Every salesperson wants to find more prospects and close more deals. But the path to sales success isn’t always straightforward. At least some of your success will depend on the quality of the product you’re selling, the strength of your organization as a whole, your sales skills, and timing—in other words, luck plays at least some role.
But even under the most oppressive conditions, good salespeople can find success. And even under the best possible conditions, inexperienced salespeople will struggle.
Over time, experience will help you grow as a salesperson. But you’ll grow much faster and in a way that closely aligns with your goals if you know how to direct your development.
That’s why I’ve developed this list of 23 vital sales skills that every salesperson must master to find success. List these sales skills on your résumé to impress your next boss!
Table of Contents
- The Most Important Skills for Sales Reps
- 1. Critical thinking.
- 2. Dynamic problem solving.
- 3. Negotiation.
- 4. Empathy.
- 5. Communication.
- 6. Active listening.
- 7. Eloquence.
- 8. Engagement.
- 9. Presentation ability.
- 10. Bonding.
- 11. Social signal reading.
- 12. Product knowledge.
- 13. Goal setting.
- 14. Time management.
- 15. Objection anticipation.
- 16. Objection management.
- 17. Prospect research.
- 18. Qualification.
- 19. Collaboration.
- 20. Coaching.
- 21. Closing.
- 22. Relationship management.
- 23. Adaptability.
- How to Improve Your Sales Skills
The Most Important Skills for Sales Reps
These are the most valuable sales skills for sales reps to master in their daily work:
1. Critical thinking.
Critical thinking is an important skill for any profession, so of course it’s valuable for salespeople. Critical thinking helps you evaluate situations with greater attention to detail, and an understanding of more variables. If employed consistently, critical thinking will help you anticipate issues, evaluate situations, and analyze past performances to improve. It’s also essential for noticing your own blind spots.
2. Dynamic problem solving.
Good salespeople are good problem solvers. Most importantly, this is because salespeople should try to solve problems for their prospects; how will your product solve a problem they face? However, problem solving skills can help you in many other areas of your job; for example, can you troubleshoot a malfunctioning piece of equipment on the fly? Can you resolve a scheduling issue in a way that makes everyone happy?
Of course, salespeople also need to be good negotiators. Negotiation is equal parts logic and emotion; you need to be able to run calculations on the fly to figure out what to offer next, but you also need to be able to read your opponent and manage your own feelings on the matter. Better negotiation means you’ll come out ahead on a bigger percentage of deals.
Empathy is something that happens naturally for most people, but it’s even more powerful if you train it as a skill. When you’re talking to prospects and customers, you need to be able to fully understand their feelings, and mirror those feelings when appropriate to do so. For example, you can express frustration when your customer doesn’t get the service they deserved. This makes you easier to connect with, and will help you close more sales and improve customer satisfaction at the same time.
Salespeople are communicators, first and foremost. They’ll be speaking with prospects, existing customers, supervisors, and even other salespeople on a regular basis. The better you are at communicating, the easier this job is going to be. Accordingly, we’re including some sub-skills from the “communication” category in the next few points. And be sure to see our full list of communication effectiveness skills!
6. Active listening.
Too many salespeople focus on talking, rather than listening—but listening is the key to making a sale. You have to understand what the customer wants, how they think, and what their possible objections will be. Also, by active listening, you’ll establish rapport with your customer, making them more likely to finalize the sale.
Eloquence is partially about using an elegant combination of words to express your point descriptively and concisely. But it’s also about responding to people in a calm, graceful way. If someone asks a challenging question, you need to be able to keep your cool and offer a thoughtful response. If you feel frustrated or stressed, you need to avoid making an emotional response. Good eloquence is a gateway to persuasion, especially in conjunction with the other skills on this list.
It’s not enough to simply talk to your prospects and customers; you have to engage with them. That means getting their attention, and making them feel both valued and heard. You can be more engaging by asking open ended questions, and by expressing genuine interest in people, while also using collaborative words, such as “we” or “together” instead of “you” or “I”. In fact, one study found that top salespeople are 10 times more likely to use collaborative words. Pay attention to your prospect’s mannerisms; do they seem involved in the conversation, or are they just going through the motions?
9. Presentation ability.
Many salespeople have to make sales presentations on a regular basis. That might mean giving a demo of a software product, giving a slideshow to big decision makers, or just running through the high points of your company’s products. In any case, you need to be able to present confidently and consistently, no matter who’s in the audience. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to overcome the need for practice and experience in this category.
You don’t need to emotionally bond to your customers to sell to them, but it certainly helps. Establishing a connection to a prospect will make them like you more, and set the foundation for a more productive conversation. You can bond with almost anyone if you know how to appeal to their personality and interests; it’s a skill you can learn over time.
11. Social signal reading.
Similarly, it pays to learn how to read social signals, like body language and tone. Most of us have some innate ability here, but it can always be improved. With better social signal reading abilities, salespeople can easily determine when a prospect is losing patience, or when they feel doubt about a product for the first time. This allows you to modify your approach on the fly, and deliver the best possible pitch in any situation. Be sure to see our guide to social selling!
12. Product knowledge.
You can’t sell a product unless you know what it is. If a customer catches you off guard with a question you don’t understand, they may question your knowledge or abilities—even worse, they may question the integrity of the product. You should know your company’s products inside and out before having your first conversation with any prospect or customer. Fortunately, this is one skill that’s easy to develop—it just requires a bit of time.
