Check each box that applies. How many of these topics are covered in your organization’s sales training program on a regular basis?
___ Product features/specs
___ Product rates
___ Product benefits
___ Industry knowledge/terminology
___ CRM and other technology use
___ Sales process steps
___ Internal ordering systems, forms, processing
___ Company information, branding, positioning
___ Scripts and tools for opening new business
___ Scripts and techniques for overcoming common objections
If your organization is like most with an established sales function, you’re tracking at 100% so far. Formally or informally, most of the above topics are covered in onboarding, mentoring, the sales playbook, or some form of instruction.
But what about this next list? How many of these topics are also routinely covered for every seller on the team?
___ Critical thinking
___ Empathetic listening
___ Asking quality questions
___ Emotional Intelligence
___ Being a team player
___ Leadership development
___ Change management
___ Influence without authority
___ Developing trust and rapport
___ Understanding others’ personalities and preferences
If your sales organization is like most, this second list will have fewer checkmarks than the first list did.
The difference between these two lists is that the first one represents hard skills while the second is comprised of soft skills.
Professional sellership includes a mix of both hard skills and soft skills. But many sellers exhibit deficiencies in the second list because:
- Companies don’t provide soft skills training.
- There’s a prevalent misperception that all sellers naturally have soft skills already.
- Sellers are primarily screened for superficial soft skills and sales experience.
- Soft skills gaps are often the root cause of seller struggles. But this isn’t identified.
- Sales managers haven’t been trained in soft skills either and may not model them.
Practice, Practice, Practice
If organizations don’t offer soft skills training for sellers, that doesn’t mean sellers should accept the unfortunate position this puts them in.
Soft skills training is accessible in other ways. Books, blogs, videos, podcasts, online training courses, workshops, and more are available for sellers who want to understand and improve.
The most effective way to acquire soft skills, however, is simply this: PRACTICE.
Practice makes perfect. Getting it right once isn’t proof of mastery. Practice until you perfect your approach. Then push yourself to stretch again and practice honing another skill.
Practicing and perfecting your craft pays off. Buyers prefer to work with sellers who demonstrate strong soft skills. Be sure to read last week’s post in this series for more insight on buyer preferences.
Sellers who invest in learning and demonstrating strong soft skills benefit by:
- Opening sales more often and more easily
- Establishing rapport and trust with buyers
- Getting more callbacks and appointments
- Earning more referrals from buyers who are more loyal
- Creating solutions that are more effective for buyers
- Experiencing less rework and frustration (by getting it right the first time)
- Managing time more effectively
- Making better decisions in time allocation, prioritizing, problem solving
- Feeling more in control and less at risk
- Earning more commissions and opportunities
Mastery Comes Slowly, Over Time
Research from Anders Ericsson, reported by Malcolm Gladwell in the book Outliers, introduced the 10,000-Hour Rule or the “magic number for greatness.” The research focused on what extremely successful people. It looked at people who are extraordinarily high performers in a variety of fields. One thing they all had in common was the amount of time they had dedicated to practicing and perfecting their craft. Gladwell found that the “tipping point” where they became extraordinary was after 10,000 hours of practice. That breaks down to three hours a day for 10 years or six hours a day for 5 years…
Ericsson’s later clarifications may give us a little bit of wiggle room. He said that 10,000 hours is an average. For some, mastery and super achievement may take fewer hours of dedicate practice. For others, more is required. The amount of complexity in what you do, for example, could influence how much dedicated practice is required.
Nonetheless, mastery is not achievable overnight.
True mastery of any craft takes time, deliberate focus, and practice. Practice involves trying, failing, trying again, achieving, pushing a little further, failing, trying again and again to achieve the next level, and so on. Growth is incremental. Mastery comes one step at a time.
The pursuit of mastery isn’t about the amount of time alone. Doing the same, ineffective activities over and over again doesn’t lead to mastery of a craft. It leads to frustration, wasted time, lost opportunity, and the building of bad habits.
In sales, many things can interfere with the genuine pursuit of mastery. Here are five common situations where something gets in the way.
- Luck. Sellers are often ruined by a hot streak or fortunate circumstances. Landing in a strong territory or representing a product that virtually sells itself leads to complacency. Sellers who don’t have to practice and stretch themselves often kick back and ride the gravy train.
- Pressure. Bad sales behaviors often stem from pressure for quick sales or sales at any cost. If, for example, there’s pressure to make a high volume of calls, sellers will sacrifice quality in those calls. They won’t take time to reflect and learn from their mistakes. They’ll just keep “smiling and dialing” to no avail.
- Mediocrity. Low goals aren’t gifts to sellers. Setting goals low is a gift to your competitors who are hungrier and working harder to develop their skills. You’ll be in a better position if you set goals that stretch sellers and force them to continually learn and grow. BUT, along with those more aggressive goals, you also have to resource sellers with quality coaching and development of the skills (hard AND soft) that enable them to reach those goals.
- Devaluing the profession of selling. People who don’t understand what professional sellership looks like often emulate Hollywood versions of sales stereotypes. They don’t see themselves as proud members of a noble profession, so they inadvertently devalue the sales profession. If it isn’t valued, it doesn’t seem worth mastering.
- Time. Deadlines, quotas, sales enablement tasks that deplete selling time, and poor time management skills can cause sellers to choose shortcuts that interfere with practicing, learning, reflecting, trying something else, and mastering skills. The “check the box and move on” mentality in selling minimizes sales effectiveness.
Never Stop Developing Your Soft Selling Skills
Soft selling skills are never completely developed. There will always be more, new, different, emerging skills to work on. Preparing yourself for a variety of challenges is the aim. The soft skills you have today aren’t the same ones you’ll need for new buyers you’ll encounter, new competitive threats you’ll face, or new objections you’ll hear.
Professional athletes and musicians practice every day. Artists sketch and draft constantly, not just when they’re producing the works they release for public view. Why do people at the top of their game carve out time to practice? Why don’t they just go out there and perform? It’s because they want to grow and stay at the top of their game.
It’s no different when it comes to soft skills for selling. Which ones are already strong for you? Keep practicing and perfecting those! Which ones come less naturally or are less comfortable for you? Don’t give up on those! Instead, pick one at a time and work to improve.
Perfecting your soft skills for selling will benefit you in all areas of your life. You’ll find that soft skills, unlike hard skills, are completely transferable to other types of work and to your interpersonal connections with people everywhere.