What if I told you that there are some skills that can make your sales team more successful, but many salespeople and sales managers aren’t aware or haven’t mastered them?
We all know that distribution sales is a dynamic and competitive profession that requires a diverse set of skills and knowledge to succeed. While many salespeople and sales managers are proficient in the basics, such as prospecting, qualifying, managing opportunities, presenting, closing and managing accounts, mastering these fundamentals is no longer sufficient. (And let’s be honest, many distributors today are just beginning to move beyond territory and account management to reinvigorate new business development, so some of these fundamentals may need focus, as well.)
That said, with fundamentals firmly in place, there are some advanced skills that can give your sellers an edge over competitors to help them (and your company) achieve sales goals faster and more effectively.
In this article, I will share 10 advanced skills that are often overlooked and underappreciated aspects of sales expertise. We’ll cover mastering:
- Business Acumen
- Your ICP (Buyer and Customer Acumen)
- Professional Facilitation Skills
- Collaborative Negotiation Skills
- Personalized Solution Messaging
- Systems Thinking
- Deeper Communication Skills
- Data Analytics Skills
- Digital Literacy
- Referral Marketing
Let’s dig in.
Master Business Acumen
Business acumen is a vital skill that enables salespeople to understand the business context of their prospects, identify their challenges and opportunities and align their solutions with the prospects’ desired outcomes. We often equate business acumen with financial acumen, but it includes more, such as understanding the industry, market trends, competitors and even how business is conducted (how things get done inside corporations), or how a prospect or customer’s business makes money.
Some ways to develop business acumen include:
- Lay a foundation of financial acumen that is relevant for your company and customers (based on vertical industries and whether the companies are public or private).
- Read industry publications, such as magazines, blogs, newsletters and reports.
- Attend events, such as conferences, workshops, webinars and trade shows.
- Research competitors, such as their products, services, pricing, strengths, weaknesses and strategies.
- Make note of operating procedures and how business is conducted and “how things get done” in your company and others.
- Learning to ask insightful questions, such as about the prospects’ business model, goals, performance metrics and employ frameworks such as COIN-OP (Challenges, Opportunities, Impacts, Needs, Outcomes and Priorities) and WSWTWAH (Who Sells What to Whom and How).
Ensure sales professionals stay updated on industry news, economic factors and emerging technologies, as these can affect the prospects’ business environment and decision-making. Business acumen is not a static skill, but a dynamic one that requires constant learning and adaptation.
Master Your Ideal Customer Profile
An Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) is a detailed description of the specific type of company or individual that your business aims to serve best — a “customer avatar,” if you will, and buyer personas or archetypes. A deep understanding of your ICP helps salespeople to focus on the most qualified prospects or target the accounts with the most growth potential. To create an ICP, salespeople (and leaders) need to analyze their existing customers, identify their common characteristics and challenges and define the criteria that make them ideal.
According to a study by TOPO (now Gartner), companies that build and use ICPs have a 68% higher average account value and a 28% shorter sales cycle than those that don’t.
How to Use Your ICP for Better Sales Results
Knowing the target audience helps tailor sales strategies and messages. Salespeople can use their ICP to segment their prospects, create personalized and relevant content and deliver value propositions that resonate with their needs and goals. They can also use their ICP to qualify leads more efficiently and effectively, by asking questions that match their criteria and scoring them accordingly.
Encourage continuous refinement of the ICP based on market changes and customer feedback. An ICP is not a static profile, but a dynamic one that evolves with your business and your customers. Salespeople should regularly review and update their ICP, using data and insights from their sales performance, customer satisfaction and market trends. This will help them to stay ahead of the competition and adapt to the changing needs and expectations of their ideal customers.
Master Professional Facilitation Skills
Have you ever been in a meeting that was boring, unproductive or chaotic? If so, you know how frustrating and inefficient it can be. That’s why professional facilitation skills are crucial for salespeople who want to lead effective discussions, meetings and when needed, difficult conversations, with their prospects and customers.