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13. Goal setting.
If you have the attitude that you want to generally improve, that’s a relatively good start, but you’re only going to make meaningful progress if you know how to set sales goals. You should be setting high-level goals for yourself as a salesperson (e.g., where do you want to be in five years) as well as low-level goals for yourself each day (e.g., how many calls are you going to make). The more effectively you can set goals, the better you can motivate yourself, and the better data you’re going to gather on your own performance.
14. Time management.
You may be able to close deals, but how efficiently do you work? If you spend too many hours on non-sales-related tasks, you’re going to end up wasting time. That’s why time management is another sales skill that all salespeople must master. We’ve written a whole article on the topic of time management skills, so be sure to check it out!
15. Objection anticipation.
When someone doesn’t want to buy your product, what stops them? More importantly, can you tell when someone is about to object to the sale? The more knowledge you have on objections, and the more proactively you can anticipate an objection, the faster you can act, and the more likely you’ll be to mitigate or neutralize that objection. See our guide to common sales objections for help!
16. Objection management.
As an extension of this, it pays to have objection management skills. Can you refute common objections from prospects, while still acknowledging and validating those objections? It’s a hard balance to strike, but one that gets easier the more you practice it—and the more familiar you become with the common objections in your specific field.
17. Prospect research.
Before they become leads or customers, you’ll need to find and work with prospects. Prospecting is one of the most important phases of the sales process, and to make it work, you have to be skilled at prospect research. That means you need to be able to use all the tools at your disposal to learn more about your target customers, find potentially interested prospects, and reach out to them.
The qualifying process is an extension of this. Much of your lead qualification success will depend on the tools and processes used by your organization. However, you can still improve your knowledge of the sales funnel and your ability to identify the strength of each lead. With high qualification skills, you can notice when your lead qualification system isn’t working and recommend changes that can improve it.
Good sales teams encourage collaboration between team members. Salespeople who are good at collaboration are able to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their coworkers, and respond accordingly. They’re able to learn from the best of others, and make up for the weaknesses of others. Most importantly, they’re able to set aside their ego and work together for a common cause. For help improving team collaboration, see our guide to sales team management.
In the early stages of your sales career, you’ll be shadowing other people and talking to mentors. But later on, you’ll be doing the coaching. Good sales leaders are able to share their knowledge and experience with new salespeople in approachable, relatable terms. They’re also willing to go out of their way to help others so the entire team can advance. That’s why coaching is one of the most important sales manager skills. Furthermore, you’ll have more success as a salesperson if you act as an advisor or coach to your prospect. In fact, 79% of customers prefer salespeople who act as advisors.
Lots of salespeople can get people interested and have a valuable conversation, but a much smaller percentage of salespeople are good at closing. There are hundreds of common tips for closing more deals, like assuming the sale and asking for the sale, but overall, closing is a byproduct of knowledge and finesse. It’s something you can cultivate over time.
22. Relationship management.
Sales isn’t just about landing an initial deal; it’s also about managing customer relationships and landing more sales in the future. Relationship management itself is comprised of many skills, such as regular communication and proactive problem solving. And it’s the core basis of relationship selling.
Adaptability is more of a quality than a skill, but it’s still something you can develop as a salesperson—and it might be the most important tool in your arsenal. Every salesperson is imperfect, but only the adaptable ones are able to recognize and overcome their own imperfections. Even a near-perfect sales pitch can unravel under certain conditions, but adaptable salespeople are able to skillfully recover. Learn to roll with the punches and change your approach routinely, and you’ll see a much higher chance of success.
How to Improve Your Sales Skills
Some of these sales skills, like reading social signals, can be learned in a classroom setting, but many of them are abstract; there’s no certification you can get in “active listening” or “empathy.” So what’s the best way to learn these semi-elusive skills?
- Introspection. Before you can improve as a salesperson, you need to understand your areas of weakness; in other words, you can’t improve unless you know what you need to improve. That’s why the first step to improving your sales skills is introspection. Think carefully about your own strengths and weaknesses, and be honest with yourself about areas where you lack confidence. This is also a powerful source of inspiration if you’re genuinely ambitious in developing yourself.
- Data analysis. Introspection is somewhat subjective, which is why you need the objective power of data analysis to help you improve further. Spend time evaluating the deals you win and lose, and crunching the numbers to figure out your sales patterns. Under what conditions do you perform best and worst?
- Mentoring. No matter how experienced or knowledgeable you are, there will always be someone ahead of you. Find someone who could serve as your mentor, and ask them to review your work. What do they think you could improve upon? What tips do they have to help you improve? Do they have any resources to recommend?
- Experimentation. If you do the same thing over and over, you won’t get much data on areas of potential improvement. If you want to accelerate your skill development, you have to go out of your way to experiment. Try out new tools and different techniques. Talk to people in different ways and under different conditions. Then, compare your results and determine which approaches work best.
- Collaboration. I mentioned collaboration as a skill in and of itself, but it’s also a gateway to developing your other skills. Your other team members likely have different strengths than you do; shadow them and watch what they do closely. Is there a way you can learn from them?
No matter what, you’re not going to learn these sales skills overnight. It takes years, if not decades of self-improvement and hard work to become a veritable sales master. Don’t try to rush the process; take your time, and look for new opportunities to better yourself when you can.
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.