If you want to improve your team’s sales skills and performance, you need to develop hard skills, like product knowledge and technical proficiency, as well as soft skills like empathy, persuasion and adaptability.
Our State of Sales Report 2020–2021 found that salespeople who work on their soft skills are 11 percentage points more likely to usually or always hit their sales quota compared to those who do not. The majority of respondents (88%) also noted they regularly work on their soft skills, which helps them be more successful.
Top performers generate a 2.7x better conversion rate than average reps, so improving your team’s sales skills has tangible benefits that impact the bottom line.
In this article, we’ll list the most important salesperson skills and provide tips on developing them.
Soft skills, sometimes called common or core skills, are those that are relevant to all professions, like communication and empathy.
While all soft skills are valuable to some degree, some are particularly useful to sales representatives looking to hit quotas and generate revenue.
Here are seven soft skills that will help you build strong relationships and close more deals.
An empathetic sales rep prioritizes their leads’ and prospects’ feelings and goals over their own.
By showing you care about your customers’ needs, you help build trust. That’s powerful when, according to LinkedIn’s State of Sales Report, only 40% of buyers believe salespeople are trustworthy.
As well as building trust, empathy helps reps delve deeper into leads’ problems so they can find the root issue and present the best solution. This, in turn, makes it easier to deliver relevant product and service recommendations, contributing to a personalized buying experience and greater customer satisfaction.
Importantly, by actively listening to concerns, you can pivot based on the conversation and overcome sales objections and rejections.
To develop empathy:
Focus on how you pay attention. If you’re zoning out or not actively listening, intentionally practice being more engaged.
Be curious. Asking questions and listening intently to the answers is a quick way to develop stronger relationships.
Persuasion is a valuable soft skill in sales, but it’s vital to know the difference between this and manipulation.
Rather than relentlessly encouraging prospects to pick certain products or services based on a selfish goal (e.g. hitting a quota or selling a high ticket item), a persuasive salesperson provides gentle reassurance to nurture prospects toward a confident purchase decision.
For example, this could involve directing the lead to a relevant case study so they can see the tangible benefits of a product in a real-life scenario. If the prospect isn’t convinced, they’d ask more open-ended questions to dig deeper into their needs, then share alternative solutions that are more relevant, regardless of price or complexity.
Persuasion skills are useful at all stages of the sales cycle. They’ll help you overcome early objections from distracted prospects and wary gatekeepers. They’ll also help you to reassure leads that you understand their needs and can solve their problems.
To develop persuasion skills:
Put yourself in your prospects’ shoes. Consider what could be stopping them from talking to you or progressing with a deal and how you can help them overcome it.
Practice asking questions to break deadlocks. Ask if there’s a better time for the prospect to talk or if there’s information you can provide that will reassure them or their manager.
Every buyer is unique, so there’s no one-size-fits-all sales technique. What’s more, circumstances change. Whether it’s an entire industry shift, like updated legislation, or one customer revealing new requirements mid-negotiation, you must always be ready to adapt your sales approach.
To be an adaptable salesperson, you should have the product knowledge to handle unexpected questions in sales meetings (perhaps through sales enablement material). You should also have enough understanding of your industry, business and target audience to reassure leads when something doesn’t go as planned.
To develop adaptability:
Escape your comfort zone. If you’re great at selling one product or service, make it next month’s target to sell more of a different one so you can get used to a range of customer expectations and questions.
Shadow a sales engineer or product manager. Sales engineers and product managers have unique technical knowledge, which makes them a goldmine to shadow. Don’t expect to learn everything they know, but do watch them perform technical and product demonstrations to absorb some of their expertise.
Note: In our Pipedrive State of Sales Report 2020–21, 59% of salespeople said they became more successful in 2020 (the first year of COVID-19), highlighting how adaptability and resilience can help reps achieve great results.
While it’s important for salespeople to be team players so they can contribute to business-wide goals, many reps work independently and largely unsupervised, which requires different salesperson skills. Our State of Sales Report 2020-2021 found that 41% mostly work from home.
