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What are the most critical skills in selling?

Considering the age-old history of sales, I was surprised when I did a google search of “the most critical skills in selling,” to discover that sales pundits are all over the map on this issue. Some point to empathy skill, honesty and ethics, where others get into things like putting aside your sales agenda and allowing the customer to tell you what they need. Then there are those who offer broad skills like customer service and the ability to work across department silos. A few touch on listening skills which at least gets them into the ballpark.

These skills, while very important, are more like pre-requisites than key difference makers. I mean, yes we all need to be ethical and empathetic in all we do−those who are not, won’t get very far in sales anyway. The reason that these answers are all over the map lies in the framing of the question. Said another way, these are the skills that most of us need just to be a good salesperson.

A better way to look at this question is in the context of selling excellence. The question becomes: What are the most influential skills in selling expertise?

Research on expertise suggests that experts are experts because they perform the ordinary skills in an extraordinary way. When we look at sales at its core, we discover that it’s all about communication.

This raises another key question: What aspects of selling separate experts from novices? Answer: The Six Essentials of Persuasive Communication; Planning, Pausing and Silence, Presenting with Clarity, Attentiveness, Perceptiveness, and Responsiveness. The first three skills are action-based, meaning they are behavioral tasks. The last three are reaction-based that involve responding to the buyer’s message. Research shows perceptual skills (reaction) to be most responsible for superior sales performance (Boorom et al. 1998).

The Six Essentials of Selling:

1. Planning - This is not to be confused with general sales planning such as pre-call research. Experts also plan their thinking and mentally vet their upcoming communication before it happens. Mental rehearsal techniques can be excellent tools for communication planning.

2. Pausing and Silence - We all know that buyers are rightfully skeptical of the fast-talking seller who doesn’t listen to their concerns. But it’s amazing how many salespeople perpetuate this perception by…well talking to fast and not listening. Effective use of pausing creates openings for buyers to voice concerns and better understand the seller’s message. It’s a simple thing to do that makes a huge difference.

3. Clarity – Today’s salesperson must be able to present in a way that resonates with buyers and cuts through the data overload. This can be achieved by: talking in pictures−the idea of presenting succinct illustrations such as stories to create a compelling message. Lastly, developing a central theme is a powerful way to make a lasting impression. Central themes are short descriptive phrases that get to the essence of your value proposition. They are drilled in every communication touch point until the buyer adopts it for themselves.

4. Attentiveness – Beyond listening, active listening is the ability to put aside personal interests and focus solely on the buyer. It involves empathy, genuineness and the skill of reading nonverbal messages. Detecting nonverbal cues in selling is likened to a sprinter athlete having fast muscle twitch. Noticing tone, body language and situation awareness are the keys to success. Because these are implicit skills, they’re often written off as a “knack” or dismissed merely to experience. But they can be enhanced by noticing them during routine calls. Mirroring and other nonverbal techniques can also help boost perceptual skills.

5. Perceptiveness – Once you have detected the right messages, it’s now time to interpret them. Pattern recognition is central to accurate and fast interpretation. For example, most salespeople can vouch for the dreaded situation when a buyer rejects our sales offer. We all say the same thing, “I knew the answer was “no” before she said it.” This is because we notice similar dialogue patterns from previous experiences. This “Spydey sense” tips us off before the words are ever spoken.

6. Responsiveness – A common myth is the notion that buyers are the only decision makers in the sales process. But a closer look reveals that sellers also makes pivotal decisions throughout interactions. These intuitive skills are like an expert comedian who knows exactly when to hit the punch-line or when to abandon a bad joke. Adapting to the buyer’s situation is a proven method of being more responsive. By understanding the buyer’s perspective, you can respond best to the implicit messages, thereby increasing the odds to success.

These Six Essentials represent the “windows of expert advantage” helping salespeople move their skills to the next level, more quickly.

These skills, while very important, are more like pre-requisites than difference makers. I mean, yes salespeople need to be ethical and empathetic in all they do. Those who are not, won’t get very far in the long run anyway. The reason that these answers are all over the map lies in the framing of the question. The natural assumption when we hear “most critical skills in selling” tend to gravitate towards those skills that are foundational to selling. Said another way, these are the skills that most of us need just to be a satisfactory salesperson.

