What does it really take to be successful in sales? And what core sales competencies are critical to that success?
Well, the answer to that question largely depends on what your definition of success is.
For some reps, attaining their quota each month means they’re crushing it. For others, they accept nothing less than 120% of quota before they cut themselves some slack. A salesperson’s definition of success is often influenced by the environment they work in, the greater goals of their organization, and their own personal drives and tendencies.
Though one’s idea of success can vary from person to person, there are some core proficiencies top reps and sales organizations have in common. Let's explore the core competencies for both sales reps and managers, according to sales leaders.
Core Competencies in Sales
At a high level, there are core skills that are a must for a career in sales. While possessing these skills doesn’t guarantee success, they are critical for carrying out the daily duties of a sales professional. Let’s break down some of the core competencies needed for a career in sales.
1. Foundational Sales Knowledge
First and foremost, you must have a clear insight into how sales work. If you’re brand new to sales, don’t worry about not having a solid foundation just yet, but make sure it is a top priority on your development plan to support your career growth.
Having foundational sales knowledge means understanding each step of the sales process used by your organization to convert customers. You must know what steps an individual takes to go from lead to customer, and what your role is in supporting that process.
2. Communication Skills
To work in sales, excellent communication skills are a must. What does that mean? It means being comfortable communicating with your prospects, customers, and peers in a variety of scenarios. These instances include effectively sharing messages via email, having a strong presence when speaking on the phone or on video, and being able to ask clear, direct questions during the qualification process.
Essentially, you must be able to communicate with others in an engaging, empathetic, people-focused way. While the ability to share pertinent information in both verbal and written form is important, active listening is also a critical part of communication for salespeople.
When you are able to actively listen to your potential customers, you can pick up on key information that can help you adequately solve their problem with your product. For example, if you work for a company that sells audio editing software and you have a prospect who does not create audio content and is looking for photo editing support, listening to their needs can disqualify those who are not in need of your offer, freeing you up to engage with customers who are.
Additionally, sales professionals must be able to adequately communicate with their customers and peers in a virtual environment. According to the LinkedIn 2020 State of Sales Report, 77% of sales professionals are holding more virtual meetings. For those who typically sell face-to-face, this could present unique communication challenges.
3. Willingness to Learn
Whether you are a brand new sales rep, a seasoned sales engineer, or an experienced executive, a sense of curiosity and willingness to learn is critical at any stage of your career. Top-performing sales pros are constantly looking for ways to gain additional knowledge and perspective to better serve their customers.
In practice, this could look like asking prospects insightful questions during the sales process to truly understand what challenges they’re facing and what they need support with. Or it could entail analyzing the sales process of your organization to look for opportunities to become more effective and efficient. It could also include engaging in regular competitive analysis to gain perspective on what’s happening in your market.
To succeed in any role within sales, you must be open to new information and ways of doing things to avoid plateaus and performance slumps.
4. Preparation and Attention to Detail
In sales, preparation is key. If you don't take the time to prepare ahead of a sales conversation, it's never going to go well. You need to show prospects that you've done your research.
As Sarah Mercedes, HubSpot's Head of Corporate Sales, West Coast, puts it, "How you show up matters. It's not just about planning out your demo flow, it's about mapping out what questions you need answered, anticipating the questions of your prospect, anticipating the pitch of your competitors, and prepping your deal team on where the deal is and what role you need them to play on your next call."
Mercedes adds, "It's mapping out your mutual action plan, the prospect's org and how you plan to engage with all their key players, the bullet proof pitch you are going to present to their exec team."
Mercedes says, "[Preparation] is important to run a tight and successful sales process, but it also gives your potential customer confidence in you and your company, which we all know goes a long way in sales, especially in competitive deals. The extra effort and attention to detail wins deals. Fail to plan, plan to fail."
Next, let's dive into some competencies each sales rep should master.
Sales Rep Competencies
Now that we understand the most basic skills needed for a strong career in sales, let’s review some of the competencies that are most beneficial for sales reps looking to grow in their role.