Sales reps have a lot of responsibilities, from managing leads and hosting meetings to reporting, traveling (if you work in the field or in outside sales) and training. There’s a lot to juggle outside of closing deals, so organization skills are critical.
An organized salesperson knows which prospects need attention and they take the time to check in and follow up when necessary. A CRM tool makes staying organized easier by helping you know exactly when to follow up with a contact.
Workflow efficiency creates time for sales activities that are sometimes neglected, such as personal development and coaching others.
To develop organizational skills:
Time and record your regular activities. You’ll begin to understand where your time goes and learn how to use it more effectively.
Let technology help you. CRM software will give you a big-picture view of your tasks so you can more easily prioritize your responsibilities. Even better, use CRMs to automate workflows and repetitive tasks, like creating follow-up reminders and sending personalized emails when deals move to a new stage.
Note: Customer relationship management (CRM) software will allow you to keep track of interactions with leads, better understand your customers and identify opportunities to improve sentiment.
In sales, you can be doing everything right and find that you still can’t close a deal due to forces outside of your control, like the buyer not being able to get approval from their manager. This is why even great reps sometimes don’t meet their quotas.
Rather than dwell, resilient sales managers and reps take steps to mitigate poor performance.
Leaders that create supportive environments allow reps to be honest about their struggles, so they can address them. With their manager’s support, a struggling rep can get back to basics and focus on completing the component tasks of the agreed sales process, rebuilding their confidence with each small success.
Managers can also get a clearer view of their sales team’s processes using a visual CRM pipeline and may spot patterns that are easy to correct.
To develop resilience:
Recognize the positives of failure. Talk openly about sales struggles, so they become learning opportunities, not something you and your colleagues instinctively bury.
Take notice of other reps’ struggles. This will help you to accept that sales can be difficult and not everything is in your control.
Stay optimistic. The best sales reps keep an optimistic attitude, even in the face of difficult times. This is one of the must-have qualities top sales representatives possess. Easier said than done, but even if momentarily discouraged, the best reps don’t give into defeat.
Note: LinkedIn’s online sales training course, Transitioning to Management for Salespeople, includes a lesson on “dealing with failure”. It’s most relevant to sales leaders but is a great opportunity for all salespeople to hear an experienced sales consultant (Lisa Earle MacLeod) discuss resilience.
As a sales rep, you are largely responsible for turning prospects into paying customers.
Effective communication skills will help you understand those customers’ pain points and allow you to solve them by recommending the most suitable products.
Effective communication, cross-departmentally and with team members, is also critical to sales success. It allows you to build the product and customer knowledge you need to reassure leads and sell confidently.
For example, your marketing and customer service teams might help you uncover new pain points or emerging buyer personas, so you know which product features to emphasize in a meeting or presentation.
Communication is a complex field but here are three areas to focus on as a salesperson:
Listening skills. Active listening helps you better understand your audience’s needs (more on this later).
Clarity. Speaking with clarity helps you communicate your product’s value effectively.
Tone. Using the right tone helps with relationship building.
To develop communication skills:
Vary your communication channels. If you’re more comfortable talking to prospects on the phone, challenge yourself to send more emails so you can practice your written communication skills.
Shadow top-performing reps. Learn from their interactions with prospects how to use tone and language to make buyers feel comfortable and confident.
Note: See past the sales-specific books and become a better communicator in general by reading Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. It focuses on the power of being genuinely interested in other people, which is incredibly valuable in sales.
Great storytelling works in sales as it does in marketing: by appealing to buyers’ emotional decision-making process.
Harvard Business School Professor Gerald Zaltman reported from his research that 95% of consumers’ thinking occurs in the subconscious mind. So, even when buyers believe they’re using logic to make decisions, it’s emotion in control.
Salespeople can use great stories to trigger emotional responses that make prospects believe more in products and, therefore, more likely to buy. In marketing, you might see subtle storytelling in copy or visual content, whereas in sales, it’s used more in conversations, pitches and product demos.
