fitting anecdotes that evoke a common sense of nostalgia.
- They share facts about themselves, carefully shifting from generic to more personal to avoid alienating their counterpart.
- They’re honest by choice, which is a “source of power and an engine of simplicity” as Sam Harris put it in his book Lying. Being outspoken creates trust, even if it means admitting foibles.
- They draw on scientific facts about interpersonal communication, like that people love to hear their name or that most people can’t help but enjoy it when you subtly mirror their motions.
- They don’t take themselves too seriously and spice up the conversation through humorous elements. Displaying self-distance suggests that you have a pure perspective on your own product.
- They give sincere compliments to prospects. But only if there is actual reason to do so, not just for the sake of it.
If you want to learn more about building customer rapport, check out our dedicated blog post.
The pundits are split over whether emotional intelligence (EI) is an ability, a trait, or both. However, there is no dispute that it’s a very useful asset for salespeople. It can be viewed as a gateway ability that facilitates more concrete skills like presenting, listening, and building rapport.
According to the ability model by Mayer et al., EI is composed of four interlinked sub-abilities that we resort to in any sales talk:
- Perception and decoding of emotions, gaining clarity about the prospect’s state of mind.
- Productive use of emotions to get closer to the prospect.
- Detection and understanding of differences between emotions and prediction of their development, which help in making offers that suit the prospect’s needs.
- Handling and regulation of emotions in ourselves and in others – to negotiate with care.
Consequently, a salesperson with a high EI communicates more effectively and draws information about the prospect’s emotional state. By deciphering both verbal and nonverbal cues, such sellers can specifically guide prospects towards the deal.
Even the best sellers face rejection every now and then. Unlike the skills above, rejection resistance doesn’t boost success in individual situations. Instead, it ensures that the seller will be able to access her full potential regardless if she’s on a winning or a losing streak.
More generally, rejection resistance is a form of emotional regulation, which is how we cope with any kind of distress. There are strategies to prevent yourself from taking rejection hard and protecting your self-esteem.
Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid, names seven of them:
- Intercept arising negative thoughts through positive distraction
- Find meaning in defeat
- Monitor and reinforce your self-esteem
- Reroute your gut reaction when failing
- Don’t beat yourself up
- Find out what helps you cope and repeat it
- Be mindful of emotional pain
Sellers that are well-guarded against the pain induced by rejection often appear relentless for outsiders. This is only amplified by their willingness to take on hard challenges, which may at times seem ludicrous.
In fact, though, such sellers are more mindful and observant of their own emotional state. In an attempt to desensitize himself against rejection, salesman Jia Jiang went through a self-imposed 100 days of utter rejection and came out a wiser person. He now knew that “rejection itself is not inherently hurtful, especially if you detach yourself from the outcome and practice it over and over again.”
A high rejection resistance is especially valuable in prospecting, the most difficult part of the sales process, according to HubSpot research. Even more so since prospecting is becoming harder and harder over the years.
Fearless sellers can trace high-quality prospects where most colleagues and competitors would not dare to search for them. Their groundwork can give you a serious head start.
There are a few other mental states that typically identify strong prospectors:
- They’re positive. They are unswervingly confident, accept own mistakes and can deal with rejection (covered in more detail below).
- They’re purposeful. They always know why they’re doing it and have an intrinsic motivation that goes beyond “making that dough”.
- They’re strategic. They always have a plan in their pocket and don’t overestimate their abilities as a seller.
- They’re agile. They have a solid plan B and C in their sleeve and effortlessly switch to new strategies based on the customer’s necessities and mood.
Check out this list of tips for sales calls by Aja Frost, on which the above bullet points are loosely based.