Sales Skills Training: 6 High-Gain Abilities and How to Hone Them
The ultimate sales skill is persuasion, it’s essentially synonymous with the act of selling itself. But since it depends on such a great number of subordinate abilities, improving it can seem tricky.
While training the classics like cold calling or quote writing seems both useful and straightforward, you’re probably already exercising them while on your daily duty. There are a lot of skills like that.
However, the skills that don’t come easy to you are likely those in which you have the most room to grow. Put in the work here – and you’ll reap the greatest rewards. Read on to learn about 6 high-gain sales skills and how to train them.
1Emotional Intelligence (EI)
Depending on who you ask, Emotional Intelligence is either a trait, an ability, or a mix of both. There is, however, wide agreement on EI’s high value as a skill for sales people.
The ability model by John D. Mayer et al. shows why. According to Mayer, EI consists of four interdependent sub-abilities that are in action in any sales talk:
- perceiving and deciphering emotions (--> prospect’s state of mind)
- harnessing emotions for productive use (--> approximation)
- recognizing and understanding the fine differences between emotions and predicting their development (--> making offers)
- handling and regulating emotions both in ourselves and in others (--> negotiation)
Consequently, a salesperson with a high EI can use verbal and nonverbal cues as sources of emotional data and correctly translate it into what the prospect wants and needs.
As most scholars in the field agree, the most effective ways to improve above abilities and EI as a whole is training in both self-awareness and emotional regulation strategies (covered in point 2 below).
For instance, a sales agent with high self-awareness will be able to sense how her own behavior resonates with her prospect and adjust it to meet his expectations. To train self-awareness, EI’s initial popularizer, David Goleman, suggests these three techniques:
- Stop - develop mindfulness via mindful breathing, observation, awareness, listening, immersion, and appreciation. Here’s how you do it. Also consider guided meditation.
- Look - envision your experience while being mindful by describing in your own words emotions and/or bodily sensations in various situations.
- Listen - ask others how they perceive you. In private life, ask friends and family. In professional life, gather anonymized surveys or conduct feedback talks with a clear invitation to openness.
The second main contributor to EI, emotional regulation, is also our main tool to cope with distress of any sort. Since any salesperson faces rejection time and again, strategies to deal with it are inevitable. Carrying grievances or a damaged self-esteem out of a failed negotiation and into the next can ruin things from the get-go.
To specifically train emotional regulation strategies, psychologist Guy Winch suggests these seven techniques from his book Emotional First Aid:
- Pay attention to emotional pain
- Redirect your gut reaction when you fail
- Observe and protect your self-esteem
- Disrupt arising negative thoughts with positive distraction
- Find meaning in loss
- Don’t let excessive guilt linger
- Learn what helps you cope
You can also prevent pain from getting the better part of you by desensitizing yourself against it. In a famous self-experiment, salesman Jia Jiang went on a 100-day rejection spree to realize that the stakes are usually much lower than you’d think. While the exact tasks Jiang chose to collect brush-offs are not for everyone, like getting a hair trim at an animal groomer, his technique is easy to replicate.
Adding social awareness and relationship management as a third and fourth lever for improving EI, HubSpot’s Iliyana Stareva shares a few more simple exercises:
According to a HubSpot research, most sales reps feel that prospecting is the hardest part of the sales process ahead of qualification and closing. Making things worse, they agree that sales prospecting has become harder in recent years.
No matter if it’s due to a growing competition that swamps people’s mailboxes with well-meaning offers, or because salespeople have lost their touch – as things stand, being good at prospecting can really make a difference.
HubSpot sales expert Aja Frost compiled a list of tips to improve your prospecting skills:
- Update your mindset with positivity. Be confident, accept mistakes, and count your “nos”. Remind yourself why you’re doing it.
- Strategize. Interact with prospects on social media before calls. Segment prospecting tasks and spread your contacting times (don’t always call at the same time).
- Converse. Find common ground (similar features in the other). Explain why you’re reaching out. Ask a simple question instead of lengthy, overzealous pitches. Come with a clever plan but have a solid plan B and C in your pocket. Stay flexible. Don’t give up when you face objections or rejections, instead gather information and try to adjust your offer.
