Happy New Year!
This blog post is being released on January 1, 2020, the start of a new month, a new year, and a new decade.
Seems like a good time to start a new series, too! This one focuses on soft skills in selling. Over the next 3 months, CONNECT2Sell will define soft vs. hard skills, explain the rationale for developing soft skills in selling, explore the most important soft skills that sellers need to succeed, and give you tools and resources for developing your soft skills so that you can make more sales in the new year.
Before we begin, there are just a few things you’ll want to know:
- Like all content in this blog, these recommendations are based on research with buyers. There’s no speculation, conjecture, assumption, or wishful thinking in these posts. Only solid, field-tested, proven approaches driven by buyers’ preferences.
- We may be talking about “soft” skills. But that’s not the same as easy or optional or merely warm-and-fuzzy. These are absolutely essential skills that every seller needs to succeed.
- We’re going to dive deep. That’s why it will take 13+ weeks to work through this series. We’ll look at all the angles, and you’ll get actionable insights instead of platitudes and rah-rah motivation alone.
- You won’t find a lot of training and support for soft skills development in selling. That’s because there’s a pervasive misperception that sellers are innately blessed with soft skills. Of course, that’s ridiculous and based in outmoded stereotypes. There’s no shame in lacking soft skills. If you’ve never been taught them, you shouldn’t be expected to have them!
- You don’t have to take chances. If you want to be sure to catch every post in this series, you can subscribe to the RSS feed. Better yet, subscribe to the weekly CONNECT2Sell newsletter so you can get even more content related to improving your sales in 2020.
Soft Skills vs. Hard Skills in Sales
You’ve got the technical knowledge, the sales training, the product knowledge, the front-line experience, and the functional skills to work through the entire sales process. You have expertise in your field. You’ve mastered the tasks and activities required to reach your revenue goals.
But there’s something else you need to succeed in selling. No matter how advanced your vocational abilities are, you’ll need soft skills, too.
But what’s the difference? Take a look at this chart to understand some of the differences that are the easiest to spot in others. Notice, too, that these contrasts can cause misperceptions about what it takes to succeed.
Hard skills are specialized.
They include everything required by a specific job or function. Accountants need skills and knowledge related to auditing, reporting and regulations. Engineers need to know how to design and draft blueprints. HR professionals must understand employment law and how to prepare and update records related to hiring, transferring, promoting, and terminating employees. And so on. Every functional area requires its own hard skills.
The hard skills that sellers rely on include wisely deploying the tools in your tech stack, conducting thorough discovery interviews, preparing and delivering quality proposals and demos, responding to objections, skillfully handling negotiations to settle on mutually agreeable terms for the deal, and so on.
Hard skills are acquired through education and on-the-job experience. Resumes showcase hard skills. People receive certifications, degrees, and promotions because of the hard skills and knowledge they demonstrate. Hard skills are measurable and observable in the output and outcomes associated with a particular job role.
Soft skills are universal.
They are the same for people in any job function. These skills are applicable in any job role. People in most job roles need to effectively engage with other people in the workplace. Getting along with others and contributing to the team in ways that draw out the best from others increases the value of any employee. In sales, soft skills are also valuable for buyer engagement, relationship building, influencing, and juggling multiple priorities.
Soft skills are acquired through life experience. They are demonstrated through relationships with team members and customers, positive attitude, conflict resolution, creative problem solving, quality decision making, and ability to handle stress and change. Soft skills are not as tangible, observable or measurable as hard skills. They are linked to personality and personal preferences, and this presents unique challenges when it comes time to identify and develop the soft skills that can move the needle and produce better sales results.
Most job descriptions profile the ideal candidate as having a hybrid of soft and hard skills. Despite this, companies spend only 27.6% of their training investments on soft skills development (source: Green & McGill). What’s more, in sales, there’s a dangerous and unfair assumption that all sellers innately bring soft skills into the job. Little or no time is spent on the development of soft skills for selling.
Definition of Soft Skills
Soft skills are “the personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.”
These attributes include a broad and combined range of people skills, communication skills, personality traits, habits, attitudes, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, team orientation, cognitive processing of information, and ability/willingness to tolerate ambiguity and rapid change.
The term “soft skills” is sometimes used interchangeably with terms like leadership, character traits, interpersonal skills, critical thinking, common sense, being a “people person,” life skills, influential, likeable, politically savvy, and team player. Each of these terms depicts a facet of soft skills but doesn’t fully encompass all that the term is intended to convey.
For our purposes in this series, we’ll define soft skills as anything and everything that is not a job-specific hard skill. The soft skills that matter most for you are the ones required to effectively do your job and sell effectively. No one has mastered all soft skills, just as no one has or will master all hard skills for all functional areas. The right blend, along with the desire to keep learning and growing, is what will help you be more successful.
Why Focusing on Hard Skills Isn’t Enough
Hard skills simply do not get the job done.
As a field coach, I’ve been on hundreds of ride-alongs with sellers who knew their products well, understood every tool and technique they’d been taught, and could recite all the “right” responses to objections and all the “right” features/benefits. So why did they struggle to make sales? Because hard skills simply do not get the job done.
You’ve experienced this, too. As a buyer, you’ve rejected perfectly competent sellers and purchased instead from ones you liked better. As a seller, you’ve watched buyers make illogical choices to work with sellers who offered less but connected more with those buyers. Hard skills alone don’t get you to the finish line.
That’s not to say that hard skills are optional or unimportant. Hard skills are essential. They make you a professional. They just aren’t enough.
People buy from people. Soft skills humanize you and enable buyers to trust you. Soft skills help you make smart choices about what to prioritize and how to work through challenges. Soft skills make the difference between a competent seller and a successful one.
How Focusing on Soft Skills Can Improve Sales
This table, from the bestseller DISCOVER Questions® Get You Connected, illustrates one way that soft skills can dramatically improve your sales.
Once upon a time, the inherent value of your product was sufficient. People purchased because they needed a particular product. Back then, access to options was limited and information about where and how to get alternatives was also difficult to find. Merely stating your product’s value won’t drive sales the way it used to.
That’s why added value (in the second column) has been widely offered. These days, every company offers added value of some kind, so it’s not much of a differentiator anymore. In fact, “added value” has become a throwaway buzz word that doesn’t mean much to most buyers. They know they’re supposed to ask for more, and they expect a deal sweetener. But, in the end, it doesn’t close deals the way it used to. One reason for this, according to buyers, is they know that everyone else is getting this so-called special offer, too.
Modern buyers are savvy and expect more than the value that comes with the product. They want more than the value your company adds in. They want unique, relevant, personalized value. The only place they can get that is from their seller, human-to-human. They expect you to create value in every interaction with them. Your hard skills haven’t equipped you for value creation.
Value creation is not about price discounts, service agreements, special terms for the deal, or customization. All of that is added value that your company provides.
Value creation is about engaging the buyer so they feel they’ve been heard. It includes asking thought-provoking questions that help the buyer see things in new ways. Value creation happens in an instant, during the time you spend with the buyer. It’s all about the buyer and what they want/need from YOU.
Soft skills are absolutely essential for value creation. Be sure to come back each week for this series about soft skills in selling. It will make a difference in your relationships with buyers and in your sales results.