Harvard Business review

5 Skills Every Salesperson Needs to Succeed

A study of more than 20,000 job listings for salespeople posted between 2019 and 2022 reveal many of the attributes that have always been crucial for success in this field, such as communication skills. But this study revealed five forward-looking qualities that are showing up more frequently. They are anticipating the customer’s future, collaborating inside and outside the company, leveraging digital and virtual channels, the ability to get power from data, and the capacity to adapt.

A sales leader at an asset management firm reflected: “Our inside salespeople are doing a better job than our field salespeople. And they make one third as much.”  In the pharmaceutical industry, where doctors increasingly decline to take face-to-face meetings with salespeople, one sales leader told us: “We need a different breed of salesperson with a higher digital quotient.” A technology buyer at our own consulting company complained about one of our vendors: “Although Alice has the title Customer Success Manager, she tries to knock down my door every time she smells an expansion opportunity. She is just a pushy salesperson.”

Across industries, the profile of what it takes to succeed in sales is changing. To get more insight, we scraped web data from more than 20,000 sales job postings from 2019 to 2022. Classic dimensions of what companies look for when hiring salespeople endure — attributes and skills such as sales experience, communication skills, curiosity, and motivation.

At the same time, the following five forward-looking competencies are emerging consistently in sales job postings.

Anticipating the customer’s tomorrow

According to the job description, account managers for industrial distributor W.W. Grainger must, “demonstrate knowledge of market data and access to resources to quickly respond to new developments in the customer’s business.” Microsoft goes a step further, looking for its account executives (AEs) who sell cloud services to digital native startup customers to understand how startup businesses grow and mature their commercial models” so AEs can get an agenda-setting seat at the buyer’s table.

Collaborating inside and out

Bank of America private client managers must, “liaise with specialists, service officers, and other resources to ensure the integrated delivery of investment, fiduciary, credit, and banking solutions.” Although many sales forces have teamwork in their DNA already, it’s a tectonic shift for others that have moved away from a one-on-one approach with customers. Salespeople must also drive collaboration within complex buying organizations, where diverse decisionmakers must come together to agree on a purchase.

Leveraging digital and virtual channels

Pfizer sales reps must utilize current digital tools effectively (e.g., Veeva Engage, Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Office) as well as adapt quickly to new/beta tools (e.g., digital triage app) for successful customer engagement.” Customers are more likely to have a satisfying experience when salespeople know how and when to use or co-exist with digital, virtual, and other in-person sales channels.

Ability to get power from data

3M national key account managers need “highly developed Excel skills and competency in handling complex data analytics.” Although this 3M posting is somewhat on the edge (most salespeople don’t need to be analytical gurus), salespeople do need a greater inclination and aptitude for using analytics in customer interactions. This includes an ability to work with algorithmic outputs such as next best action recommendations, and a willingness to share feedback for training AI models.

Capacity to adapt

Apple enterprise channel account executives need to “adapt to change and find the right path without necessarily having all of the pieces to the puzzle.” Salespeople are often agents of customer change. Yet they must also adjust to new dynamics in their own world as a more agile approach to sales planning replaces traditional ways of working to a quarterly sales plan.

Although hiring for these five competencies is certainly an option, can these also be developed and nurtured on the job?

Two items on the list — collaborating and capacity to adapt — are likely to be in the “hire for” column. In our experience working with clients on recruiting over many years, these are largely inherent traits that are slow to build. Yet some more trainable ones, such as use of digital and virtual channels, make the “hire for” list too. A manager complained, “My reps never signed up to be virtual reps…they want to be out in the field.” Now, when hiring sales reps, the company assesses candidates’ ability to learn new technologies and willingness to communicate using the channels customers prefer, whether digital, virtual, or in-person.  Another sales manager told us, “A third of my people just don’t get it; they don’t have the digital skills and interest.” For the two-thirds of people who do “get it,” the right development, apprenticeship, and support programs can go a long way in boosting the capabilities needed for future success.

Digital natives (those born since 1980) will comprise 75% of the workforce by 2025. So, for most employees, it’s not a stretch to go from using a smartphone to learning to use Zoom, CRM tools, and platforms such as LinkedIn. Companies routinely train their salespeople on how and when to use various digital tools for customer connection, including social media, email, and videoconferencing. Although many sales organizations are hiring for digital skills, the pandemic-induced extended shift to virtual work proved that most of the digitally deficient and defiant can climb the digital learning curve.

For some of the competencies that companies are hiring for, an alternative is to provide centralized organizational resources for supporting salespeople. Say a salesperson wants to send a customer a contract renewal with pricing adjusted based on the customer’s actual past service usage. The salesperson can spend a day digging for all the information and creating a spreadsheet to calculate an answer. Or someone at headquarters who has analytical expertise and easy access to data can assemble a better answer quicker. Some companies have a central Center of Excellence (COE) to support salespeople in responding to a request for proposal (RFP). Others use a COE to feed on-demand industry and customer research to key account salespeople. “Anticipating the customer’s tomorrow” becomes as much a headquarter’s responsibility as it is a salesperson’s responsibility. This also keeps salespeople focused on customers.

Still, building some competencies requires more than training and support. Consider the AEs at Microsoft who sell to digital native startups. To be effective, AEs need to understand the evolving technology needs of startups, beyond what they can glean from a report prepared by a COE. Such capability is honed over time through experience and apprenticeship.

One clear overarching theme comes across in the job postings. Sales organizations are looking for experience and future-oriented capabilities. Many new hires will come from companies with different cultures and workstyles. This means that onboarding and ingestion of new salespeople needs a heavy dose of acculturation. At Salesforce, new hires participate in a weeklong “Becoming Salesforce” program featuring fireside chats with executives and values-focused breakout sessions. And an internal collaboration tool called Chatter allows new hires to follow seasoned company top performers to share best practices.

By using these and other strategies to align sales hiring, development, support, and apprenticeship with the five forward-looking competencies, sales organizations position themselves for success in the digital age.

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