What separates good salespeople from great ones?Let’s be real, it’s probably not their mastery of the CRM nor the number of prospecting emails they send each day. Those skills and tasks are important, but they don’t close deals.
Sales reps who hit their team’s sales goals quarter after quarter have a few things in common — soft skills. These are the abilities a salesperson has to build relationships, encourage productive conversation, and provide an exceptional customer experience.
The great thing is, there are no hard-and-fast rules for how soft skills should be developed, and many times, they aren’t taught in a formal training session. So, how do you learn soft skills? Through exposure and practice.
In this article, you’ll develop an understanding of the seven soft skills successful salespeople use and how to acquire them to boost your sales performance.
What are soft skills in sales?
Soft skills are a set of interpersonal and intrapersonal competencies that help a salesperson relate to and communicate with others. These skills can also help the salesperson work more efficiently and achieve their full potential in a sales role.
Let’s look at the seven soft skills every rep needs to get ahead — and more importantly, how to develop them.
The 7 Sales Soft Skills
- Growth Mindset
- Emotional Intelligence
1. Growth Mindset
Let’s say that you’re fantastic at building rapport. Do you believe rapport-building is one of your innate skills — or do you believe you developed it through hard work, practice, and external feedback?
If you choose the second answer, you possess a growth mindset. People with growth mindsets believe they can strengthen their natural talents and develop new abilities over time. People with fixed mindsets, on the other hand, view their skills as fixed. They have the hand that they’ve been dealt, and that’s that.
How to Develop a Growth Mindset
To turn a fixed mindset into a growth mindset, change the way you perceive failure. Don’t think of failing as embarrassing or shameful — view it as a learning experience. When you’re not afraid to screw up, you’ll have the bandwidth to bounce back and try again. Even better, you’ll gain something new from every challenge you tackle. (Of course, that doesn’t mean you should be complacent about failure. If you’re making the same mistake three-plus times, take a cold, hard look at why you’re not improving.)
Consider using “yet” to describe skills you haven’t mastered. Psychologist Carol Dweck — who invented the growth-minded concept — says this word has the power to dramatically boost confidence.
For instance, rather than thinking, “I haven’t been able to meet 120% of my quota in a month,” you’d think, “I haven’t met 120% of my quota in a month… yet.”
(Watch Dweck’s entire talk for more confidence-boosting tips.)
When a salesperson is good at listening to and implementing feedback, their name typically skyrockets to the top of the leaderboard and stays there. After all, they’re combining the strengths of a great rep with the insights, wisdom, and experience of their manager. That’s a winning combo.
Plus, the expectations of sales reps are constantly evolving. Buyers are much more sophisticated than they used to be — and what worked in 2001 definitely won’t fly in 2021. To keep processes and strategies up-to-date, great salespeople need to be able to adapt and be coachable.
How to Develop Adaptability
Step one is simple: Take five minutes every day to reflect on what went well and where you could improve.
According to Mark Roberge, senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, highly coachable reps are always analyzing their performance and looking for weak areas.
Of course, the most important factor of adaptability is how you respond to feedback from your manager, trainer, or mentor. Remember to stay open-minded and follow through on their comments and suggestions even if you don’t like them. If their advice works, you’re in better shape than before. If it doesn’t, you can stop using it. It’s a good outcome either way.
Finally, communicate with your manager. It’ll be much easier for them to gauge your progress and give you valuable information if they’re always in the loop.
The ability to imagine themselves in their prospect’s situation can turn an average sales rep into a star performer. When you’ve got a good idea of what your prospect is thinking and feeling, you can target your messaging to their specific pain points and motivations. You’ll also know exactly when to push and when to hold back.
Plus, showing the buyer you’re on their side helps you overcome the stereotype of the aggressive rep who’s only interested in their quota.
How to Develop Empathy
Bizarrely, just imagining yourself in someone’s shoes can make you more empathetic. So next time you start working with a prospect, take two seconds to mentally put on their footwear.
Other scientifically-backed ways to boost your empathy include talking to new people, meditating, and active listening.
And to make it clear to prospects you’ve got their back, use phrases like: “I hear you” and “That sounds really challenging.”
Between talking on the phone, sending emails, giving demos, and speaking in meetings, most sales reps spend at least 90% of their day communicating. Having solid communication skills is essential. You must be able to clearly and persuasively get your ideas across — without going off on tangents or using buzzwords and meaningless phrases.
