Our work is based on two pillars: skill and will. We help salespeople develop the skillset and the mindset they need to succeed in sales. But what are the essential sales skills that every salesperson should have in today’s world?
The sales landscape is constantly changing with new technologies, new buyer preferences, new competitors, and new uncertainties. To stay ahead, salespeople need to be adaptable and flexible. But they also need some basic skills that enable them to create value for their customers, build strong relationships, and thrive in any situation.
We asked our team members— Joyce Hames, Dave Larter, Steve Schmidt, Elisa Matthews, and Mike Fisher-- what they think are the core sales skills of world-class salespeople. They have seen these skills in action, working with clients, and in sales training sessions. They told us that these are the sales skills that help top performers deal with volatility and ambiguity, connect with their customers, and deliver results, day after day.
#1. Prospecting Skills
Prospecting is a key skill for salespeople who want to fill their pipelines and reach target buyers. High-performing salespeople can create new opportunities with prospects through valuable conversations via different channels and by discovering the needs of those prospects. These opportunities tend to have higher chances of closing.
But many salespeople struggle with prospecting. They don’t do it enough or they don’t do it well. They may know that prospecting is important, but they don’t act on it. They may lack confidence in their skills. This affects their motivation and their behavior. To overcome these challenges, they need to learn what prospecting is and how to do it effectively. This will boost confidence and motivation to follow through and see the results.
Networking is a vital skill for salespeople who want to connect with potential buyers and influencers, but many salespeople don’t know how to do it well. They may have lost their skill and confidence as networking has moved more to the online world.
LinkedIn is a powerful tool for sales prospecting and networking, but it’s not enough to just use it. Skilled social selling networkers know that they can’t just post their content and hope to get a new client. They understand that LinkedIn audiences are like most people today: “They don’t want to be told, and they don’t want to be sold.” according to Sam McKenna, CEO of #SamSales.
#3 Pre-Call Sales Planning and Preparation
Successful salespeople don’t rely on luck or improvisation. They plan, prepare, and do the work to make sure their sales calls achieve their goals. Joyce Hames calls it “the opposite of ‘shooting from the hip.’”
That planning includes everything from researching the company and the stakeholders’ needs to gathering relevant materials to making sure technology and systems are ready to deliver a smooth presentation. It also includes mental preparation that allows them to anticipate potential questions or challenges and stay calm and energized throughout.
Pre-call planning and preparation is a skill that requires discipline and consistency-- even with existing clients. It provides direction and a guide for a successful call.
Dave Larter notes, “Some salespeople who have a long-time relationship with a client may skip the rapport-building stage every time they interact. They want to ‘get to the point.’ But you always need to take a moment to focus on the other person or people, get centered to tune out the world, and tune in to them.” Pre-call planning makes that possible.
Communication is the essence of sales. Top performers always keep their communication skills sharp and up to date, especially with all the different ways we can connect with others — and the different preferences they may have for communicating.
Hames points out that you can’t just be good at face-to-face communication. “The best salespeople know how to create connection in any form of communication, whether it’s face to face, video conference, phone, email or any other method.”
Part of a salesperson’s role is to help the client reach agreement, prioritization, and urgency among all the key stakeholders. That’s why communication skills include the ability to simplify complex problems for different audiences.
Steve Schmidt says that successful salespeople use proven frameworks to support and improve their communication skills. One example is the Behavior Styles model, which helps you understand your own communication preferences and how others may see you. “More importantly, it helps you identify and adapt to other people,” he says. “The goal is to make every interaction better.”
Another example is a sales communication framework that provides a process and a roadmap for effective communication — “a trail to the sale,” as Schmidt calls it. This helps guide communication in a logical, productive way and creates a common sales language across the organization.
“A logical, easy-to-apply model ensures a consultative selling process, provides consistency for a sales team, and creates a common language, which also makes coaching easier,” he says.