- Create a post-call routine. Immediately document relevant information in your CRM. Set dates for touching base or follow up right away if you offered further info material (like pricing explanations or a custom quote). Gather feedback from Senior Sales Manager. Use tools to automatically transcribe calls.
In order to contact leads, you need to find these leads first, which is a skill of its own. But since many of your online leads are presumably gathered inbound, I’ll just drop Lindsay Kolowich’s brilliant lead generation beginner’s guide, which should answer all your questions in that respect.
Oftentimes, it’s not so much a perfect choice of words that makes a presentation convincing but a speaker overall in control of herself and the situation.
A common way to lose control is to shift from adept routine to a more conscious mode of thinking. This is called performance anxiety and it’s common even among those who are absolute masters in their disciplines. It’s like driving the same route to work every day, virtually on autopilot, but being unable to explain individual turns once asked.
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Since most of what causes us shaking knees before or during a presentation translates to irrational fears and false assumptions, the best training focuses on eliminating the most common sources of pressure and distraction.
Improve your product knowledge. An absolute necessity for getting a feeling of preparedness. Know the stuff you’re trying to pitch, so you can focus on your presentation and the prospect’s reaction and unexpected questions can’t baffle you.
Also, a classic Einsteinian advice goes “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Since a good sales pitch requires conciseness, it’s always good to get back to basics with your product. Read your own tutorials, talk to your frontline crew about the kind of questions they currently get and stay in the loop about newly implemented features or additions to your product range.
Work on pauses and pace. Rushing, lagging, or pausing for a moment too long, can quickly start a cascade of doubt and make you completely lose the thread. Record your rehearsals and listen back to analyze your pace and pausing style. Find a rhythm that’s fluent but allows for regular pauses to smoothly transition to the next idea.
Reality-check negative assumptions about yourself. Attend presentations of others and remind yourself how the person on stage likely faced the exact same fears and doubts you do when picturing your performance. Assuming they’re good, imagine how they managed to outmanoeuvre their obstacles. Get rid of the thought that they were born speakers.
Then, compare this to how you see your own obstacles and question your pessimistic assumptions. Are your obstacles really insurmountable? Why should you not be able to learn presenting like the person up on the stage? Embed this way of thinking in everyday situations, like when someone tells a funny story and you think to yourself “I sooo would have messed up that punchline.”
Reimagine the outcome. The logical next step after questioning your own negative thoughts. While science disputes the depiction of positive visualization as a simple method to reach any goal, it does in fact work if what’s keeping us from reaching our goal is over-excitement. Imagining how you’ve reached a goal triggers a relaxation response in your brain, it pretty much mimics how we’d feel if we’d actually achieved the goal.
You can train positive visualization in everyday situations, in which you tend to get nervous and in which this impairs your performance. Like when you’re about to steer your car into a tight spot.
It's alienating to have a speaker present in perfect speechifying form to an intimate group more suited to a seated back-and-forth dialogue.Kristi Hedges
Former public speaking coach Kristi Hedges suggests to shun expensive public speaking courses. According to her, they mostly focus on superficial attributes while it’s more important to learn how to manage one’s presence. The three cornerstones of her approach as laid out in her book The Power of Presence:
- Create a positive intention of how you’d like to appear to determine your personal presence brand. Consider what leaders that influenced you did, uncover negative elements in your own presence, use meetings as an effective training ground.
- Be individual, since people don’t connect with faceless masters of speaking practice but with authentic individuals. Don’t overact through body language, it will distract your audience.
- Be inspirational simply by being bold and interesting. David Rock’s SCARF model tells you how.
Find a thorough summary of Hedges’ approach here.
As Saleshacker found, the amount of time spent listening positively correlates with the ability to close deals. The top performing sellers in their research listened more than they spoke when with prospects.
More precisely, the golden ratio proved to be 43/57 in favor of listening. On top of that, most sellers believed that they were talking much less than they actually were.
Silence is only frightening to people who are compulsively verbalizing.William S. Burroughs
Now, don’t kick your feet up, expecting your prospects to run the show while you monitor your wristwatch, waiting for your entry.
