sales skills - Duck on a agility course with a sheep dog

How do I develop the sales skills of my team?

The shape of your sales team and the mix of sales skills needed must reflect your business and the clients you serve.

Where and how you invest in developing your salespeople will also be unique to you.

Making the wrong choice offers a plethora of bespoke ways of wasting your time and money on the wrong learning, the wrong person or the wrong skills. 

Using a Training Needs Analysis (TNA) helps ensure that who is involved and which sales skills are being developed actually reflect the specific requirements of your business, now and for the future.

Look for the root cause of the training need

It’s worth remembering that what you identify as a lack of sales skill may be a symptom of something else and not the actual root cause. It’s worth the time and effort to observe what’s going on from a number of perspectives and in a number of different contexts before you reach a conclusion.  

On first inspection, you might be tempted to train your team who struggle with converting new enquiries into a sale with a series of funky closing techniques to transform these conversations into new orders. 

But if on closer inspection you discover that the quality of sales leads they are working with is below par. Or their ability to listen and influence a conversation is poor. Or they have poor rapport and are telling rather than listening and questioning; then loading in a new set of closing techniques as sales skills will change nothing. 

Other than your bank balance.

If you dig deeper, you might discover that the amount of time your team actually spend answering calls is low because of other complicated processes they are trying to navigate internally; or that they lack the resilience to deal with rejection and are struggling to bounce back. 

The addition of new closing techniques will make no difference to any of these. It could actually make things much worse. 

If the root cause is a lack of empathy and rapport, sprinkling slick closing techniques into the end of the sales conversation is guaranteed to provoke further disenchantment from prospective clients and your conversion ratios will change for the worse.

A simple Training Needs Analysis (TNA)

These can become extraordinarily unwieldy in the wrong hands but at their simplest they are inviting a comparison between what your business needs in terms of sales skills and competence versus what you actually have in reality.

For example:

Sales RolePriority H:M:LRapportClosing the saleListeningQuestioning
Role ARequiredHHHH
Role BRequiredHHHH
Role CRequiredHHHH

A four step approach:

  1. What are the crucial sales skills and knowledge required in your sales team?
  2. What would you be seeing if your business purpose was being lived every day and your clients were being successfully managed in this way? 
  3. Identify what’s currently happening within your team regarding these skills.
  4. Prioritise the areas of critical need first. 

Developing sales skills in your team:

How you go about developing these will differ depending upon what is needed the most.

In the example above Listening and Questioning are identified as high priority for all 3 roles but in practice have been assessed as being medium or low. 

It may be that one intervention could address both skills. However, it could also be true that a focus on purely listening skills and developing real empathetic deep listening would enable your team to ask really great questions. They would then better understand the needs of clients and be able to explore these with greater depth and accuracy. 

The demonstration of low questioning skills in the team could therefore be either a real lack of questioning skills – not knowing how to ask effective open questions, ones that probe for more details, or a closed one to confirm understanding. 

Or it could be they have all of the questioning skills they need, but their inability to listen means that the appropriate questions are never asked. 

If the team in the example were trained first to close sales but were left still unable to listen deeply, they would leave that workshop with a set of skills and techniques that helped them ask for the order and perhaps overcome objections.

But would they have any better listening skills? Would they be able to hear and recognise uncertainty in the voice of their client or sense nervousness within an answer? Would they be able to distinguish between a committed yes and a maybe yes from a tone of voice? And would they know exactly what to say to respond? It’s unlikely.

A focus on talent

You have talent in your sales team too. Remember to use it. 

An alternative view to the skills-gap methodology challenges this by inviting you to focus on leveraging the talent in your salespeople instead. Ensuring those that have it are given every opportunity to deploy it.

At its most extreme, it argues that your limited funds are best spent accelerating talent ahead of trying to ensure everyone in your sales team reaches a minimum acceptable level of competence in other skills. The argument being – why pursue a state of general mediocrity across a team and risk dumbing down the brightest?

It’s not that black and white for SME business owners.

You’ll have people in your sales team that may have been with you for years. They love your business almost as much as you do but are struggling more and more to deliver sales growth. Maybe they’ve never been trained, and a TNA coupled with specific help will transform them.

If that’s the case, wouldn’t you want to try?

Inevitably, it’s going to be a mix of both.

Final food for thought:

Developing sales skills is only part of developing the capability and effectiveness of a sales team. 

They also need the correct knowledge. Of your products, your solutions, your clients, of how to calculate discount, set up a contract etc. etc. Without this, even a salesperson with acutely developed skills will fail, because they lack the information required to succeed.

Your sales team needs good judgement too. Commercial judgement to understand the implications of a negotiation or a discount before they begin. Not in hindsight, after your profit has left the building arm in arm with Elvis. A judgement that also enables them to make good decisions about the risks they take with your business and your clients.

And your sales team needs the right attitude. A salesperson who is upbeat, committed and curious to learn will continue to work hard in spite of not having all of the skills required. The opposite is also true. No amount of brilliantly well-trained and developed skills will compensate for a salesperson who’s decided they don’t want to be part of your future, or can’t be bothered to do their admin correctly or support their colleagues when your sales results are down.

This is why understanding the root cause of what you observe is important in helping you determine where to invest in learning and what shape that learning needs to be.

Knowing this before you commit will ensure you’re spending your money wisely and spending it only once.