Professional facilitation skills involve:
- Setting clear objectives, such as the purpose, scope and desired outcomes of the discussion, meeting or conversation.
- Preparing an agenda, such as the topics, activities and time allocation for each part of the session.
- Engaging the participants, such as by inviting their input, feedback and questions, and using icebreakers, energizers and interactive tools to keep them interested and involved.
- Managing conflicts, such as by acknowledging and addressing different opinions, perspectives and emotions, and using techniques to resolve disagreements and reach consensus.
- Following up with action items, such as by summarizing the key points, decisions and next steps, and assigning roles and responsibilities for the follow-up actions.
Professional facilitation skills can help salespeople in different scenarios. For instance, a salesperson who has professional facilitation skills can:
- Lead a discovery session far more effectively, to uncover challenges, opportunities, impacts, needs, outcomes and priorities.
- Conduct a demo or a presentation with a customer, where they engage their audience while they showcase their relevant solution, highlight its benefits and value, and address any concerns (as opposed to just pitching or presenting).
- Manage a difficult conversation with a stakeholder, where they communicate clearly and respectfully, acknowledge and validate their feelings, and propose a mutually acceptable solution.
Master Collaborative Negotiation Skills
How can you negotiate with your prospects and customers without damaging the relationship or leaving money on the table? The answer is collaborative negotiation skills. Collaborative negotiation skills enable salespeople to create win-win outcomes for both parties, build trust and rapport, and foster long-term relationships. They also allow sellers to reflect and redirect when customers use time-worn tactical negotiating gambits.
Some best practices for collaborative negotiation include:
- Understand the needs and interests of both sides by asking open-ended questions (and continuing to “peel the onion” to get to root-causes and true interests), listen actively and empathetically, and acknowledge and validate their interest, desired outcomes and concerns.
- Explore options and alternatives, such as by brainstorming creative and mutually beneficial solutions, using objective criteria and standards, and trading off issues of different value to each side.
- Seek mutual benefits, such as by emphasizing common goals and interests, building trust and rapport, and creating value for both parties.
Collaborative negotiation skills can help salespeople in different scenarios. For instance, a salesperson who has collaborative negotiation skills can:
- Negotiate a contract renewal with a customer, where they explore ways to add value to the existing agreement, such as by offering additional services, discounts, or referrals, and by addressing any issues or feedback from the customer.
- Negotiate a price increase with a prospect, where they explain the reasons and benefits of the increase, such as by highlighting the quality and uniqueness of their solution, and by showing how it can help the prospect achieve their goals and solve their problems.
- Negotiate a complex deal with multiple stakeholders, where they identify and engage with the key decision makers and influencers, such as by understanding their roles, perspectives and preferences, and by tailoring their messages and proposals to each of them.
Master Personalized Solution Messaging
How can you make your prospects and customers feel that your solution is the perfect fit for them? Assuming that there is a great fit (or what I call Need and Solution Alignment or NASA), the answer is personalized solution messaging. I sometimes refer to this as “multilingual selling.” I don’t mean whether you can speak German, French, or Italian, but whether you can speak CFO, Plant Manager and Director of Procurement (or whichever personas you work with).
The ability to personalize solution messaging based on personas and how they perceive value is a key skill for salespeople to communicate the value proposition of their products or services in a way that resonates with different decision-makers.
To personalize solution messaging, salespeople need to:
- Segment their prospects based on their personas, such as their roles, goals, and COIN-OP.
- Identify how each persona (and eventually, each real decision-maker) perceives value, the problems they commonly face, the outcomes they are looking for and what criteria and standards they use to evaluate solutions. In Modern Sales Foundations, we categorize value drivers as business, experiential, aspirational and personal.
- Craft customized messages that address their specific challenges and desired outcomes by using storytelling, examples, testimonials and case studies to illustrate the value proposition and differentiation of their solution.
This is a powerful concept. Ensure salespeople learn to speak about their solutions in multiple ways and adapt messages to resonate with various stakeholders. Encourage empathy and understanding of different perspectives. Personalized solution messaging can help salespeople to connect and communicate more effectively with their prospects and customers, and to increase their trust, credibility, win rates and account growth.