A better way to look at this question is in the context of selling excellence. The question becomes: What are the most critical (influential) skills in selling expertise? All of the previously mentioned skills are assumed to be part of the basis seller’s skill set. So what then separates the experts from the rest of the crowd?

In most domains, research on expert performance suggests that experts are experts because they perform the ordinary skills in an extraordinary way. When we look at selling at its core, we understand that communication skills represent the “it” of selling.

This raises the question: What aspects of communication separate experts from average performers? Answer: The Six Essentials of Persuasive Communication; Planning, Pausing and Silence, Presenting with Clarity, Attentiveness, Perceptiveness, and Responsiveness. The first three sub-skills are action-based, meaning they are behavioral tasks. The last three are reaction-based sub-skills that involve responding to the buyer’s message. Empirical research shows perceptual reaction skills to be most responsible for selling expertise (Boorom et al. 1998).

Let’s take a closer look at the Six Essentials:

1. Planning - This is not to be confused with general sales planning such as researching the prospect and putting together your product and pricing information. Expert performers also plan their thinking and mentally vet their impending communication before the performance. Visualizing and mental rehearsal techniques are excellent methods of communication planning.

2. Pausing and Silence - We all know that buyers are rightfully skeptical of the fast-talking seller who doesn’t listen to their concerns. But it’s amazing how many salespeople perpetuate this perception by…well talking to fast and not listening very well. Using pausing and silence creates the opportunities for buyers to voice their concern and absorb and understand the seller’s message. It’s a simple thing to do that makes a huge difference.

3. Presenting with clarity – Today’s salesperson must be able to present information that resonates with the buyer and endures the modern day monsoon of data overload that we all face on a daily basis. This can be accomplished by what I call: talking in pictures−the idea of using visual illustrations such as stories to create a compelling, memorable interaction. Succinct communication is another key to clarity. Using fewer, high impact words is always more effective than long rants that jump around too many subjects and confuse the buyer. Lastly, developing a central theme for each prospect is a powerful way to make a lasting impression of your sales message. Central themes are short descriptive phrases that get to the essence of your value proposition. Ideally, the expert seller comprises the theme from the words and messages of the buyer. The theme is then drilled in every communication touch point until the buyer starts to adopt it for themselves.

4. Attentiveness – More than listening, it’s active listening and the ability to identify the meaningful cues from the buyer. It involves empathy, genuineness and the skill of reading nonverbal messages. Understanding nonverbal communication in selling is likened to a sprinter athlete having fast muscle twitch. It relates to voice tone, body language and situation awareness. Because these are implicit skills, they’re often written off as a “knack” or attributed to experience. But you can improve your nonverbal detection ability by first noticing these signals during your routine sales calls. Mirroring and other nonverbal tools can be used to boost your nonverbal perceptual skills.

5. Perceptiveness – Once you have detected meaningful cues and messages, it’s now time to interpret them. The key to accurate and speedy interpretation is noticing patterns of the communication process. For example, most salespeople can vouch for the undesirable situation when a buyer rejects our sales proposition. We all say the same thing, “I knew the answer was “no” before she said it.” This is because we notice similar communication patterns from buyers through other experiences. Our “Spydey sense” tip us off that that the “no” is coming.

6. Responsiveness – A common myth held by many salespeople is the notion that buyers are the exclusive decision makers of the sales process. But a closer look reveals that salespeople also makes important decisions during interactions. These skills are largely intuitive, like an expert comedian who knows exactly when to hit the punch-line or when to abandon a bad joke. Adapting to the buyer’s situation is an important part of improving responsiveness. By understanding the buyer’s perspective, sellers can accurately respond to the implicit messages, thereby increasing the likelihood of achieving success.

These Six Essentials of Communication represent the “windows of expert advantage” helping sales professionals move their skills to the next level, more quickly.

 

About Sales Development & Performance, LLC: SD&P is a performance consulting and training firm that enables sales organizations and sales professionals to drive performance outcomes. Our research-based approach to professional development delivers measurable sales revenue and profit results for businesses of all sizes. The company was founded in 2008 in Irvine, California.

 

 

 

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