Sales and Marketing Performance Blog

Soft Skills - Hard Currency for Sales Professionals

Posted by Mark Gibson on Mon, Sep 28, 2009

I was explaining our sales training approach (which is based on improving communication, language and inter-personal skills and applying these skills in selling situations) to a corporate sales training professional recently, who made a comment to which I took exception.

He said, “Yes, well of course that’s soft skills training, and we are not planning on doing any of that. We offer it for our management team, but our sales training is focused on product training, overcoming objections, negotiating and closing the sale and we are currently implementing the TAS methodology and training.” The implication here is that soft skills are touchy-feely and somehow optional or nice to have, or something that sales people are born with....not the hard skills sales people to need to crunch deals and close hard. Needless to say it was a short meeting.

According to Wikipedia: Soft skills is a sociological term relating to a person's "EQ" (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), the cluster of personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism that characterize relationships with other people.
I continued to consider what the training buyer had said, because it called into question our recent experience and the sales performance improvement methodology we had developed.  I began to analyze the selling process and dissect its elements and offer the following insights.

Selling is a craft or skill that can be entered as a profession at a minimum by anyone with the ability to use a telephone. The craft of selling is innate in some individuals with highly developed interpersonal skills and intellect, - these people (about 5%-10% of the sales population) are known as naturals. For the rest of us, selling is a skill that is learned both by doing it and through training, - and with practice and coaching it can be mastered.

The B2B selling profession is underpinned by process (this resembles a science) where every move and transition in the selling cycle is captured and as such can be analyzed and optimized. Selling methodologies and CRM however will not help salespeople engage buyers, diagnose needs and qualify if capabilities are relevant, which to my mind are the highest order elements in the whole sales cycle.

Furthermore corporations that are focusing training on overcoming objections, account planning methodologies, negotiation and closing are working on the wrong end of the problem.

What has radically changed over the past 10 years is the impact of the Internet on the ways companies and people buy.  What hasn’t changed much is the way most companies train their sales teams and the way sales-people are selling and this is a problem.

Let’s examine selling skills in each of the elements of the selling process.sales skill table

Sellers are at a distinct disadvantage today vs. just ten years ago.  Back then, the salesperson’s role was to introduce new technology products and ideas to buyers. Sales-people were conduits for information and were required by organizations so that they could compare relative offerings in order to make informed decisions.

Today, salespeople are disenfranchised from the buying process. Buyers can find out pretty much everything they need to know about your product and your competitors products and services; see them in action and watch videos of customers talking about them; price them and download or use them in a 30 day free trial, without leaving their desks or picking up the phone.

When a buyer does engage with a sales-person they expect the salesperson to understand their business, to bring the gift of knowledge of how others have implemented their solution and for the salesperson to ask insightful questions in order for the buyer to envision how products/solutions could be used to create value. They also expect salespeople to listen and have their concerns and questions handled and concisely answered.

What buyers are not looking for are cold-calls, SPAM email, first meetings with uninformed and ill-prepared sales people; lengthy product and corporate presentations; product-speak gobbledygook on Websites and in sales presentations. Further they are not interested in being trial-closed or in being manipulated or pressured into buying products based on the monthly or quarterly closing cycle of the supplier, unless of course this happens to be a product they want and are ready buy at the end of quarter discount-fest.
 
What buyers really want is for salespeople to be better at their craft;

  • In communicating the value in using their products and helping the buyer differentiate them from competitive products,
  • In asking insightful questions which will help buyers articulate their issues,
  • In truly listening to their goals, aspirations and concerns,
  • In integrating their stated needs with an understanding of your product capabilities,
  • In understanding how they do things internally and their sensitivity to risk,
  • In diagnosing and qualifying if their needs and the product capabilities are relevant and of value and to qualify out if they are not.

Suppliers need more focus on raising the standard of their customer facing team’s communication, language and interpersonal skills which underpin their everyday activities and giving them the sales tools they need to engage and win.

The tools I am referring to are known as sales enablement and integrate delivery of product-usage knowledge, customer marketplace knowledge, customer success stories, with lightweight process and CRM tools that deliver value for individuals - as well as recording data.

Soft skills are the new hard currency of sales professionals, because these skills are the foundation of everything they do.

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Topics: sales performance, differentiation, soft skills

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