#5 Trust Building
Before you can sell anything, you need to create a connection with your potential customer. They need to feel that you care about their problems and goals, not just your own sales quota. This is true even (and especially) when you’re selling online, where you have less time and opportunity to make a good impression.
You need to adapt your communication style to match your potential customer’s style. You also need to listen to their concerns and desires, and show them that you understand them. This way, you can lower their resistance and start building trust.
To become a trusted advisor, salespeople need to offer valuable advice, not just products or services. Customers need to believe that they are respected and appreciated, that their best interests are prioritized, and that they can rely on the salesperson’s honesty.
This means thinking long-term and seeing customers as partners, not just prospects. It means being curious and empathetic, and trying to see things from their perspective. A simple phrase like, “So what I hear you saying is…,” can make a big difference.
Listening is a vital part of communication, but many salespeople neglect it in their enthusiasm and eagerness to present their offerings and how they can help the customer. But customers want to do business with someone who “gets” them... and getting them requires active listening.
Elisa Matthews says the most successful salespeople stand out because they can “Listen, really listen. And it’s listening to understand, not listening just to interrupt and reply. There’s a difference, and it matters to the customer who wants to feel heard and valued.”
As Schmidt says, “We have two ears and one mouth for a reason. It’s easier to persuade someone by listening than by talking. This skill prevents the tendency to overwhelm the customer with product features and involves them in a more honest and mutual discovery.”
One of the secrets of effective listening is being okay with moments of silence. “Oftentimes, people will reveal more information when they have space to think and reflect on what they’ve just said. The words ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ are anagrams — to be a good listener, we need to learn how to be quiet first.”
The top salespeople have a natural curiosity that helps them ask great questions. And these are not typical “sales” questions, learned by heart from the textbook.
“It’s about asking open-ended questions and well-timed ‘digging deeper’ questions to be stimulating,” says Hames. Being good at it depends on that essential skill of pausing and listening.
“Remember it is not the number of questions that you ask, but the quality of questions that connect with the customer at a deeper level than the competition,” Larter says.
In fact, mastering the skill of asking great questions will give you a clear competitive edge. As Schmidt notes, “Going beyond the basics to improve your question not only shows your expertise and understanding of a specific company or industry, it also builds trust, as you broaden and deepen the quality of the ‘interview."
Stories are much more memorable and persuasive than facts or bullet points. That’s because stories activate your whole brain, not just the parts that process language. Storytelling is one of the sales skills that brings an emotional element, making your buyers feel closer to you and what you’re saying, and that starts to build trust.
Stories also help uncover a customer’s pain points in ways that simple yes-no questions cannot. You’re making it easy for them to acknowledge the problem because now they know someone else faced the same challenge. That in turn creates an opportunity for you to discuss solutions to those challenges.
Selling is about finding out what someone wants or needs and then creating value for them. When you see it as a mutual benefit activity, both sides win. You are not convincing, you’re focused on making sure your solutions are a match. You’re solving problems and helping people achieve their individual goals-- including recognizing when a customer has problems you can’t help them with.
That’s quite different from the usual definition that sales is about making people buy what we have to offer.
#10 Sales Demonstrating
Top salespeople show their sales demonstration skills in several ways, mainly, in their ability to be patient and not jump to this step in the sales process until they’ve established trust and identified needs.
The demonstrating phase is for showing benefits and features in relation to how they meet the needs the customer has expressed. It’s not a non-stop feature dump.
Great salespeople will first remind the customer of the most important needs they shared and then explore how their product, service, process or other offering can directly address those needs. After that, they’ll share additional features and benefits that are also part of the solution.
Just as important, if their offering is not the best solution for the customer’s wants and needs, they’re honest and clear about it. That’s what integrity in selling is all about.
#11 Product Knowledge
Being able to recite product features and benefits is not selling. In fact, it’s not what buyers want to hear about at first. But of course, at some point you need to know the details of what you’re presenting. Potential customers can find a lot of information online today about what you’re selling. If you don’t know more than them about your products, you’ll quickly lose credibility.
