The (New) Skills You Need to Succeed in Sales

December 6, 2012

by Lynette Ryals and Javier Marcos

The practice of business-to-business selling is in a curious state. On the one hand, commentators and academics are repeatedly telling us that transactional selling is outmoded and that relational selling is the ‘new normal.’ On the other hand, most businesses are operating with traditional models of salesperson recruitment and training. The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) estimates that in the U.S., $15 billion is spent per year on sales training. However, many salespeople find the training they receive either ineffective or less than useful. Given the importance of skills and capabilities to sales performance, businesses need to reconsider who they recruit into sales roles, and how they train them.

Put simply, we all we tend to recruit people like ourselves. This in turn means that existing cultures, styles and modes of behavior tend to perpetuate themselves. Trouble is, business-to-business selling has been undergoing a revolution. Traditional sales methods are increasingly unproductive. In fact, aggressive sales styles and product-focused selling are now so outdated that some customers are simply refusing to meet with salespeople using these techniques. These customers find it more pleasant and more efficient to order online, and who can blame them? Information about product and service features is increasingly available online, so sales people find themselves in front of well-prepared customers. In this situation, focusing on product features in the sales meeting is a waste of everyone’s time. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that high-performing sales people are those who listen and respond, who are flexible, and who think in terms of developing a solution to an emerging customer problem.

To find out what kind of people succeed in sales, and the kinds of skills they need to have, we carried out interviews with thought leaders in selling and sales management in the U.S. and the U.K. These included top sales leaders in major corporations, leading academics who have published in the sales field, and senior practitioners within sales associations or research-oriented sales consultancies.

Our research confirmed a growing trend: Salespeople today need to engage in collaboration with the customer but also increasingly with their own organization. Good selling is about transcending the customer-facing role and becoming an internal change agent as well.

Our thought leaders identified two major drivers for this change: the use of technology, and changes in customer demands. Increased use of technology, they told us, means that online channels are substituting for traditional face-to-face meetings, and CRM systems are providing new insights into customers. On the customer side, our informants talked about ever-increasing customer expectations and more emphasis on return on investment and value. Our analysis revealed four categories of skills and capabilities that sales people need in this new environment: Commercial, Relational, Managerial, and Cognitive.

Read the full article at the Harvard Business Review.


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