The Importance of Mastering the Softer Side of Sales

Brian Williams, PhD

Most instructor-led sales training programs focus on equipping sales reps with the specific selling knowledge and capabilities that they need in the field – the “hard skills.”  Hard skills are the default setting for most live training events because they are easy to model, simple to track and are behaviors that can be reinforced using traditional assessment methods.  Evaluating a rep’s mastery of hard skills might look something like this…

 

Does the rep know what the next step of the sales process is after the initial discovery conversation?

 

Does the rep know all of the features of a new product?

 

Can the rep recite the discovery questions provided in a talk track or call script?

 

Most hard skills are not complex training concepts.  They often have a right and a wrong answer, making it easy for a sales manager or field trainer to determine if the rep “checked the box” or not.

 

Soft sales skills, on the other hand, are less tangible, difficult to objectively assess, and often require too much time to adequately train and reinforce in a single live training session.  In the past, mastering the hard skills was enough for most reps to hit their sales quotas every month.  However, today’s evolving sales environment has relegated hard skills to table stakes, making the mastery of soft sales skills the competitive differentiator within a given industry.

 

Hard Skills: The Foundation of Selling

 

Let’s look at a tried and true example of a hard skill – prospecting.

 

In an instructor-led live training session, a rep would be taught what prospecting should look like and how they should go about finding new prospects to fill the top of their pipeline.  A more granular program might ask the rep to log in to her LinkedIn account and follow along through the process of finding a strategic lead within her current network.  To check her learning, she may be asked to repeat this process to source an additional five leads from her LinkedIn connections or to take a brief quiz that forces her to recall the prospecting steps that were presented to her.

 

As you can see, training on a hard skill can be very straight-forward.  Evaluating a rep’s performance can also be cut and dry – you either found the prospects, or you got stuck somewhere along the way.

 

Being able to consistently fill the top of your pipeline might have translated to a steady stream of closed sales in the past, but technology has put the vast majority of reps on equal footing when it comes to hard skills like prospecting.  As customers become more educated and more active throughout the sales process, soft sales skills become more and more important to muscling out competitors and closing new deals.

 

Soft Sales Skills: The Mortar that Holds Everything Together

 

If hard skills are the foundation of sales, soft skills are the mortar that hold them together.  Soft skills equip a rep to do more than just nudge a buyer along to the next step in the process.  Instead, they enable a rep to establish themselves as a trusted advisor, allowing them to tap into a buyer’s emotions and influence their decision making.  Hard skills might get you in the door, but the soft skills are what help you close the deal.

 

Let’s look at three examples of soft skills that drive sales results:

  • Clarity in Communication – High-performing reps excel by turning complicated topics into simple explanations. They speak clearly and avoid using filler words such as “um,” “like,” and “you know.”  They don’t mumble or talk over their prospects.  They are polite, professional and understand how to deliver important information when it is most helpful.  The best reps reduce complicated facts, figures, and data into simple phrases that grab the listener’s attention.               
  • Tone and Inflection – The best sales reps have a higher level of self-awareness. They are able to step outside of their own perspective to see the situation from the customer’s point of view.  They can tell when they need to slow down or speed up.  They sense when a part of their pitch isn’t resonating and quickly move on to the next point.  Where an average rep might respond to perceived lack of interest with a negative tone, a top performing rep maintains their pleasant demeanor to avoid killing the deal.  To be successful, reps need to be aware of and overcome the challenges they have related to delivery.                                                                                                       
  • Body Language – Scientists say more than 80% of communication is non-verbal. A clear message delivered with a confident tone can still fall short if a rep is slouching in their chair or leaned back with their feet on the table.  Reps of all experience levels are at risk of losing a deal to an errant eye roll or an unintended look of disinterest during a critical moment.  Effective body language is essential to building and nurturing strong customer connections.

 

Unlike hard skills, the only way to develop soft skills is through practice and feedback.  Much like the world’s elite athletes, sales reps need to continuously practice their craft and receive coaching on how to improve their execution.  To take the analogy a step further, coaches want their athletes to make mistakes on the practice field, not in a game.  We want our reps to hone their soft skills in a safe training environment rather than drop the ball in a live selling situation.

 

Soft skills are complex and malleable.  You can’t master the ability to deliver a sales pitch, sense a buyer’s initial response, and adapt your message accordingly within the limitations of a single live training session.  For this reason, most programs avoid training soft skills at all, forcing companies to rely on their managers and internal training resources to get the job done.  Not surprisingly, these efforts often fall short of their expectations.

 

The most effective training programs utilize video practice activities to train and reinforce the execution of soft skills, including:

  • Enabling reps to record and then see and hear themselves delivering a message or responding to a common sales scenario
  • Providing tangible examples that reps can model, including exemplars of ideal tone and non-verbal behaviors
  • Allowing reps to practice and record their messages and presentations repeatedly and in private to facilitate self-reflection
  • Providing reps with soft skill feedback from trainers, managers, and peers

 

Hard skills aren’t going anywhere, but research and experience working with companies across multiple industries finds that those firms that fail to develop soft skills will pay the price in rep performance.  A small minority of reps are born with innate self-awareness and personal strengths related to soft skills.  The rest must be taught and mentored through a program of live or video-based practice and feedback.

 

Just like professional sports teams watch game film to identify their mistakes and make adjustments, video practice technology provides a powerful way to build greater self-awareness and mastery of soft skills.  Companies that maintain the fundamentals while doubling down on improving their ability to execute the softer side of sales will have a leg up on their competitors.

 

 

Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.