According to our State of Sales Report 2020-2021, 88% of sales professionals actively work on improving their soft skills. Furthermore, those working on their soft skills are 11% more likely to achieve their regular sales targets.
So, why are so many salespeople allocating time to developing soft skills? And, why is their effort paying off?
In this article, we’ll define what soft skills are, why they’re important to your sales team and how you can take measures to sharpen them. We’ll also help you spot soft skills during the hiring process and explore why you shouldn’t underestimate the power of saying no.
The difference between soft skills and hard skills
Before we delve into what soft skills are, it’s important to understand what they are not.
Hard skills are the abilities that allow you to tackle job-specific challenges. They can be acquired and sharpened through courses, internal training and on-the-job learning.
Common hard skills include (but are not limited to):
General computer skills
Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint) skills
Project management skills
Academic degrees (Bachelor’s, Master’s, etc.)
Soft skills, on the other hand, are transferable and not fixed to a particular job type or role.
Common soft skills include:
In the world of sales, particularly handy soft skills include:
Relationship management. Successful salespeople create and manage relationships with their clients. If your sales team can nurture clients with relationship selling, they’re more likely to close qualified sales and lay the foundations for future business deals.
Teamwork. Teamwork encourages collaboration and open communication, which helps to promote a supportive rather than competitive environment. Team players focus on both individual and team-wide goals and spot colleagues who need a helping hand. All of this contributes to increased productivity and ultimately more revenue.
General communication. Sharp communication skills mean your reps will be able to clearly and professionally communicate (and listen) to prospects and colleagues. This helps them to identify and highlight issues or opportunities early and pivot accordingly. In essence, they will avoid wasted time and inefficient processes and effectively overcome common objections (leading to more conversions).
Evidently, soft skills don’t only help your reps meet their sales targets, they also help them positively influence the work environment and position themselves as a trusted and valuable resource.
How to spot soft skills during the hiring process
80% of talent professionals claim that soft skills are vital to a business’s success, and a further 92% insist that soft skills matter as much or more than hard skills.
But if you’re a hiring manager, spotting soft skills in the interview process isn’t as easy as testing hard skills.
Let’s examine some ways you can simplify this process:
Diversify the hiring process
The best way to spot soft skills is to bring multiple perspectives to the interview process.
A diverse range of personality types on a hiring panel will reduce the risk of both:
Confirmation bias. In a case of confirmation bias, you may (intentionally or subconsciously) seek out information that confirms a predetermined belief and ignore other potentially crucial information. For example, you may hold a belief that younger people are easily distracted while working and actively look to confirm this throughout the interview. This may in turn prevent you from noticing a candidate’s positive attributes.
Similarity bias. If a candidate had a similar upbringing to you, attended the same school, or even held similar interests you run the risk of similarity bias and an unfair hire. Because the candidate is so relatable, you may hire them based on likeability instead of skills. Additionally, because you’re focused on your similarities, you may miss areas of concern when it comes to the workplace.
In essence, by spreading the hiring process across a varied panel, you eliminate the potential for individual interpretation of soft skills and positive or negative bias.
Of course, if your team is culturally similar, you may also have a team-wide bias. So, if possible, bring many different personality types and backgrounds to your hiring panel to combat bias as much as possible.
Train up your team to look for soft skills
According to our State of Sales Report 2020-2021, 53% of salespeople develop their skills on the job.
One skill that you can teach them (outside of regular sales activities) is how to look for soft skills in the interview process. This way, if they go on to become a sales manager or business owner themselves they’ll be better equipped for their own hiring process.
Best practice is to train them internally in techniques such as:
Situational interview questioning. Situational questions force a candidate to think on the spot and create solutions to challenges they may encounter if they are successful in their application.
Behavioral interview questioning. Here, the interviewer will ask a candidate to recall a challenge they had to overcome. This is an opportunity to examine how the candidate assessed a situation and subsequently dealt with it.
Both of these interview techniques are highly effective ways to evaluate soft skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking.
Make sure your team is aligned
Spreading the hiring responsibility is great for diversification, but it’s no use if your team doesn’t know what soft skills they’re looking for.
Make sure that, prior to the interview, you’ve answered the following questions:
What does “good” look like?
What are the must-haves and the nice-to-haves?
What do dealbreakers look like?
Where can we compromise soft skills for hard skills and vice versa?
Answering these questions before diving into interviews ensures that everybody on the hiring panel is on the same page. It also minimizes the risk of rogue questioning techniques leading to individual bias.