Many deals begin with prospecting, which is the process of identifying new business often in the form of connecting with potential customers. Connecting with the right prospects can make or break your ability to land the sale. Since 42% of reps claim prospecting is the hardest part of the sales process for them, this is an area where many reps can benefit from focused development to sharpen their skills.
Here are the key steps to focus on when prospecting:
During this stage, learn as much as you can about the potential contact. The goal of this is to determine if they are a good fit for your product or service. Many reps find it helpful to have set criteria comparing the contact to their ideal customer profile or other specific data points to determine if the contact would be a likely customer for their product.
If you determine a contact fits the criteria needed for qualification, now you can focus on outreach. During the research process, you should have gathered information on the best platform to reach your prospect — often this is via phone, email, or social media. During this stage, B2B reps may also have to communicate with gatekeepers to reach the individual who can make the final purchasing decision.
After you make your initial outreach to the contact or gatekeeper, your goal is to establish a meeting or call to keep the conversation going. This is often called a discovery call and can be useful for continuing to qualify the prospect to ensure they are a good fit. From there you can evaluate their needs, work with them to determine if your product is a good fit, and establish the deal.
2. Product Knowledge
What exactly are you selling, and how much do you know about it? What are the key features? How does your product differ from competitors? Why is your product the best option for the customer?
At a basic level, all reps must understand the fundamental knowledge of their product and be able to communicate these points to potential customers in a relatable, engaging way. Ultimately your job is to help your customers solve a problem by implementing your product, and the ability to do so relies heavily on your knowledge and understanding of what you’re selling.
3. Customer Service
While you as a sales professional may not be directly responsible for long-term customer care and service inquiries, having a solid foundation of customer service skills is essential throughout the sales process.
Your tasks and actions should prioritize the needs of the customer, and approaching each step of the sales process with the intention of serving your customers is essential for converting and retaining your buyers.
4. Data Analysis
The ability to read and analyze data is critical for making it in sales. Organizations are using data to measure and improve performance. In fact, according to LinkedIn 48% of sales organizations are currently relying on data to understand closed-lost deal patterns and 56% of teams use data to drive their prospecting efforts.
As time goes on, data-driven sales organizations are expected to become the norm. For sales reps looking to grow in their careers, understanding the key data used to make decisions related to their sales process and customer journey is an essential skill.
To be successful, salespeople need to be creative problem solvers. As a rep, your job is to support your customers as they find the best solution to their personal and professional challenges. Selling from a solutions-oriented perspective, and keeping the needs of the customer front and center is a necessary competency to convert leads.
6. Upselling and Cross-selling
Though conversion is very important, it’s not the only way to drive revenue for your company. Some of the best sales reps are masters at upselling or finding additional products and services to benefit the customer in addition to their initial purchase. When making the upsell, you should look for offerings that complement the purchase your customer initially entered the sales process to receive.
For example, if you work for a company that sells VPN and personal hotspot devices for remote employees, you may want to suggest adding more bandwidth to your potential customer’s package to allow for faster internet speeds and to account for team growth. Upselling typically involves suggested add-ons to what the customer is looking to buy without changing the intent of the deal.
On the other hand, cross-selling is also an important competency for sales reps. If you are working with a prospect and realize the initial product you were selling them on isn’t a right fit, you may decide that cross-selling and suggesting a different product category based on another problem or challenge they identified could be a good way to go to land a deal that you otherwise may have lost.
7. Negotiating Skills
Effective sales reps must have solid negotiation skills. By knowing how to negotiate, you can create a tailored experience for your customer, getting them the products and features they need while also making sure your company is financially benefitting as well.
The field of sales is all about relationship building. Whether you are building relationships with potential customers, your fellow salespeople, members of your marketing team, or your management, your career largely depends on your ability to build solid bonds with each of these groups of people.
In the context of selling to the customer, taking a relationship-focused approach to each deal can be an effective strategy for driving revenue. Relationship sellers look to build trust with their buyers and emphasize their connection to customers as the foundation to each sale.
