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88% of Salespeople Regularly Work on Soft Skills: Here’s How to Sharpen Yours

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.

Table of contents


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

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

  • Presentation skills

  • Writing skills

  • Analytical skills

  • Academic degrees (Bachelor’s, Master’s, etc.)

  • Role-specific certifications

  • Language skills

Soft skills

Soft skills, on the other hand, are transferable and not fixed to a particular job type or role.

Common soft skills include:

  • Critical thinking

  • Empathy

  • Listening

  • Open-mindedness

  • Creativity

  • Problem-solving

  • Adaptability

  • Dependability

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.


5 ways to sharpen soft skills in the workplace

Hard skills are relatively straightforward. You have a tangible goal, such as wanting to become a skilled data scientist, and you study and learn the programming language (like SQL) until you (ideally) reach that target.

Soft skills are harder to identify and measure. As they are obtained and enriched by taking initiative and going that extra mile, the best place to start is to adopt a positive mindset and develop a hunger for growth.

This growth mindset applies to reps learning new soft skills as well as sales managers hiring for, training, and measuring soft skills.

Let’s take a look at some of the steps your sales reps can take to develop new soft skills in the workplace.

1. Responsibility and taking on more work

Your reps are busy trying to hit their sales quotas and stay on top of tasks.

According to our State of Sales Report 2020-2021, 63% of salespeople work over 40 hours a week. And, 75% of respondents note that if they work on weekends, they don’t get compensated for it.

Suffice to say, reps are overworked and often feel underpaid. Knowing this, asking them to take on more responsibility and work in order to learn and master soft skills is no easy request.

That said, ambition and drive are among the top traits of sales superstars and high performers. As such, if reps are ambitious, they will naturally want to take on more responsibility in order to improve without needing to be asked to.

The key is to figure out how to train your sales team to practice their soft skills while performing routine tasks. This way, you aren’t piling on new tasks that they may not have time to complete (or will need to work overtime to finish). Instead, you’re asking them to shift their mindset so that they perform the same tasks with an additional intention.

For example, if you want them to work on relationship management, instead of asking them to take a course on it (which may be helpful down the line but time-consuming at the outset), start smaller. That may look like training them on how to build rapport through cold calling exercises.

Then, have them put it to practice right away. On their next cold call see if they’ve improved at personalizing the conversation, have more confidence, and if the lead is more engaged.

Ultimately, taking on additional work in this vein will enable your reps to:

  • Develop time management skills

  • Improve communication and relationship management skills

  • Learn how to better deal with stress and handle pressure

  • Progress their career and increase industry knowledge

When salespeople master the ability to handle a larger workload, so to speak, by learning and putting new soft skills into practice, they actually end up working smarter, not harder. Because of this, they display extreme potential and position themselves as a beacon of knowledge with your team and clients alike.

2. Building communication and relationship skills outside of the workplace

Your reps spend a lot of their time talking to leads and existing clients, be it face to face or over the phone.

Whether they’re discussing and addressing pain points, tackling objections, working towards solutions, or closing a deal, their ability to communicate clearly and effectively is important to your business’s sales efforts.

In order to create and maintain profitable relationships with clients, your reps should practice their social skills outside of the workplace. They can then transfer their newfound communication abilities to their sales calls and meetings.

Here are some of the ways your reps can develop bulletproof relationship skills:

  • Deploy active listening. This technique focuses on listening intently to the prospect or lead and tailoring an appropriate response based on what they heard. When your salespeople practice and deploy active listening, they make their clients feel valued. This promotes a healthy, mutual (rather than one-sided) relationship, one that makes your rep more likely to close a sale.

  • Practice storytelling. The ability to tell a compelling story is especially effective in sales, as your reps will present themselves as both engaging and authentic. Encourage your salespeople to practice storytelling with friends and family so that they can get comfortable. Once deployed in a client setting, they’ll be able to appeal to a client’s emotions, stand out from the competition and encourage action. Engaging pitches will also make your reps’ delivery seem genuine, as opposed to “sales-y”.

When your reps learn how to deploy active listening and engage and delight others with their storytelling they will noticeably improve their sales techniques.

3. Identify opportunities to help

Your reps spend a lot of their time acquiring and nurturing leads, but occasionally they’ll come across quiet periods.

Encourage your reps to take these rare moments to lend a hand to their colleagues. Doing so will help them to develop and practice empathy and problem solving, two soft skills that are key to sales.

When your sales reps get into the habit of helping their team members solve problems, they’ll naturally transfer these soft skills to their sales efforts.

They’ll be more inclined to actively spot their leads’ or prospects’ pain points and seek solutions. This will boost customer satisfaction and promote long-term relationships.

4. Incorporate proactivity

According to our State of Sales Report 2020-2021, 54% of salespeople wish to become a sales manager in the future. A further 62% of sales professionals have aspirations to become business owners.

Evidently, sales reps are hungry for growth and development within their roles.

As a sales manager, you can encourage your reps to take initiative in the workplace and incorporate proactivity as a soft skill.

To spur proactivity, encourage them to :

  • Take care of tasks before you ask them to

  • Carry out maintenance on management systems such as CRMs

  • Come up with potential solutions to problems before they bring them to you

  • Look for more responsibility if they feel like they can bring more to the table

When you push your reps to explore beyond the basic requirements of their role, you ensure that they’re constantly learning and developing their skills.

Doing so empowers your reps to organically expand their knowledge and expertise and ultimately become more valuable sales professionals.

5. Actively seek industry knowledge

In a world of rapidly developing technology and ideation, it’s important to keep up with the times.

Not least in sales. If your reps want to successfully persuade a lead to purchase your product or service, they need to know the ins and outs of what they’re offering, the relevant competition and any industry-related news.

To keep up to date with customer trends and demands and position themselves as industry experts, your reps should:

  • Subscribe to industry-related publications. When your reps sign up to newsletters and magazines, they’ll stay in the loop with industry news and breakthroughs. This is an effective way for your reps to grow outside of your insular business vertical.

  • Attend industry events. Whether in person or online, industry events and sales conferences are a great way for your reps to network, brush up on their industry knowledge and keep an eye on the latest developments and sales techniques.

  • Establish a social presence. A great way for your reps to grow is to develop an online presence. By engaging on sites such as LinkedIn or Twitter, your reps can learn from industry heavyweights and offer their own expertise. Actively creating and contributing to these discussions leads to your reps becoming thought leaders. They can leverage their newfound social presence to offer guidance to their network and demonstrate value to potential customers.

Incorporating these tactics will help your reps keep up to date with competitor activity, put themselves in front of their target audience and create a knowledge base they can draw from when colleagues and customers alike come to them for guidance.

Additionally, they’ll become invaluable in supporting you as a sales manager.


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.

Find the best new hires with this Sales Interview Checklist

Download this checklist complete with all of the best questions to ask during an interview with a sales candidate.


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.

Why?

Because excessive workloads, responsibility and favors often lead to:

  • Distractions

  • Reduced performance

  • Neglect of high priority tasks

  • Burnout

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:

  • Impossible to complete the task at all

  • Possible to complete the task in a more flexible time frame

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’.


Final thoughts

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.

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