5 Functional Skills You Need to Succeed in Sales

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David J.P. Fisher
David J.P. Fisher


The explosive growth of technology has rapidly changed -- and will continue to change -- the sales game. That means new skills are required for success.


Many of the brute force activities that have set sales leaders apart in the past are being taken over by technology. Why pound the phone or knock on doors when it’s easy to set up a sequential marketing program and have AI comb through social posts looking for buying indicators?

Likewise, easy access to information has placed control of the buying process firmly in the hands of prospective customers. They don’t need a salesperson to feed them facts and features. Those things are a Google search away.

So, how do you build skills that will propel you to success in the new sales world?

What's Old Is New Again

In the new sales environment, prospects need someone to help them translate information into a useable form. They need someone with the expertise to help them make better, more efficient decisions.

That’s where the modern salesperson steps in.

Successful salespeople create and facilitate relationships with their prospective customers. They use those relationships as bridges to provide insight into the customer’s buying process. And, ultimately, they position themselves as the solution to prospects’ challenges.

It’s not about out-machining the machines. The interpersonal skills of the past have come to the forefront again. A salesperson’s ability to build a relationship with their prospect, to ask the right questions, to discover their pain points, and to creatively identify solutions are critical to success.

You Can’t Rely Solely on Traditional Training Methods

This evolution has left sales organizations scrambling. Many of these skills don’t come from work in the classroom or the convention center. Traditional training formats, like sales training or reading sales books, can only go so far.

The problem is compounded by the overwhelming demands on our time. It’s hard to spend a day at a training session when you know how many emails are waiting for you. And most of us have a book or two just waiting for us when we can find the time.

Functional Skills for the Modern Salesperson

Instead of waiting for your company to provide training, it’s possible to borrow ideas from physical fitness to build your skills now.

Functional training in the gym relies on exercises that mimic the actions you engage in during your daily life. Similarly, you should look to activities you’re already engaged in as practice sessions to build your sales skills. You can find opportunities to train yourself in interaction, empathy, and creativity all around you.

It just requires intentional focus and a little planning to develop these skills every day.

Here are five functional skills you can develop on a daily basis.

1. Create empathy with your customers

Ironically, as we find more places to insert technology into our world, human interaction becomes more important. An algorithm might be better at uncovering a prospect’s needs, but it can’t replace your ability to engage human-to-human.

Empathy is an innate human ability you can improve with practice. Luckily, you’re surrounded by people every day you can run through repetitions with. As a rule of thumb, do these two things:

  • Challenge yourself to make eye contact with everyone who serves you (like the Starbucks barista or waiter at your favorite restaurant). Greet them by name if they have a name tag.
  • When you’re spending time with friends, take five minutes to ask them about a hobby they’re excited about. Do nothing but listen to them.

2. Uncover challenges and prospects’ pain points

The ability to dig deep with prospective customers is a critical skill. As technology takes over the simple and transactional sales, salespeople should be able to work with their prospects to identify and clarify the real problems they face.

Every salesperson thinks they’re good at asking questions, but the superstars will be the ones who learn how to be true detectives while also making their customers feel comfortable and forthcoming. To foster this skill, do the following:

  • Go to a professional event and commit to talking as little as possible. When you feel like making a statement, ask a question.
  • When listening to your favorite interviewers (on TV, radio, or podcasts), pay attention to how they ask questions to get people to open up. Practice the methods you uncover.

3. Influence audiences

One-on-one conversations are important, but there’s a good chance you’re going to be presenting in front of a group. At some point, you’ll be called in to speak to your main contact and four other people on the decision-making committee and you want to hit it out of the park.

To get comfortable in front a group, practice the following:

  • Watch clips of top stand-up comedians. Find your favorites online and watch the same one at least three times. The first time, you’ll laugh. The second time, you’ll notice what they’re doing. The third time, you’ll start to learn how they’re doing it.
  • Join a local toastmasters group. One of the easiest ways to improve public speaking is to practice.
  • Take an improv comedy class. You’ll laugh a lot and lose some of your fear of being in front of others.

4. Be competitive (in a healthy way)

Competition can provide defined goals and positive rewards that motivate past the challenges in the sale profession. The goal is to develop a healthy relationship with competition. That means it drives without crippling you when you fail or pushing you to engage in activity that is detrimental to you, your teammates, or your company.

Competitiveness can be built like a muscle. The more you use it, the more effective it is. And the best person to compete against is yourself. Here’s how to cultivate this functional skill:

  • Set weekly or monthly goals for activities you want to improve in outside work. For example: going to the gym, reading a certain number of pages, or getting to the office at a certain time. Track your results.
  • Set activity and outcome goals in and out of work. Write them down on the first of the month, and review how you did and set new ones at the end of the month.
  • Post your “personal bests” in the different areas of your sales role. Try to beat yourself.

5. Find creative solutions

Speaking of muscles, experts say creativity isn’t a nebulous attribute. In practice, creativity is the ability to combine information from two different areas into something new. And that’s exactly what salespeople need to do to provide value for their customers.

Practicing creativity outside work can have a positive impact at work, even if you don’t think you’re an artist. Here’s how to build those skills:

  • Listen to podcasts that interview creative people and pay attention to where their ideas come from.
  • Take a class. It could be art, cooking, or a foreign language, but it will make your brain work in new ways.

Functional skills are crucial for success in sales. Take time to develop them and defeat the robots -- or just work better with them.

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