For example, a B2B sales pitch story could use the following structure:
Status quo. “This is how your business is operating right now.”
Conflict. “All of those manual admin tasks are pulling your team away from your customers and hindering their experience of your business.”
Resolution. “Our automation software will take care of those menial tasks, so your team can focus their attention on personalized customer service.”
Outcome. “With more attention from your team, customer sentiment improves and repeat business increases.”
To develop storytelling skills:
Read, read, read. Look for the narrative structure in every form of media you consume, from news articles to fiction, to understand how your audience feels at certain stages of your presentation and effectively tap into their emotions.
Take inspiration from marketers. Look for the stories they tell in their content (you can take inspiration from your business’s own marketers or the marketing efforts of major brands).
Hard skills are abilities or qualities that enable you to complete job-specific tasks in your sales career. For example, negotiation, technology proficiency and product knowledge are all top sales skills.
They’re more easily measurable than soft skills, and you’ll learn them through sales training and experience.
Here are six hard skills that every effective salesperson has on their resume.
Sales reps are under the most pressure to get prospects to make buying decisions when they’re in the formal setting of a presentation or product demonstration.
These are your best opportunities to lay out the case for change. You have a short window to win over your audience, so you must structure your speech to include all of the most impactful elements in the right order (use your storytelling skills), with space for interaction.
To hone your presentation skills, rehearse but don’t rely on a generic script as this implies you’re not treating potential customers as individuals. Instead, use a slide deck to convey key points to everyone in the room but speak naturally so that your audience gets a personalized experience.
To develop sales presentation skills:
Record your presentations. Watch and listen back to monitor audience engagement levels and identify opportunities for improvement.
Rehearse with other sales reps. Be open to critical feedback so you can learn from other salespeople’s experiences.
Note: Learn valuable presentation skills to boost your sales pitches on an online public speaking course. You’ll find plenty online, including the University of Washington’s Introduction to Public Speaking course on Coursera.
Being able to sell is the second half of the sales battle. The first is understanding what you’re selling.
It’s no longer a given that a prospect will come to you first to learn about your products. Gartner reports that customers spend only 17% of their B2B buying journey with salespeople. That’s around 5% per rep, as most buyers speak to multiple suppliers.
The same customers spend 27% of their time (the largest portion) researching independently online, so they’ll want more than just features and pricing information when they reach you.
A key salesperson skill is understanding where your offering fits into the industry (i.e. how it stacks up against the competition) and exactly how it addresses your customer’s pain points.
To develop your product knowledge:
Spend time with other departments. Product designers, marketers and customer service reps all see the same products from slightly different perspectives – learn from them so you can pitch to prospects with more detail.
Learn how sales and marketing departments can work together:
Without listening, reps can’t discover buyers’ needs. Without understanding needs, they can’t sell effectively.
In a recent RAIN Group study, 68% of buyers questioned said they’re more likely to buy from a rep who listens to them, yet only 26% agreed that sellers are competent listeners.
That means you can put yourself ahead of three-quarters of your competition by being receptive. It’s a key part of consultative selling, where reps prioritize prospect relationships over product promotion.
More than just waiting for your turn to talk, active listening is about engaging and working with your prospect to find the best solution to their problem. That means taking in what they say, feeding back, confirming you’ve heard correctly and asking relevant follow-up questions.
To develop active listening skills:
Have intentional conversations with your network. Use interactions with other team members, departments, managers and friends to practice fully engaging with what people say to you.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for how long a sales negotiation should take, but the sooner you close a deal, the sooner you can work on the next one.
Understanding a prospect’s budget and purchasing role can help to increase your negotiation skills and efficiency. In another RAIN Group study, buyers claimed that at least 6-in-10 sellers cave on price during negotiations, yet 62% of buyers agree they have the flexibility to pay more if the supplier demonstrates why doing so is worth it.