Gianna Scorsone, Aircall's General Manager of North America, says, "We live in a time when people expect personalized communication when doing business. Forget B2B or B2C — it's all about person-to-person interactions. Think about a mom-and-pop shop and the level of service you'd receive there. They might know your name, your frequent orders, and maybe a little bit about your hobbies or family."
To ensure your sales reps have the information they need, you'll want to use a powerful CRM to store customer data. A CRM ensures your sales reps can pick up conversations wherever your customers left off — no matter who they were last speaking with, or through which communication channels.
Scorsone adds, "Mastering the ability to take these small pieces of context, think critically, and transform a typically scripted business transaction into an impactful conversation is a key competency for success in any effective sales organization."
Last but certainly not least, sales reps must be ambitious and results-driven. Top sales reps look to deliver results to their customer through the use of their product, and they aim to drive sales for their organization to keep business afloat.
Effective salespeople always have their eye on the end result and plan their course of action based on the desired outcome they would like to achieve.
10. Emotional Intelligence
Crevan O'Malley, a HubSpot Senior Sales Director, told me emotional intelligence ranks high on his list for most important competencies.
He says, "For me, the best sellers always display a real strength on the Emotional Intelligence (EQ) side. An ability to manage yourself, when it can feel like everything is fluid, takes a special mindset."
O'Malley says, "The awareness that comes from possessing a strong EQ allows you to respond positively to changing circumstances and to effectively bring people with you on a shared journey, and this stems from deliberately developing a growth mindset."
He adds, "We all know it when we see it, and we certainly know it when we don't. My advice is to always seek feedback and be honest with your own self-assessment — you want to be a radiator, not a drain!"
To explore your own emotional intelligence as well as other personality strengths and weaknesses, take a look at these 14 free personality tests you can take online right now.
Sales Leadership Competencies
Now that we know what competencies are needed at both a foundational and sales rep level, let’s discuss what skills are required of top sales managers and leaders.
1. Change Management
To effectively lead a group or organization, those in charge must be comfortable with change management. Sales organizations are facing major changes in the way they work, sell, and connect with customers. Leaders must be able to clearly and effectively communicate and implement necessary change for their organizations to remain competitive.
While navigating change is challenging for all involved, leaders often set the tone for how their teams are able to manage and navigate organizational change.
2. Strategic Alignment
While interpreting and understanding sales data is important for all members of an organization, sales leaders must be able to develop and implement strategies to keep their teams aligned and working towards goals that are for the best interest of their company.
The ability to do this often takes experience analyzing relevant sales information and creating data-informed strategies to drive business success. In addition to creating said strategies, effective sales leaders must be able to communicate these strategies to their teams and keep employees aligned and accountable to the goals they are working towards.
3. Coaching and Mentorship
A sales leader may have team members of varying skill levels. Regardless of the level of experience of each team member, leadership is often responsible for coaching and developing their employees to improve their skillset and determine the next steps of their careers.
This could entail working with employees to create custom development plans based on their strengths and areas of opportunity, or overseeing the mentorship of newer team members by more experienced team members.
4. Building Trust
According to 2020 data from Trust Outlook, 85% of people believe a high-trust work environment helps them perform at their best.
For sales and business leaders, building trust should be a top priority in how they approach managing their teams. Because leaders tend to set the tone for their organizations, they play a key role in creating an environment where team members can build trust with leadership and one another.
As HubSpot's Director of North America Mid-Market Sales James Stone told me, "Building trust is essential for sales managers to succeed, especially as more teams move to a remote environment. Without it, it is very difficult to gain enrollment on any future initiatives from the business or push your own priorities successfully."
5. Systems Management
In an engaged, effective sales organization, all members of the team should be well-versed in the systems and processes they use on a regular basis. However, when it comes to management and improvement of said systems and processes, leadership is often accountable for ensuring these areas are as efficient and effective as possible.
Top sales leaders should be able to identify areas of opportunity within the systems their teams rely on, and determine ways to improve these areas to better support the hard work of their teams.
Looking for ways to develop and refine these skills and competencies for members of your sales team? Check out this round-up of training games and activities to keep your organization engaged.