Imagine if your sales professionals could show up at client meetings like the hiking partner you want by your side when starting a journey up a new mountain. Not only do you know they’ll have detailed maps, modern equipment and a selection of great snacks, but you also know they will flexibly respond to whatever comes up on the journey. They can easily detect when you want to hustle and when you need to pause for a breath or to take in the view. When the fog rolls in and covers the way, or someone in your group twists an ankle, they have your back, calmly discussing options and figuring out a plan. They are a valuable resource, transforming any trip into an adventure – and providing the support necessary for you to be able to enjoy the ride.

Your clients are hiking up new mountains every day, with weather patterns to anticipate, trails to explore, rockslides to avoid and thrilling vistas to celebrate at the peak. They need partners who can adapt and navigate the challenges alongside them to reach their goals.

How do you train your sales team to be such partners? In our world of exponential technological change, they’ll need stronger communication skills to connect with buyers in increasingly shorter time frames. Most likely, that interaction will be virtual rather than face to face.

Can your sales team effectively tell the story of your product and bring it to life? Are they capable of building lasting relationships without meeting in person? And are they agile enough to navigate constant change?

The Heart of Adaptation: Taking a Confident Problem-solving Approach

In the face of change, it can seem that the most direct approach to improving sales performance is to simply speed up your sales team’s product knowledge curve. While it is essential, sales professionals armed only with this capability may be more inclined to memorize the set of solutions they feel most comfortable describing and then fire them off once they have an opening with a client.

However, customers’ needs can be complex and ambiguous (sometimes perplexing the customers themselves). They often involve high expectations, budget restrictions and multiple stakeholders. Salespeople who are only listening for their chance to make a sale will come across as out of touch and self-interested. They will also likely reduce your products and services to a simple set of their favorite go-to offerings and be resistant to adopting any new innovations – missing opportunities for broadening your impact with your clients.

Alternatively, the most appropriate (and successful) approach is to develop your team’s basic product knowledge along with their ability to partner with clients. This skill requires the ability to tune in to the context of the moment, distill unclear needs, brainstorm options, resolve unexpected objections and support the client with decision-making. Equipped with a problem-solving mindset, sales professionals are set up to patiently and confidently think alongside the customer to sort through their many considerations. With the client’s needs front and center, a sales professional can relax his or her need to be impressive and have all the answers, because this approach is about solving a problem with the client, not for them.

Engaging a customer through that approach may seem daunting, but much of it can be accomplished by leveraging a set of core communication skills that foster the relationship and build trust, engagement and the flexibility required to navigate uncertainty in partnership with your customer.

The Foundations of Problem-solving: Presence and Communication Agility

Focusing on the following soft skills with your sales team will develop their presence and communication agility, which are the fundamental building blocks to a problem-solving approach to sales.

Move from being polished to embracing being present

When people feel out of their comfort zone or threatened, the fight-or-flight response kicks in. Sales professionals who are trying to sell new products or are dealing with new clients can quickly find themselves less prepared than they would like and facing this physical response. Their stress behaviors can undermine them: talking too much, trying to relay a script in order to “get it right” or jumping to a quick solution rather than effectively listening.

An alternative is to focus on tuning into their authentic, calm presence in the moment so that in those first seven seconds with a customer, they are able to truly listen.

Move from listening to sell to listening to partner.

As humans, we are not wired to pay attention. By nature, our minds likes to wander – in fact, our minds spend about half their waking time wandering – and often, while someone else is speaking, we’re thinking about what to say next instead of listening. Being aware of this behavior is the first step toward changing it.

If salespeople want to genuinely solve their client’s problem, they’d better be prepared to listen and then ask lots of questions. They should go into meetings with an open mind and focus on what the client or prospect is saying – taking the role of consultant rather that prescriber at first. It takes work to actually listen, but it is paramount to understand challenges and get the whole picture, and it leads to a more successful relationship.

Move from sales pitch to engaged discussion.

As we know, people don’t like being “sold to,” so a sales pitch conjures up of negative connotations. Salespeople’s PowerPoint with charts and figures and their pre-filled sales contract all work against them. The client or prospect interaction should be a discussion with the goal of fully understanding the challenges facing that client. Selling, in some sense, takes a backseat here. Salespeople are establishing a consultative relationship and only then, after exploring challenges and needs in great detail, will they be in a position to suggest possible solutions as a partner, rather than seller.

Move from the desire to be impressive to being real.

Help your professionals develop a deep understanding of who they are and what they stand for – their values. Knowing their values can give them the grounding that will help them be more sincere and authentic. It’s an essential building block for both credibility and developing relationships.

Salespeople should connect and talk from the heart with clients and prospects. If your client wanted to hear the specs of your product, they’d read the guide. They’re talking to your team because they’re looking for a human connection. Being authentic is key to the relationship. Help sales professionals become conscious about how they come across and refrain from being “salesy.”

Storytelling is a powerful way to build relationships quickly, because it taps into the parts of the brain associated with establishing trust, memory, attention, cooperation and more. Your salespeople should be armed with personal stories and anecdotes about similar clients, problems or industries.

While your sales team could learn all the necessary techniques by reading a hiking “how-to” guide and hitting the indoor treadmill, would they know how to adapt to the real-life situation with other people, unexpected turns and unique needs? Are they ready to put down their manual and trail blaze the path with the client?

Are you still practicing older approaches to selling? Perhaps it’s time to switch tactics – to actively coach your sales team to focus on relationship-building, being present and being consultative – and see the difference.