Why new Sales Success will come from (new) Sales Capabilities

Transactional hiring and training doesn’t seem to cut it

When it comes to training spend, sales trainings get a bonanza. Billions of dollars are spent on sales trainings every year. Yet surveys show that a big percentage of salespeople find these trainings neither effective nor useful.

In an article published by Harvard Business Review in August 2012, Lynette Ryals and Javier Marcos make a compelling case for new skills needed to succeed in sales. Titled The (New) Skills You Need to Succeed in Sales the article points out how even as traditional ways of hiring and training salespeople aren’t working anymore, businesses seem to be slow to make changes. Supporting this inference are widely-seen trends, such as:

  • Transactional selling is no longer productive
  • Product centric approach to sales puts off today’s information savvy B2B Customer
  • Most of Customer’s research is done online and sometimes even the purchase itself
  • Flexible salespeople who are open, listen actively and proactively offer solutions to Customers perform better than their peers

Searching for the holy grail of sales success

The authors surveyed thought leaders in selling and sales management on both sides of the Atlantic in a search for answers to two questions:

  • What kind of people succeed in sales?
  • What type of skills do such people need to possess?

3 major findings on drivers of sales success

Their survey threw up fascinating findings and insights, which are summarized below:

1) Need for ‘boundary-spanning’ behavior in the seller organization
Confirming a growing trend, the survey found that to succeed in B2B sales, being effective with the Customer is only half of the story. The other critical half is in emerging as a strong influencer within the selling organisation. ‘Boundary-spanning behaviour’ is how management literature describes this success trait

2) Technology and Customer expectations drive need for change

  • Pervasive use of technology has brought about 2 noticeable changes:
    • Physical interface with Customers is being increasingly replaced by online meetings, interactions and remotely concluded business
    • Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems now offer richer insights into Customer behaviour and preferences making room for course corrections
  • Customer expectations – Rising expectations has meant 2 things:
    • The bar on value creation and service quality is constantly being raised
    • Better return on investment and value is emphasized even more

3) 4 distinctive categories of skills and capabilities that salespeople need

This new environment has given rise to the need for 4 distinctive categories of skills and capabilities among salespeople, say the authors. They are – Commercial, Relational, Managerial and Cognitive. Here are the sales implication of each of these capability-categories:

Sl. No Skills and Capabilities Why they are important for sales success
A Commercial According to the authors these include “financial insight, business acumen and Customer insight”. The expectation is that the salesperson should be insightful enough to read beyond what is stated by the Customer In a B2B context, Customers expect salespeople to
1. Understand the strategic imperatives of their businesses
2. Possess a keen insight into how the solution offered impacts Customer’s bottom line and
3. Raise their advisory role to that of a consultant
B Relational This refers to the ability to manage diverse relationships, appreciate relationship dynamics and foster trust Trust is a key factor in inspiring a Customer to pick a specific seller to do business with.
C Managerial Included in this are – People management skills, Impeccable standards of integrity, willingness to embrace change and persuasion skills A lion’s share of today’s B2B business is transacted between teams operating cross functionally. Further, Customers also expect their suppliers to be socially responsible and follow highest standards of compliance and sales ethics
D Cognitive The authors list includes – Innovative problem solving, ability to identify opportunities, ability to work under pressure, mental toughness and resilience Given that existing Customers are more likely sources of new opportunities than new Customers, these skills of opportunity spotting and nurturing are critical

A new breed of sales specialists is at the door

Here is a fascinating insight. If you take a hard, close look at that list again, you are in for a surprise. None of the transactional, product-centric selling skills made it there. The opinions of the sales thought leaders surveyed seemed to imply that emerging roles in sales may not always go only to people with a sales background. The new breed of sales specialists may emerge from technical or operations background and may come out of project teams, research or supply chain. They will be valued for their abilities to solve problems and work cross functionally. The authors’ epiphany is that – We shouldn’t speak of “salespeople” any more but about “people in a sales role”

Mercuri Insights

In today’s connected world, a Customer knows how to find what he is looking for. The challenge is in identifying the ‘what’. Here in lies the germ of ‘Solution Selling’. Among other skills, it calls for a deeper level of listening, and a much higher level of asking the right questions, in ways that promote a collaborative approach to problem solving.

The demand for mastering skills in their highest order is eternal. The triggers that raise the bar have been different, over time. Today, technology is one of them. Selling as a profession has evolved through these challenges. Therefore it is not about whether the profession is fit to survive. It is. It is about “Am I fit enough to survive the change my profession demands of me?”.

What does it all add up to

For future sales professionals, mastering traditional selling transactional skills such as product selling alone wouldn’t be adequate. They would need to graduate to solution selling, learn to influence across functional boundaries, acquire proficiency in a broad range of general management & consultative skills discussed above. These capabilities are well known and not so new. But they are the ones that will drive future sales success. It is would be the call of the Sales Training community to stay relevant to this change. “Those responsible for commissioning, designing and/or delivering sales training must ensure that programs move beyond task related knowledge and skills and emphasize a fuller range of general management competencies that are needed to manage increasingly complex markets and business relationships” say the authors

You can read the HBR article on The (New) Skills You Need to Succeed in Sales, by Lynette Ryals and Javier Marcos (HBR Aug2012)here

Author Information – Lynette Ryals is Professor of Strategic Sales and Account Management at Cranfield University School of Management Javier Marcos is a lecturer of sales performance at Cranfield Centre for Strategic Management and Sales


Mercuri International Annotations Sales management
B2B Sales Sales training Sales skills
Cross functional approach to sales Sales Development Sales & Marketing integration

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