Sales mastery 2015 – a horse of a different color


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Sales Mastery 2015

Sales Mastery 2015

According to Bain & Company, B2B sales executives have seen tremendous disruption   in how customers buy in recent years – and they see no reason to think it won’t continue.

And if buyers change how they buy – salespeople need to change how they sell.

How well are companies meeting the challenge?  The folks at Bain surveyed 550 B2B sales executives.  The overarching finding was – “few companies are completely prepared for the changes taking place.”

There are a variety of perspectives from which to view this challenge.  Let’s focus on what it means relative to the skills of the sales team.  First, what did the survey have to say about sales skills?

  • Only 40% said their sales reps have a strong understanding of their company’s differentiation.
  • Almost one-third said the majority of their sales reps do not have the requisite skills.
  • Three-quarters have made significant investments in technology – but less than a third have realized marked improvements in sales effectiveness from those investments.

As they say – not so good.  If a company is going to among the winners in today’s disruptive market, they will not only need a sales team that is better at doing what they are doing, but one capable of doing something different.  This will require a new and different skill set – “a horse of a different color.

If one believes the “horse with a different color” message, then the question for those of us concerned about the field of sales training becomes: What are we going to do about that?  What do we think companies should do in addition to training in foundational sales skills to help sales reps adjust and adapt to the changes in the buying environment?

Is it about coming up with higher impact instructional designs for delivering the same content?  Is it coming up with more advanced models for framing the existing content?  Or is there an entirely new set of sales skills that require greater attention?  Or, perhaps we should just wait for a revolutionary technology to emerge from our colleagues in educational technology?

What to do is not so easy and there may be more then one right answer.  But one thing for sure – simply doing the same old, same old is not going to carry the day.  And of course re-labeling what we are doing and calling it new is even worse.

So how do you select the right colors?

To get the discussion going we suggest the focus should be on new content – a different set of skills then traditionally addressed in sales training programs.  What are the guideposts that could be used to determine what that new content might be?  Two make the short list.

  • Customer Expectations.  First, focus on how customers are buying in today’s market. Today what customers expect from salespeople is changing dramatically.  Customers want sales reps to be trusted advisors not product facilitators.  Customers need fresh ideas and creative insights for addressing a set of needs and opportunities that are both new and challenging. They expect sales reps to be knowledgeable about their industry, company, and issues at a higher level of proficiency than ever before.  They expect insights not product pitches.
  • World-of-work.  Second, tune into the changes in the background and expectations of the people that are becoming new sales reps in 2015 and how these people are likely to function in today’s world-of-work.

What does the horse look like?

So what might be some of the subject areas that could be incorporated into future sales training programs that would help sale reps adjust and adapt to the changing market demands?  Recently we came across an interesting article in HBR Review that explored the top 10 most important work skills in 2020.   We borrowed from the list those we thought would be particularly important for salespeople and then added a few of our own.  Let’s take a look:

  • Business Acumen.  Being able to integrate a business and economic perspective into customer interactions.
  • Adaptive Thinking.  Coming up with creative and innovative solutions that are not rule-based.
  • Computational Thinking.  Being able to translate vast amounts of data into useful information.
  • Virtual Collaboration.  Working effectively and efficiently as a member of a virtual group.
  • Transdisciplinary Competency.  Knowing how to integrate knowledge and concepts across disciplines and areas of expertise.
  • New Media Literacy.  Being able to leverage new media technologies for creating and delivering persuasive conversations.

But to borrow a phrase, these skills are “necessary, but not sufficient.”  A study by Millennial Branding and American Express, for example, reported that 61 percent of the managers surveyed felt that soft skills were more important in new hires than hard skills, or even technical skills.

The study goes on to report the soft skills most often cited as critical to success.  Although the report was focusing on professionals in general, we thought the work held merit for those concerned about doing something different in Sales.

  • Communication.  Communication moves beyond sending emails, texts, and Instagrams. Everyone inside companies must be able to effectively engage people face-to-face. Nowhere is this more critical than for salespeople who must engage a wide variety of customers across a varied set of situations.
  • Flexibility.  Flexibility provides some unique challenges for salespeople. Beyond simply being flexible about schedules and responsibilities, salespeople increasingly are being called on to marshal and leverage internal resources and to be part of – or manage – sales teams.  In today’s environment salespeople are required to play different roles at different times during the sales process.
  • Positivity.  Salespeople need to learn how to leverage praise from people for what they do and avoid overreacting to criticism and bad news. But, salespeople have a special challenge – not only do they have to work with colleagues, they also have to work with prospects and customers where it’s easy to say “yes” – but yes is not always the right answer. Salespeople must learn how to effectively say “no” or disagree or present a different view to prospects and customers and have the customer view that interaction positively.
  • Confidence.  Confidence is an underpinning of every salesperson’s success. Salespeople must learn to display confidence – it’s at the heart of building their credibility and credibility is a key for success. When someone is new to a company or new to sales, building confidence and credibility can be tough to do. One answer is leveraging your company’s capabilities and success stories until you develop your own tales of success.

If one believes the soft skill story, then a challenge emerges for sales managers.  The first part of the challenge is to recognize these capabilities are not inherent traits but learnable skills.  Second, it’s likely that many salespeople will not develop these soft skills on their own. As a matter of fact in some situations, time may actually degrade the skill.  For example, a salesperson could very easily lose confidence due to failures vs. learning from the failures as to what to do next time.

And finally … Overall when looking at what needs to be done, one thing that will not be different as the future unfolds is the importance of sales coaching.  If we want a “horse of a different color” sales coaching will be more important than ever.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Richard Ruff
For more than 30 years Richard Ruff has worked with the Fortune 1000 to craft sales training programs that make a difference. Working with market leaders Dick has learned that today's great sales force significantly differs from yesterday. So, Sales Momentum offers firms effective sales training programs affordably priced. Dick is the co-author of Parlez-Vous Business, to help sales people have smart business conversations with customers, and the Sales Training Connection.


  1. Dick – that one-third of companies said that the majority of their salespeople lack requisite skills [to sell] troubles me, though it’s consistent with other studies I’ve read. Imagine the public outcry if that finding matched assessments of medical practitioners or airline pilots. It speaks to two issues:

    1) Waste. Businesses squander billions of dollars of investment in ineffective sales training and sales force development.
    2) Lack of commitment. Businesses consider salespeople cheap and expendable. Churn due to failure is just an expected byproduct of maintaining a sales force.

    I agree with your assessment of needed selling skills. As you point out, companies are moving toward collaboration in business development, and away from the lone-wolf archetype that dominated in my early sales career. With good reason. Finding, or even developing, the ideal combination of competencies in one person might be the equivalent of discovering the Mother Teresa of selling.

  2. Andrew

    Yes, your point about lack of commitment seems particularly important. Not sure why that is but it is a reality.

    One guess is that a lot of folks do not truly appreciate what a difference a “really skilled salesperson” can make. When you actually observe excellence in action it is a beauty to behold and the customer impact is stunning

    Thanks for the comments


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