High-performing salespeople are eager to learn as much as they can, not just about the solutions but also about their impact — the stories of how they’re helping customers and their businesses.
This builds confidence and improves their ability to demonstrate benefits, and it also strengthens their belief in the value of what they’re selling. That’s a powerful part of the motivation that drives their energy and, ultimately, helps them win more clients.
Closing a deal is not about using a strategy to make people say “yes.” On the other hand, some salespeople can be afraid to ever ask for a commitment to move forward. But top salespeople see closing as an attitude and another step in working together and solving problems with a buyer rather than a strategy to ‘win’.
They simply ask for a decision when the person is clearly ready to say “yes.” The selling has already been done by then.
If they do get a negative response, then they know they still have some work to do to understand needs, feelings, or concerns; listen to help and reduce the natural resistance to make a decision; or discover any new insights. Mike Fisher says this often comes back to the “interview” step in the sales process. The salesperson may not have fully grasped the customer’s needs or didn’t find out who the decision-makers were, for example.
Rather than trying to change someone’s mind at that point, smart salespeople will identify what step they skipped and try to complete it. They see objections as a gift- a clear sign that the buyer needs more information or clarity to confidently move ahead. They’re also aware that sometimes you can, and sometimes you can’t.
#13 Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence or EQ— the ability to understand your own emotions and those of others and how they affect your behaviors— is essential for a high-stress job like sales, where you face rejection often. People with high emotional intelligence are better able to cope with negative emotions, resistance to change, and other obstacles to success.
“High EQ helps you to take rejections as a professional challenge, not a personal attack,” says Matthews. “Salespeople with high EQ realize that when a customer raises a concern or objection, they are not rejecting you, they are expressing something they may not fully comprehend. So instead of being quick to reply with more information, they’ll ask a question to understand their why.”
It’s also about, as Fisher says, “being able to read a room.” Successful salespeople are keen observers. They notice facial expressions, gestures, tone, and body language. Even when they can’t see the person face-to-face, they’re constantly paying attention and picking up cues that help them understand where they might need to adjust or reinforce.
Relationships are the foundation of consultative selling, and as sales become more complex and involve more stakeholders, that network of relationships is expanding and diversifying.
Winning salespeople know that, especially with larger deals, they can’t just depend on their single point of contact; they have to establish trust and create relationships with people across the customer organization, including multiple decision-makers and influencers. This is also how they’re able to sell more and better to existing accounts.
#15 Time Management
Time management is a lot of work, but it’s also one of the most important sales skills, says Fisher, who adds, “Many salespeople simply aren’t good at it.”
Matthew Dicks, author of the book, “Someday is Today,” notes that “A big part of time management is self-care— taking care of yourself, your mindset, how you’re feeling about things. The pursuit of perfection is a waste of time, and yet people do it all the time.” This focus on the outcome versus the process can be stressful and discouraging.
Instead, successful salespeople focus on creating productive habits and making each step along the way the best possible step it can be. By breaking the process down into smaller pieces, it becomes more doable and less daunting. As a result, they’re able to resist the temptation of procrastination and use time others might be losing.
“We don’t get to choose the outcomes,” Dicks reminds us, “but we have a lot of control over how we’re getting there, and that’s what we have to focus on.”
Time management skills also include being responsive and dependable. Customers expect to hear back from salespeople in a reasonable time, when they promised to get back to them and with what was agreed upon.
The key is not to schedule what’s important but to make your priorities your schedule.
Developing These Vital Sales Skills Will Boost Your Performance Now and in the Future
Sales has changed a lot in the past few years. The world’s best and most consistent salespeople excel with a mix of great skill set, mindset, and process. The balance and focus on all three must always be maintained. By constantly reviewing, emphasizing, and improving these 15 sales skills you’ll be able to meet the higher expectations of today’s buyers and be ready for whatever comes next. Your customers will appreciate all you have done to help them reach their goals.