If you ask that question of ten different sales people, you’ll get twelve different answers. Try Googling “sales skills” and see what comes up.
What doesn’t come up is any consistency whatsoever. You’ll find everything from “managing the buyer/seller relationship” to “good listening” to “controlling your state of mind.” At just the first four hits, there are twenty-one different skills, with only six of those appearing on two or more sites. With this kind of latitude, I could classify good grooming as a sales skill. The only clarity gained here is that everyone has an opinion about the critical sales skills, and we don’t agree too often.
Now, each and every one of those twenty-one skills are valid and important (although “having more fun” is really a universal skill, not so much sales-specific, and one I try to practice at every opportunity), but aren’t these really more techniques that you practice rather than skills that you learn? The dictionary defines “skill” as “the ability, coming from one’s knowledge, practice, aptitude, etc. to do something well.”
To be really useful, we have to look at sales skills as they apply to the actual act of selling something, not to getting dressed in the morning. That is, how do these skills fit into my sales process?
Looked at this way, there are three fundamental sales skills, and all the others can be organized under these three headings. These skills reflect your ability to understand and use the customer’s buying process to your advantage. Yes, your customer has a methodology, too, and he is using it on you to close his deal to his advantage. (If you’re interested in more information about the buying process, take a look at Neil Rackham’s book Major Account Sales Strategy.)
Skill 1 – Probing. Ask questions, challenge answers, really listen to the customer, think about the information acquired, and then turn it into knowledge.
Skill 2 – Proving. With the knowledge gained, select the best solution(s) for your customer and present them in a compelling way.
Skill 3 – Closing. When the time is right, ask for the business in an appropriate way. Use objections to fine tune your offer, and ask again.
These three skills are used with varying emphasis throughout the sales cycle. At the very beginning, you would be predominantly probing to learn everything that you can about the customer, their needs, their organization, budget, schedule, competition, etc. But you are also proving, although not in a specific way because it would be sales suicide to start demoing your solution before you’ve learned about the customer’s needs. At this stage, even your business card is an act of proving.
And so on throughout the sales cycle. As you learn more, you probe less. As you fully present your solution, you start to close. In fact, the sales cycle itself can be broken into stages defined by the application of the appropriate skill.
The first stage is predominantly Probing with a little Proving. As you progress and learn and plan, you Prove much more and still Probe. Finally, there comes a time when you Close, still Proving as you encounter obstacles and Probing a little to be sure your knowledge is accurate and nothing has changed.
So all those little skills, those techniques, can be categorized under these three sales skills. And these three are the only ones you’ll need.
Go ahead – name a sales skill that doesn’t fit.