Reflect on and learn from bad hires
Sometimes you get it completely wrong and the candidate you chose didn’t work out. For one reason or another, they weren’t the right fit for your company and now you’re back to square one.
This kind of situation presents a valuable learning opportunity. You may have failed in identifying the right candidate, but now you can sharpen your screening process and narrow down your requirements.
Make time to gather as a panel and ask questions like:
Why did the candidate fail? Was it a lack of hard skills or soft skills (or both)?
What signs did we miss?
Why did we miss these signs? Was it a result of positive bias?
How do we put more emphasis on what we’re looking for in future interviews?
This will help to reduce the risk of quality candidates falling through the cracks and provide your business the best chance of acquiring the perfect addition for your team.
The power of saying no
Learning when and how to say no is a difficult yet highly rewarding soft skill for your reps to develop.
While the notion of saying yes and doing favors for colleagues and clients is positive, it can also be a double-edged sword—especially in the workplace. That’s because taking on too much can have an adverse effect and cause your reps to spread themselves too thin.
Because excessive workloads, responsibility and favors often lead to:
Additionally, as the world has shifted largely to remote working due to COVID-19, requests are coming in from all angles at all times. Working from home has made it increasingly difficult to down the tools and walk away from work requests since it’s easy to simply open your computer and respond.
So, how can your team effectively manage requests without burning out?
Assess the request
When assessing the request put before them, encourage your salespeople to answer the following questions:
Who is asking for help?
What, specifically, are they looking for?
What is the deadline for the favor?
What kind of resources (time, energy, money, etc.) will be required?
What are the benefits for both parties upon completing the task?
Are there any hidden costs?
Is the task likely to grow in weight over time?
It can be helpful for your sales rep to present their colleague with these questions. They’ll likely receive a better insight into what it is they need and they’ll demonstrate commitment to making sure they can complete the task to their satisfaction (in addition to current responsibilities).
Once your rep has all of this information, they can make an informed decision about whether or not they can spare the time in the given time frame.
If not, they can then decide if it’s:
Say yes, the right way
If your rep has come to the conclusion that the request is reasonable and won’t hinder prioritized responsibilities, make sure they know how to accept it in an appropriate manner.
Encourage them to explain why they’re saying yes and how they came to that conclusion.
Doing so will solidify both parties’ understanding of the work to be carried out and the time and resources your rep will allocate to the task.
Deliver a considered no
Saying no to people we respect and care about is never fun.
We feel like we’re letting them down, and that in turn gets us down.
However, sometimes it’s simply unavoidable, which is why it is a vital soft skill for your team to develop.
Delivering no’s in a friendly and illustrated manner will keep their relationships intact and display a willingness to help, despite the fact they can’t take on the responsibility.
Let’s look at some obstacles your reps may encounter when they are asked for help, and ways they can (politely) decline those requests:
Discretion. In some cases, regulations may prohibit your reps from helping particular departments. As a sales manager, for example, you may instruct your reps to focus solely on one highly important client. In this case, you should encourage your reps to clearly demonstrate to their colleague(s) that the situation is out of their hands and that they can’t stray from their current responsibilities at this time.
Ability. Sometimes your reps simply don’t have the capability to help someone with a task. A colleague may ask for help planning a sales approach with a client and your rep might have little to no experience in their particular industry. Encourage your reps to let their colleagues know that the task is beyond their capabilities, instead of accepting and wasting their (and their colleague’s) time.
Workload. Often, your reps simply do not have the time and resources available to offer assistance. They may have several client meetings scheduled for the day and a sales strategy session afterward. In this case, your rep should politely decline and share their busy schedule with their colleague in need. This way, they’ll know your rep genuinely can’t spare the time and will be assured that their request was carefully considered.
Ambiguity. Requests for assistance can often be ambiguous so encourage them to present their colleague with the list of questions we outlined above. This way, they’ll acquire a more thorough understanding of the help required and will be able to make an informed decision once they have the full scope.
When you teach your salespeople to embrace no as a soft skill, you’re doing them and yourself a favor.
You teach them how to protect themselves from energy and resource drainers and help them to make their colleagues feel respected and considered when they hear ‘no’.
A sharpened set of soft skills can make all the difference in the workplace.
Enhanced soft skills provide your reps with the tools to win over clients, prioritize their time and even help you make fair, informed decisions during the hiring process.
By actively working on their soft skills, your salespeople contribute to a positive, efficient workspace and position themselves as confident, considered professionals.