My competency model for B2B sales includes more character traits than sales skills. Much of the time, a lack of certain character traits prevents salespeople from producing better results. It can also make it more difficult to develop the sales skills a person needs to succeed.
A long time ago, there were only a few sales skills sales organizations believed necessary: prospecting, presenting, overcoming objections, and, of course, closing. In today's environment, a B2B salesperson needs more skills, including those that are more complex and more difficult to master. Here is a list of 11 necessary skills to succeed in B2B sales:
- Closing (the ability to gain commitments)
- Being consultative (having the experience and knowledge to advise)
- Objection handling (the ability to resolve client concerns)
- Prospecting (the ability to gain a first meeting and create an opportunity)
- Storytelling/Presenting (the ability to help someone understand and see the future)
- Diagnosis (discovering the root cause of a challenge or opportunity)
- Questioning (asking powerful questions that provide understanding)
- Negotiating (creating win-win deals)
- Business acumen (insights, perspective, and the ability to create value)
- Change management (the ability to build consensus)
- Leadership (leading the client and producing results through others)
Few sales organizations actively enable these skills, even though they drive recognizable outcomes in B2B selling. Here we will identify and explore how to improve sales skills—and capture their effects.
Step One: Create a Development Plan
Whether you are a sales leader, a sales manager, or a salesperson, the first step to improving a sales skill is to identify it. You want to start a development plan that addresses the skill that, if improved, would have the greatest positive impact on the salesperson’s results. Removing the biggest blocker not only lets the salesperson improve the skill, but it also provides them with greater confidence (an important character trait). A new salesperson will wonder, “Can you teach me how to sell?” A clearly designed development plan reassures them that the answer is yes.
You need not be fancy when designing a development plan. You can start by looking at the training content available, the books that provide relevant guidance, or any other resources that might help develop the skill. By blocking off 30 minutes a week to study and work on development, the salesperson can work begin to improve their sales approach.
Most of us believe it is our natural right to have an easy button, the sales-skills-for-dummies approach to development, but developing sales skills requires something more than passive listening. The check-box training we are most familiar with is of limited value for development.
Step Two: Practice in the Field
It is possible to understand the concept and desired outcome of a skill well enough to easily pass a test on it—even if you still lack the actual skill. The theory and the concept are not enough to create competency.
The only way to improve a sales skill is to practice it while sitting across from a contact. This is where sales organizations make the mistake when training. While a sales leader may be adept at transferring information, they don't do enough to enable the behavioral changes the salesperson needs to improve. It is not uncommon to ignore the sales manager’s role in helping the salesperson implement the changes they need to truly apply the skill.
Step Three: Repeat the Process
When a salesperson has developed competence in the skill they’re focusing on in their development plan, the results will reflect that. As the person begins to practice the skill in the field, their outcomes should improve in a measurable way. Once you are certain a salesperson has developed that skill to a meaningful degree, revisit their development plan. As they make progress, the biggest obstacle to improving their results should change. What was once their weakest skill may no longer be holding them back. That is a sign that it might be time to refocus on the next skill that, if developed, would have the biggest impact on their results.
Unaddressed Skills and Poor Results
In The Only Sales Guide You'll Ever Need, you will find new skills for B2B salespeople. The first and most important is business acumen. One reason salespeople have problems creating and winning new deals is because their clients need them to be more like business advisors. A business advisor needs to know enough about business to advise. The salesperson who isn't interested in business will have a difficult time creating value for their clients.
Another underdeveloped skill in B2B sales is change management. It's important to recognize the opportunity that you find in your CRM as your client's change initiative. The salesperson is part of that change initiative, even if they are unaware of it and unprepared to provide the help their clients need. Part of this change management is building consensus, a difficult charge for a leader and an even more challenging task for a salesperson. Most sales organizations haven't yet enabled change management or consensus building, even though both are well-recognized needs.
The client hopes the salesperson they are meeting with has greater knowledge and experience, and can help lead them to the better results they need. This is what we describe as being One-Up, and you can find more on this concept in Elite Sales Strategies: A Guide to Being One-Up, Creating Value, and Becoming Truly Consultative. Too many salespeople believe they need to be compliant, following the client's lead. The salesperson who sells something every day has far greater experience knowing what conversations their clients need to understand when it comes to changing and improving their results.
Getting Started on Improving Sales Skills
The how-to of improving sales skills starts by identifying the sales skill that, when developed, will most improve results. Once you have identified that sales skill, you need to build a development plan that includes training, coaching, and practice in the field. Development takes time, but it also builds skills that provide the salesperson with greater sales effectiveness. The reason a sales organization cannot execute their sales strategy is that they haven't done the work to enable it.
Improving sales skills needs to be extended to the new sales skills that B2B salespeople need for today's uncertain environment. The sooner you develop sales skills, the sooner you'll have sales success.