I recently heard that nine percent of the business world is in sales. In the last two years, sales experienced significant technology changes due to the pandemic. TQ (technology acumen) is now a differentiator among sales professionals. Sales skills are more critical than ever as more entrepreneurs enter the business world to sell products and services. The term sales professional is more diluted than ever before. What does all this mean for you and your sales team? How can you position your company to compete in a world full of business noise?
Sales skills are the competitive advantage for companies seeking success in a new, post-pandemic business environment. When anyone can call themselves a salesperson, the term becomes less meaningful than ever before. In a field that lacks credentials for minimum competency, uninformed hiring managers (usually not in sales) get fooled to think someone with sales experience also has the requisite skills to be competent in a sales role. They believe the resume and assume the stated past is an indicator of future success.
I will focus on one specific skill I often find missing during my training to prove this point. As in sports, subskills come together and present themselves as something to be observed in action. Multiple subskills come together to execute a routine double-play skill in baseball. Sales skills are no different. Hiring managers can identify surface-level skills yet lack the depth of knowledge to discern subskills necessary for sales success.
An essential skill for sales success is discovery. While common in sales terms, discovery is not a common term in the general business vernacular. Based on my experience, fewer than ten percent of sales trainees have the developed skills for discovery. Some attempt discoveries intuitively, while very few perform it strategically. A simple definition of discovery is determining the problem to be solved by a potential buyer. Discovery is an essential baseline skill for success in sales.
A subskill to discovery is attunement. Attunement describes how reactive a person is to another's emotional needs and moods. A well-attuned person will respond with appropriate language and behaviors based on another person's emotional state. They are good at recognizing moods and emotions in another person and adapting their response in accordance. Well-attuned parents are essential in detecting what their babies are feeling or thinking and responding appropriately.
In contrast, unskilled sales representatives feel compelled to talk about products and services. They may have learned to pitch the sale early during the buying journey. I call this "show up and throw up" on a prospect. This approach used to be successful because product knowledge was asymmetrical. The seller had most of the knowledge about the product or service. The buyer primarily relied on the sales representative to learn about the product. There was no internet to research a product ahead of the decision to buy.
Today, buying has become more symmetrical than ever. In some cases, buyers can know more about one desired product than the sales representative when she sells multiple products. Most buying research takes place on the internet ahead of approaching a sales professional. In a competitive sales environment, trust becomes essential to earn a buyer's business. Trust gets acquired during the discovery process by leveraging the skill of attunement.
In his book, To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink says attunement allows you to connect and adapt to people, communities, and contexts to serve their needs. He states that mirroring, perspective-taking, and shifting the power to the buyer are tools to attune yourself with a potential buyer better. Each of these is an additional sub-skill to be learned and mastered by your sales representative.
Multilevel skill-building is missing in many sales professionals. They may know enough to talk like a sales representative; however, they lack the skills to execute during encounters with sophisticated buyers. This sales skills gap (SSG) is the problem with most sales teams. I asked why a sales manager does not confront a sales rep with an empty pipeline in a recent poll. The most popular answer (50%) was that the sales manager did not understand how to help the struggling sales representative. The SSG is pervasive in today's complex business development universe. Sales representatives are struggling, and sales managers do not know how to help them become successful.
The solution is to go back to the basics. Like in sports, when an experienced player is struggling, the answer is to revisit the fundamentals. The problem is that many sales representatives never learned the basic skills of discovery or attunement. People assume they have the skills when they call themselves sales professionals. Non-sales professionals are unaware of the basic skills and cannot vet applicants or help struggling representatives.
Addressing the SSG means providing basic skills like discovery and then mastering advanced subskills like attunement. Repetition and practice are the only way to learn new skills and successfully use them with potential buyers. Sales skills begin with awareness, then application, and finally mastery. Provide them the training to attain knowledge and master new skills. Training can be formal in a classroom or informal by addressing a particular skill during a weekly sales meeting. Doing both informal and structured training is ideal. Top sales managers become coaches who help the sales representative master new and existing skills over time.
Sales representatives are the elite athletes of the business world. Professional sports players do not stop practicing (and learning) once hired by a team. They do not stop learning once they achieve professional status. Likewise, training your best sales representatives to become better skilled is a competitive advantage. Cull poor performers early. Not everyone is suited to be a sales professional. Invest in those with potential. Invest significantly in your top performers. Get them in a room where they can learn and master these skills together repeatedly. They are competitive and will make each other even better. This will make a good sales team into a great sales team.