Master Systems Thinking
How can you deal with complex and dynamic sales situations that require more than just following a predefined process or methodology? The answer is systems thinking. Systems thinking is a holistic approach to work that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate, work together over time, and within the context of larger systems. Considering the bigger picture can help troubleshoot why something you’re trying to do isn’t working.
Systems thinking is helpful for sellers but may be skewed a bit more toward sales managers. It can help salespeople and sales managers to:
- Understand the big picture and the root causes of sales problems, rather than focusing on the symptoms or the events.
- Identify and leverage the feedback loops, delays and nonlinearities that affect sales process, sales performance, buyer’s journeys and buying experience.
- Anticipate and avoid unintended consequences and side effects of sales actions and decisions.
- Design and implement more effective and sustainable sales solutions that account for the interdependencies and dynamics of the sales system.
Systems thinking can help salespeople and sales managers in different scenarios. For instance, a salesperson or a sales manager who uses systems thinking can:
- Analyze the sales pipeline and forecast more accurately, by considering all the factors that influence both.
- Improve customer retention and loyalty, by understanding the larger customer experience that affects satisfaction, referrals and repeat purchases, such as demonstrated integrity throughout the sales process, product quality, service delivery, a focus on ensuring promised outcomes are delivered and ongoing customer support.
- Increase sales productivity and efficiency by optimizing the sales process and methodology based on the needs and preferences of the customers, the market conditions and the sales goals, rather than following a rigid or generic approach.
Master Deeper Communication Skills
Communication is the core of sales. Sales professionals need to master a variety of communication skills to connect, earn trust, serve, persuade and influence their prospects and customers. Yet, we often take communication skills for granted, or think that “we’re good enough” already, instead of purposefully working to deepen and master them. Here are some skills to work on:
- Active listening (listening to understand versus reply)
- Empathetic communication (being “other-centric”)
- Ethical influence and persuasion (once you know you’re operating in your prospect or customer’s best interest)
- Storytelling (perhaps using POSE Value Stories with Ethos, Pathos and Logos)
- Questioning expertise (“peeling the onion” to go deep and asking insightful questions)
- Non-verbal communication (learning body language)
- Conflict resolution (how to navigate conflict constructively)
- Adaptability in communication styles (as discussed above)
- Purposefully asking for feedback (and changing/improving accordingly)
Master Data Analytics
As a sales professional, mastering data analytics is essential for making informed decisions and refining your sales strategies. Key skills include:
- Data Collection: Gather reliable data from diverse sources like CRM systems, websites, social media and research/surveys.
- Data Analysis: Use tools like Excel or business intelligence software for robust analysis, identifying patterns, trends and correlations. Learn and apply basic statistical methods to test assumptions and hypotheses.
- Data Visualization: Present data effectively using tools like PowerPoint. Create charts, graphs and tables that tell a compelling story and persuade your audience.
- Data Interpretation: Draw insights from data to support sales goals. Evaluate data quality, avoiding biases and errors.
Developing these skills enhances your ability to interpret or troubleshoot research, draw conclusions from data, and help your customers do the same.
Master Digital Literacy
In the modern B2B landscape, digital communication and tools play a significant role. At a minimum, sales professionals should be adept at using social media, using whatever sales software your company employs, and at least have an awareness of emerging AI tools that can support selling or managing. And, of course, they should have familiarity with CRM systems.
In this category, it’s worth calling out social marketing and digital communication tools.
- Social marketing: The use of social media platforms to research, connect and engage with prospects and customers, and to establish oneself as a thought leader and a trusted advisor is becoming increasingly important. Social marketing can help salespeople to generate more leads, increase brand awareness and shorten their sales cycle. Great content marketing is like a magnet for your ICP.
