5 Base-level Skills Every Salesperson Should HaveOct 10, 2023
In the evolving world of B2B sales, success is often a game of inches, with wins against competitors by the smallest of margins. Customers are overloaded with choices and information and decisions are stalling out at alarming rates, with more than half of deals being lost to no decision. Today's sales professionals must possess a repertoire of fundamental skills to stand out against competitors and win more often. With that in mind, here are 5 base-level skills every salesperson should master.
Many of today’s buyers assume sellers do not have their best interests in mind. Earning and keeping buyer trust can help differentiate the salesperson versus other suppliers. We wrote in The JOLT Effect1 about the “principal-agent problem,” also referred to as the agency dilemma2, a well-documented phenomenon when one person (the agent) is able to make decisions on behalf of another (the principal). The breakdown in trust comes when an incentive misalignment or conflict of interest causes the principal to believe that the agent is making decisions that benefit only themselves. In sales, this leads to buyers assuming sellers are keeping key bits of information from them or attempting to oversell what is actually needed or will be used.
On a broader level, societal trust in institutions continues on a secular decline. Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer, a global survey of more than 32,000 people, showed less than half of respondents feel that businesses are a reliable source of trustworthy information. This global trend, it turns out, has equally impacted how key decision makers view potential vendors; a separate survey we conducted of roughly 100 C-level executives revealed that only 10% of respondents said that their trust in suppliers has increased over the past five years.
In The JOLT Effect we shared four examples of what a seller can do to earn a buyer’s trustworthiness:
Tell the customer what not to buy
Buyers often feel overwhelmed by all the options available to them; successful sellers listen to the buyer’s needs and are able to make solid recommendations, not only suggesting not only what the customer should buy, but also what to avoid.
Acknowledge what the seller’s solution can’t do
Post-purchase regret can hurt the relationship and dampen growth opportunities if the salesperson overpromises and under delivers.
Recognize the competitor’s strengths
Acknowledging when a competitor’s product or service may be a better fit for the client’s needs is a great way to show transparency and the buyer that the salesperson has their best interest in mind.
Admit when the seller doesn’t know the answer
Sellers should seek to demonstrate expertise where possible, but don’t fake it when they don’t know the answer. Being open to admitting to not knowing the answer to a question helps set the buyer’s mind at ease that they aren’t being misled.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But sellers should seek to find ways to earn trust and stand out against their competitors.
Personalize The Experience
In “The Challenger Sale”, a “challenger” salesperson is defined by their ability to do 3 things: teach, tailor, and take control. Salespeople must have the ability to connect the dots between their company’s offerings and the buyer’s organization. Salespeople need to understand the buyer’s organization and what makes their product a good fit. Salespeople should put themselves in the shoes of the employee at the buyer’s company, asking themselves what they would be thinking if they worked there, and then conduct their interactions as such. For example, salespeople should start using terminology or language that the buyer’s company might use, helping the buyer feel like the salesperson is listening and truly understands where they are coming from.
Demonstrating thoughtfulness is another way to personalize the experience. This can be as simple as sending an article to a prospect with an added preface in an email that explains “here’s why I thought of you for this…”. This approach feels less generic and more proactive, and helps the buyer feel like it will be a good use of their time to read the piece or contemplate the idea.
Make A Recommendation
Another skill that is imperative to battling customer indecision, is the practice of making a recommendation. Successful salespeople treat the customer as if they were their best friend; they ask themselves how they would steward their own friend through the process, helping the buyer make a decision.
A recommendation also communicates to the buyer that the salesperson is willing to hold themselves accountable if the suggestion does not work, similar to a waiter at a restaurant suggesting which meal to order off the menu. Instead of having the buyer choose between multiple options, the salesperson is saying, “You should do ‘this’, and I’m willing to take the blame if ‘this’ isn’t a good fit.” A thought-through, confident recommendation lowers customer indecision, because they no longer feel like they’ll be blamed for making the wrong choice.
In the research conducted for our 2022 book “The JOLT Effect”, expectation setting was the most impactful variable in our predictive model— and by a wide margin.
Timing is crucial when it comes to expectation setting, and the earlier they are set the better. If a seller waits to set expectations until much later in the process, it may already be too late. Buyers tend to formulate opinions early in the process, and it can be very challenging to reset expectations later, when a customer has already made up their mind about what they think they are going to be able to do with the product.
Too often, salespeople suffer from the“bobblehead” effect, where a seller acts like their product can do anything the buyer wants it to do. The seller ends up saying “yes” to everything the buyer is asking (hence the bobblehead analogy), and gets into a situation where they have over promised, but risk underdelivering.
Instead, sellers should ground the buyer in practical, achievable, and realistic expectations. Trust us — buyers will appreciate the honesty.
Balance the Use of Tension
The final skill that all successful salespeople need to master is knowing how and in what manner to properly apply tension in a buyer/seller relationship.
In “The Challenger Sale”, Matt and Brent shared how sellers assert control of a situation. Tension — when used constructively — can be used as a way to disrupt the customer’s thinking. This application of tension can help customers appreciate why change is necessary, and can be a useful way to get buyers out of their comfort zone. This is a classic way to dial up the FOMO (fear of missing out) and create urgency for change.
Overcoming customer indecision, though, is far more about dialing down the fear of purchase to reduce FOMU (fear of messing up). Tension used incorrectly can backfire, if it results in scaring an already fearful buyer. Reps should balance the way tension is used. One example of using tension, but for the purposes of reducing FOMU, is using radical candor in situations where it’s clear the buyer has entered the zone of analysis paralysis and no further purchase exploration will change their decision calculus. It may feel uncomfortable calling a timeout and having an honest and frank conversation about what the buyer is aiming to accomplish. But that type of use of tension can be used judiciously to reduce rather than raise buyer fear.
See Matthew Dixon and Ted McKenna, The JOLT Effect: How High Performers Overcome Customer Indecision (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2022).
See Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, “Agency Theory: An Assessment and Review,” Academy of Management Review 14, no. 1 (1989): 57-74.