Sales is a unique profession in that the base success drivers are transferrable regardless of your specific situation. It doesn’t really matter what industry you’re in, or what product or service you’re selling — the foundational elements ring true.
In my experience, there are three skills that are most important, and these separate good sales reps from great sales reps. The relative ranking of these will fluctuate depending on the environment, but all three are critical.
Sales is essentially a trust profession. You must build trust and you must be credible, and knowledge is critical to both of these ends. Without deep, context-heavy knowledge, you will erode your credibility with every interaction, and you simply won’t be able to build enough trust to challenge your prospect’s perspective of their issues and opportunities.
Early in most sales rep’s careers, they lean on company-specific knowledge (product or service related) while developing their sales skills, and this is a good thing. However, you need more. Here are other key knowledge areas to master:
- Industry knowledge. Reps need to understand the most relevant issues/trends within the industries they sell into. It’s always good to understand the history of the industry’s growth as well as the most meaningful factors impacting current state. Both history and recency matter.
- Market/Competitive knowledge. Reps need to deeply understand the market within which they compete. Competitive positioning is key — not feature differentiation, but value differentiation. But note that this knowledge should always be used for good and not evil. Knowing where your competitors fall short should inform your discovery process, not set you up to send a bunch of shots across the bow.
- Product knowledge. Yes, it’s important to know your stuff.
And don’t make the mistake of thinking you can build trust and credibility with statements. Odds are, if you’ve done your homework, you’ll have reams of data to share. Don’t. The only truly effective way to do build credibility is through the quality of your discovery. Statements create distance, questions build connections.
2) Demand Generation
The ability to generate and leverage demand efficiently also separates good reps from great. Fire-starters enjoy competitive advantage in their sales careers and most often get the best roles with the best companies, and for good reason.
Not too many years ago, demand generation was about volume of activity and persistence. But today, creating demand is about leveraging data to zero in on the very best fit prospects. Technologies and marketing best practices that help to identify a buyer’s level of engagement and interest allow reps to align messaging and connect value to need. Connecting at the right time with the right content and the right context is the best way to build demand.
And this extends beyond the current month or quarter. The best fire-starters understand that the quality and consistency of today’s effort lays the foundation of future success. By managing both the near- and long-term, they keep their pipelines perpetually full.
How do you know you’re effectively generating and leveraging demand? Results, yes. But beyond results, you’ll know you’re doing a great job when the best fit companies in your territory call you directly, not your company. They want to speak specifically with you because you have shared valuable content and perspective and have already begun to build trust.
3) The Ability to Create a Compelling Future State
Buying decisions are about choosing change, and we generally do not like change unless it is positively, absolutely, unequivocally necessary.
It would be great if all sales engagements looked like this, but the vast majority do not. A sales professional must be able to paint a picture of a bright new future — one that’s indisputably better than the prospect’s status quo and that of the alternatives.
A compelling future state covers three perspectives:
- Personal/Emotional. How does the buyer’s world change? What will it feel like when your product or service is up and running smoothly? Will she get time back? Will he look great in front of his peers or boss? Will this set her up for the next step in her career? Will he have the opportunity to be a case study? If the buyer sees more personal gain than risk, you have a good chance of working together.
- Transformational/Operational. This is where you get to demonstrate how well you understand the buyer’s current state and its limitations. Is there an issue the prospect can’s solve currently, or an opportunity they can’t take advantage of? Visuals are important here — graphical representations of current and future workflows are almost always more effective than text or talk.
- Return on Investment. Most often this is represented as financial return, but can also involve returns around culture, brand, corporate goodwill, etc. Ideally you’ve tested your assumptions along the way with a coach or supporter, but regardless, you need to have a reasonable and well-articulated position here. At the very least it provides a healthy opportunity to discuss the positive impact of the proposed change.
If you’ve covered all three elements of creating a compelling future state, you’ve now got a fighting chance at overcoming the inertia of status quo.
These are the three skills that I believe excellent reps possess in spades. Do you agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.