A company that can’t sell can’t survive. I think we’ve all realized that in a market economy, sales are self-evidently good, like oxygen. So, it is hardly surprising for many years we have sent salespeople to a multitude of training programs in an effort to teach them how to sell more stuff.

We attempt to accomplish this by putting a salesperson in a classroom, virtual class or an online course and hoping that some new formula or technique will prove transformative, sparking dramatic improvements in performance.

Over the years, we blindly switched methodologies in search of the right formula to improve salespeople:

  • Motivational Speeches were the rage in the 1970s. Pump salespeople full of hot air and teach them some tricky closing techniques.
  • Personality Styles took center stage in the 1980s. Learn to become a chameleon, and you’ll sell things like crazy.
  • Strategic Selling had its turn in the 1990s. Fill out a complicated blueprint of your client’s business, and you’ll crush the competition.
  • Solution Selling rose to the top in the early 2000s. Centered around the individual client’s needs, it was available in 42 flavors. (All kidding aside, this is the closest the training industry has come to as a successful approach.)
  • Challenge or Insight Selling had a short run from about 2010 to 2015, as trainers attempted to boost salespeople’s confidence, which often led them to pretend to understand their customer’s business better than the customers did.
  • Big Data in Sales Training. While many industries are neck-deep in what has become known as big data, until now, the sales training industry was not. There’s lots of surveys but no big data. With big data applied to sales training, now we know what skills to teach.

Big Data on Selling

I’m sure you’ve heard speculation about how many salespeople don’t ask for the order even once and how few sales books salespeople have actually read. But those statistics have no basis in fact. Nor do they give you a clue what’s needed to develop sales talent.

Fortunately, selling is a skill, not a style. In fact, hundreds of skills may be involved in making a complex, business-to-business sale. But here’s the rub: Humans don’t have much luck trying to learn hundreds of skills at once. What’s more, companies and their managers can’t measure, reinforce or reward that many. If training is to have a significant impact on sales performance, it has to concentrate on building a manageable number of skills.

The Big Five

Over the past 25 years, The Sales Board, Inc. has assessed more than a half million salespeople to determine the most important skills salespeople use during the sales call process. What has emerged from the data are five critical selling skills that produce the greatest gains in sales performance improvement.

Because these five are skills and not personality traits, they can be taught and learned, they can be improved and they can be measured. If you want to make the greatest impact on sales performance, the data says this is where to focus your training time and energy.

The Five Critical Selling Skills

  1. Buyer/seller relationship: Over the course of every sales conversation the buyer makes several decisions. And these decisions are made in the same order every time. The best performing salespeople build lasting relationships as they help customers make these sequential decisions.
  2. Sales call planning:  Every sale is a series of steps, a progression of milestones. And every milestone demands that salespeople get an agreement from the buyer that moves the process forward. That requires planning.
  3. Questioning skills: The question is the salesperson’s most important tool. It is used to engage with a prospect, discover needs, manage the sales conversation, gauge the customer’s mindset and gain commitments.
  4. Presentation skills: These are important but probably not in the way you believe. Most salespeople have been trained to think that two-thirds of their selling takes place during the presentation. The best presenters target presentations only on unique and important needs.
  5. Gaining commitment: It is vital that every salesperson understands that this is their principal mission. Weak skills here lengthen sales cycles and increase losses to competitors.

Analysis of decades of research and over 31.5 million data points revealed the average gains in how to properly leverage these five skills produced a 43% improvement in knowledge increase and a whopping 85% improvement in the ability to apply the skills in the field.

Salespeople who experienced these gains increased sales performance at six times the growth rate of the general population of salespeople in their industry. Salespeople who received training on these five skills and achieved mastery level increased sales performance at twice the rate of those who did not achieve mastery level. This demonstrates that the greater the knowledge and application of the five critical selling skills, the greater the performance change.