You should also keep your audience in mind at all times. If you speak the same way to your sales manager as to your prospects, something’s wrong: After all, they have vastly different goals, desires, and background information.
How to Develop Communication Skills
Watch or listen to recordings of yourself. You’ll inevitably notice verbal tics or confusing statements that you completely missed during the actual interaction. Every time you do, make a quick note of the issue so you can avoid it in the future.
Reviewing your conversations also gives you the chance to analyze your prospects’ reactions. For example, maybe your method of handling objections seems to work at the moment, but you realize those same objections came up again during the next call. Unfortunately, what you thought was a clever counterpoint didn’t translate. Once you’ve found the weak spots in your communication methods, you can adjust accordingly.
Finish this sentence: “Bread” is to “butter” as “humility” is to ____.
Okay, “sales” probably wasn’t your first answer. But reps who can identify the right time and place for humility consistently knock their deals out of the park.
When you’re humble enough to reveal a vulnerability or admit you don’t know something, your prospects will immediately trust and respect you more. As a result, they’ll view you as a trusted advisor, or even a partner in their success (this is ideal).
How to Develop Humility
When most people realize they don’t know something, their gut instinct is to hide their ignorance or change the subject. Instead of doing either, simply say, “I don’t know.”
Worried the prospect will lose faith in you? Add: “But I’ll find out,” or “I’ll look into that right away.” (And then make sure to follow up.)
Humility also hinges on owning your mistakes. When something goes wrong, don’t use language that shifts the blame to other people or external factors. For instance, rather than saying, “We must’ve gotten our wires crossed,” you’d say, “I forgot to clarify when we’d meet — that’s on me.”
6. Emotional Intelligence
Having high Emotional Intelligence (EQ) makes you a master relationship builder. EQ has five components:
- Emotional awareness: You're well-attuned to your moods and feelings.
- Self-confidence: You're self-assured and assertive but not arrogant.
- Self-regulation: You can control your reactions to external events.
- Adaptability: You're flexible and can quickly respond to change.
- Influence: You can help others see your point of view and do what you recommend.
- Leadership: You can effectively unify a group of people and set a course.
With high EQ, accomplishing your objectives is far easier — because people naturally want to follow you.
How to Develop Emotional Intelligence
Building EQ requires you to pay careful attention to your emotions at all times. Ask yourself, "What am I feeling right now? Why do I feel this way? Have I felt this same emotion recently, and was there a similar cause?"
Once you've achieved self-awareness, self-regulation will come organically. You'll be able to modulate your state of mind and responses.
You should also monitor the emotions of those around you. This can be challenging, as most people don't reveal all — or even most — of what they're truly thinking and feeling.
These questions will help:
- "How would I describe this person's mood?"
- "Does their mood match the situation?" (For example, if you just resolved their objection, do they seem relaxed, or are they still tense?)
- "Do their words contradict their apparent mood?" (Maybe they say they're not worried, but they're talking more quickly than usual and tapping their foot.)
This exercise will reveal how you should respond. Does your prospect seem on edge? Ask, "Is something on your mind?" The customer is in a great mood? Request an introduction you need, or if you're in the final stages of the selling process, for their business.
The real test of resilience isn’t how you handle a bad situation, it’s how you move on afterward. Salespeople face the most rejection on a daily basis than most other professionals do. Resilience and tenacity are the soft skills they use to stay the course and achieve their goals in the face of adversity.
Resilience doesn’t mean ignoring negative feelings or pretending a difficult sales call never happened. Instead, it’s important to process those feelings in a healthy way that prevents burnout. Afterward, resilient sales reps can move onto the next call and give the prospect 100%.
How to Develop Resilience
This one comes with time. The more comfortable you become with rejection, the more opportunities you’ll have to process the feeling and start anew with the next potential customer. Successful salespeople know that their next call could be their next closed-won deal, so give those prospects the opportunity to see you, the company you represent, and the product you sell in the best light possible.
Pairing Soft Skills With Hard Work
Work ethic and soft skills go hand-in-hand. Understanding your product, industry, and sales tools will help you meet your sales expectations. Soft skills like communication, empathy, and resilience help you consistently exceed them.
The soft skills in this article are specific to sales roles, but they’re transferable to most other disciplines. That means if you decide to move into management or even a new department, these sales soft skills will follow you on your journey to career success.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in December 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.