Your priority is to be clear on value during negotiations with tailored explanations. You should also:
Go in knowing exactly what the prospect is likely to want and what you can offer
Know when to walk away, so your buyer doesn’t hold all the power (when the buyer makes unreasonable demands, for example)
Stay calm and pragmatic so as not to lose control
Prepare for objections by arming yourself with useful product insight
To develop negotiation skills:
Work on all aspects of communication. Negotiation requires a mix of speaking and active listening skills – work on both with your team using role play and coaching sessions.
Get comfortable with mirroring. Subtly mimicking a prospect’s speech or body language has been shown to build rapport and empathy during the selling process.
Social selling is a lead-generation tactic that involves being active in the social media spaces your prospects spend time in.
The goal of social selling is to build trust so that when your ideal customers need a product or service that your business sells, they think of you. You can achieve this not by pushing products but by establishing connections, socializing and being a helpful part of the online community.
Social media is also a great place to better understand your audience. You can use Twitter conversations, LinkedIn threads and Facebook group discussions to gather updated information on prospects that will help you tailor your selling efforts more effectively.
To develop social selling skills:
Spend time on social media. Get used to interacting with people on different platforms, so you know your way around the features and can use them efficiently.
Set social targets. Social media interaction generates followers – set a target to build your following in the next few months and you’ll find the interaction part becomes second nature.
Learn more about how social media can help you generate qualified leads:
In our State of Sales Report 2020–21, we learned that sales reps who use technology and automation tools for lead generation were 14 percentage points more likely to have reached their annual sales target.
CRM software aids organization by helping you keep track of your many responsibilities as a sales rep, from monitoring sentiment and qualifying leads to arranging sales calls and scheduling meetings.
The right technology will do more than organize your workload; it’ll handle some of it for you. For example, with Pipedrive’s Workflow Automation feature, you can send personalized emails and schedule follow-up tasks automatically so you can focus on building relationships with prospects.
To develop your technological proficiency:
Take relevant training courses. Master the features of the software you use through online learning. You can learn about CRM and how to use Pipedrive’s features at Pipedrive Academy.
Note: Our State of Sales Report 2020–21 also showed that using CRM to track sales is standard practice for 79% of sales reps.
Some of the factors that make good salespeople great are better described as traits than important sales skills. They’re more difficult to teach and measure, but that’s not to say you can’t work on your most useful qualities.
Here are five sales qualities that’ll bolster your sales skills resume section and improve performance.
Responsibility: Time management and keeping on top of your sales tasks and responsibilities is a key part of being a successful sales rep and team player. When you don’t meet your targets, proactively look for gaps in your knowledge and find ways to upskill. For example, you could take an online course, attend a sales event, book time with a sales coach or shadow a top sales rep.
Goal-orientedness. While many reps still consider themselves successful even if they don’t hit sales goals, working towards sales quotas, activity goals, certain win rates and efficiency ratios is a great way to measure your performance and stay motivated.
Self-motivation: After your quota’s set, it’s on you to organize yourself, build relationships, overcome obstacles and close deals. That takes a lot of motivation, especially when something doesn’t go to plan, like a prospect pulling out of a deal at the last minute to prevent you from hitting your quota.
Eagerness to learn: There’s always room to be a better salesperson, but you must want to keep learning. Outside of your manager’s sales skills training, hone your abilities by taking online sales courses and learning from more experienced reps.
Amiability: Above all else, the strength of the relationships you build will determine your win rate. If people trust you, they’re more likely to buy from you, and you’ll gain more trust by being likable, relatable and ready to connect.
It takes a lot of work to be a great salesperson.
Possessing the right skills and traits will make you a competent rep, but you must continually work on them to become an elite sales professional.
Knowing how to improve sales skills is key. Keep honing your craft through online sales courses, in-person coaching and real-life experience, and you’ll soon be exceeding your quota consistently.
Start or continue the conversation with like-minded sales and marketing professionals on our Community.Join our Community
Learn what an SDR (sales development rep) is and how they can help your sales team boost lead generation, improve lead nurturing and close more deals.
In today’s car sales market, customer experience is the key to boosting business. Learn tips to build customer relationships and become a top car salesperson.