- Digital communication tools: You need to know how to use video conferencing, chat, digital whiteboards and other digital communication tools. They can help you collaborate internally and communicate with your customers, as well as present and demonstrate your products and services. Way too many distributor reps fumble with technology, especially the old guard. Don’t be a Luddite – it’s learnable.
Master Referral Marketing
Referral marketing is the process of generating leads and sales through word-of-mouth recommendations from existing customers or partners. This can help B2B salespeople and sales managers to increase their reach, credibility and lead generation, as well as to reduce their customer acquisition cost (CAC) and sales cycles.
- According to a survey by Extole, 83% of satisfied customers are willing to refer a product or service, but only 29% actually do.
- According to a survey by The Brevet Group, 91% of customers would be willing to provide a referral to a company or brand they are satisfied with. However, only 11% of salespeople actually ask for referrals.
This is a massive, missed opportunity. You need to be proactive and confident in asking for referrals. Here are some things to consider to master referral marketing:
- Ask for referrals: You need to know how to ask for referrals from your satisfied customers in a timely and appropriate manner. You also need to know how to overcome any concerns or hesitations that they may have. But mostly, when you have a satisfied customer, you need to ask.
- Offer incentives: You need to know how to offer incentives to your customers and their referrals that are attractive and relevant. You can choose the referral rewards that match your customer’s preferences and values, such as discounts, free trials, gift cards, or donations.
- Use tools and platforms: You need to know how to use various tools and platforms to simplify and automate the referral process and reduce any friction points. You can use tools such as CRM systems, referral software, email marketing tools and others to manage your contacts, leads and deals, as well as track your performance and progress. You can also use platforms such as social media, websites, blogs and more to display and promote your referral program and encourage your customers to share it with their networks.
- Measure and reward: You need to know how to measure and reward your referrals and their outcomes. You also need to know how to use data and analytics to evaluate the effectiveness and ROI of your referral program and improve it accordingly. You can use tools such as dashboards, reports and surveys to collect and analyze data and feedback from your customers and their referrals. You can also use incentives, recognition and appreciation to reward your customers and their referrals for their loyalty and advocacy.
By developing these referral marketing skills, you can improve your sales performance and achieve better results. Referral marketing is one of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to grow your sales and revenue.
- According to a study by Nielsen, 92% of consumers trust referrals from people they know and people are four times more likely to buy when referred by a friend.
- According to a report by Influitive, B2B companies with referrals have a 70% higher conversion rate, a 69% faster close time and a 59% higher lifetime value than other sources.
It’s worth the effort.
In conclusion, the journey from proficient to exceptional is paved with these underutilized advanced skills and practices. It’s clear that the path to success is not solely about mastering the basics; it’s about mastering the nuances that set high-performing sales teams apart (think: competitive differentiation).
That said, you can’t build a skyscraper on a foundation of mud. If your sales force needs to hone and improve their foundational skills – yes, you must close those gaps first.
Then (or if those foundations are already firmly in place), you can integrate these advanced skills while fostering a culture of continuous learning. By doing so, you empower your sales force to thrive in the ever-changing B2B sales landscape.
In either case, excellence requires execution. Your journey to unparalleled success starts now. If you need help or advice along the way, you know where to find me. And if not, I’d still enjoy hearing about your journey and successes. Feel free to reach out at any time.
Mike Kunkle is a recognized expert on sales enablement, sales effectiveness, and sales transformation. He’s spent over 29 years helping companies drive dramatic revenue growth through best-in-class enablement strategies and proven-effective sales transformation systems. In doing that, he’s delivered impressive results for both employers and clients. Mike is the founder of Transforming Sales Results, LLC and works as the Vice President of Sales Effectiveness Services for SPARXiQ, where he designs sales training, delivers workshops, and helps clients improve sales results through a variety of sales effectiveness services. Mike collaborated with Doug Wyatt to develop SPARXiQ’s Modern Sales Foundations™ curriculum and has authored SPARXiQ’s Sales Coaching Excellence™ course, a book on The Building Blocks of Sales Enablement, and collaborated with Felix Krueger to develop The Building Blocks of Sales Enablement Learning Experience.