Simply staying silent doesn’t mean listening better. As sound consultant Julian Treasure explains, listening is very much an active skill. As such, you can actively train it:
Three minutes of silence a day. Every day, for this short period of time, escape the usual constant information fire of our age. Turn off any device and lock out all sources of noise - then focus on the quiet.
The mixer. Sit down at a busy crossing or in a public park and close your eyes. One by one tune in to different individual noises in the overall backdrop of sound. Learn to control your listening focus.
Savour. Listen to a trivial sound, a dripping tap, the whirr of a rotating fan, or the car motor’s hum while driving. Try to excavate a gradual change or rhythm. Learn to switch to a new perspective on what you hear.
Listening position. When somebody talks, listen and actively assess their words from varying angles: active or passive, critical or emphatic, humorously or serious, or other perspectives you come up with. This will vaccinate you against misunderstandings.
RASA: Receive - pay attention to a person’s voice, choice of words, gesture. Appreciate - display attentiveness with one-word utterances: “m-hm”, “yes”, “right”, “okay” etc. Summarize - paraphrase what the other says. Ask - ask follow-up questions to show interest.
The ice-breaking part of sales is all about getting the prospect to like you. As my colleague Pascal explains in his post on building customer rapport, that’s the best way to open up your counterpart for persuasion. Train and internalize these techniques to make your prospect like you:
Find common ground. Look for topics of mutual interest or mutual agreement to create a feeling of in-group belonging. Using words like “we”, “us”, and “our” also play into it.
Share facts about yourself. The more you disclose about yourself, the more the other person will reveal. This works particularly well for more discrete and restrained prospects. Start with safe topics, don’t get too personal too early.
Look for a common history. Another form of finding common ground, but this time you search for a shared memory of the past. For instance, if you and your prospect are both in tech, you could talk about the last global security breach and how you dealt with it.
Be candid. Honesty can be absolutely disarming. As Sam Harris wrote in his book Lying, honesty is “a source of power and an engine of simplicity.” Setting the benchmark in terms of openness by confidently admitting a little inconvenient truth about yourself will invite your prospect to open up about her needs and expectations in making business with you. What’s more, it will raise her level of trust in you and your product.
Use their name. Everyone loves to hear the sound of their name. Memorize those of your prospect and drop it at the start of the conversation or when addressing someone specific out of a group. Be careful not to overuse this technique as it can easily become awkward.
Mirror their posture and echo their words. Thanks to a subconscious effect, people like people who mirror them. This also works with what they’re saying. Echo your prospect’s words in a slightly different context or sentence to not seem like a parrot while you do. In a more advanced step, you can even import imagery from their field of interest. For example, if it’s surfing, use images like “making waves”, “changing tide”, or “smooth ride.”
Apply humor. The pinch of salt in any social interaction, especially if you can laugh about yourself. It will make you appear more attractive and reliable, it can also soften people who are upset, as long as you don’t ridicule them.
Let talk. When your prospect talks, don’t simply answer with your take on the topic but build on what she said and ask follow-up questions to keep her in the spotlight. Let her spread her arguments first, then introduce your own ideas.
Make sincere compliments. And avoid shallow flattery. A single credible compliment, ideally dropped when the prospect is most unsuspecting of it, can build bridges into their mind. The best way to do this is by verbally expressing a positive thought when it first occurs to you.
If it seems like this post is asking you to engage in heavy self-exploration – that’s because it does. We recognize that introspection is hard labor, but as Albert Camus rightly said: “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion."
To make sure you don’t
get bored stop learning, here two additional sales training resources:
Sales training games. Playful does it! Hone your sales skills in a fun, true-to-life learning experience.
Sales role-plays. Get your team together and let them re-enact the the most common sales scenarios.
Direct sales techniques proficiency. If selling is your playing field, and above points are about tactically moving into the spaces, this is how you should hit the ball.
Selling without deceit. Learn and take to heart the difference between persuasion and manipulation. Sell successfully and still be able to face any customers without a guilty feeling.