Sales is a lot like dating: It is arguably more complicated now than it was 25 years ago. Before the internet, single people spent a lot more time “prospecting” for potential dates in the “real world.” First impressions carried a ton of weight, and information was revealed slowly, on a need-to-know basis. In the digital age, with the prevalence of online dating apps and social media, it’s possible for people to learn a lot about one another before they even meet. These trends have changed both the goal and the process of dating significantly.

Selling is no different. The ready availability of information at our fingertips is fundamentally changing how customers buy. Not only does every company have a website to present what it wants the world to know about its product or service, but there is also a lot of external information available on Google, Wikipedia, Yelp and social media sites to help fill in the gaps. As a result, buyers can quickly form opinions and make decisions much more quickly – often before they even speak with a salesperson.

This change makes the initial step of connecting more crucial. The first conversation a salesperson has with a prospect can either make or break the sale, based on his or her ability to develop rapport, understand what the prospect is saying, adapt to the buyer’s mindset and facilitate the conversation. Some people have an intrinsic aptitude for this, while others need to work to develop new skills. In either case, good training can improve sales outcomes.

At the end of the day, every close relies on a salesperson’s ability to connect in the opening phase of the process. That’s why the most important thing a sales trainer can do to help increase successful outcomes is to help reps learn how to connect with buyers.

At its heart, the sales process is about creating artificial momentum. Once the perfect prospect has been identified, the next task is to build credibility, extract interest and create momentum where none previously existed. The challenge is that the first conversation with the prospect may go differently than the salesperson expected. Prospects are typically preoccupied, and most view sales calls as an interruption. What’s more, the fact that prospects are now armed with more information gives them an advantage.

Consequently, prospects can come off as disinterested or even aggressive in their resistance to entering into a dialogue with the salesperson. The key to breaking through this resistance is finding common ground – that sweet spot where the buyer feels confident that they can derive something they need from the conversation and the salesperson has the opportunity to learn more about the buyer wants.

Here are four critical skills that sales trainers can focus on to help professionals find common ground with prospects:

1. Developing Rapport

There’s a common misconception that sales is all about building relationships. In reality, sales is about developing three essential elements: credibility, rapport and an understanding of the prospect’s needs. Relationships are a byproduct of these elements. Everything a salesperson says and does adds or detracts from his or her credibility. Credibility yields trust and, in turn, improves rapport. When there’s good rapport, the buyer feels confident in sharing more information, which increases understanding. Only when those three elements are established in equal measures can salespeople achieve the right solution.

triangle with one word on each side: understanding, rapport and credibility

2. Listening to Learn

Salespeople are increasingly functioning as knowledge brokers who are often tasked with knowing more about their customers’ industries than their customers do. In today’s hypercompetitive environment, it is no longer sufficient for salespeople to function merely as human conduits for information that the buyer could easily find on company websites and dozens of other online sources. If the buyer is willing to share his or her perceptions, the salesperson needs to listen to learn, not just listen to respond. Each conversation is an opportunity to ask questions that will ultimately lead to a better understanding of the buyer’s mindset.

3. Extemporaneous Speaking

In order to survive and thrive in a hypercompetitive business environment, salespeople need to be agile enough to deviate from the script to provide fast, tailored solutions to customers. This adaptive selling will be the key to success. All buyers want to feel that their problem is unique and their solution is special, so it stands to reason that the most effective solutions are (or at least feel like they are) highly customized. Modern buyers are looking for just-in-time solutions that are tuned to their individual needs, so salespeople need to develop the ability to develop impromptu responses on the fly.

4. Facilitating the Dialogue

This skill is essential to creating an atmosphere in which the buyer wants to interact with the salesperson and open up about his or her business needs. To create this atmosphere, salespeople can use a “why speak statement,” which lays out the potential benefits of the conversation. It might go something like this: “Our call today is to talk about how you can drive your business with X. In order to do that, I’d like to start off by talking a bit about your goals. Does that makes sense?” If the buyer responds in the affirmative, the salesperson has effectively created an environment in which both parties can connect with and qualify one another.

Connecting is the first step toward making a successful sale – and toward driving most types of business deals. By focusing on the critical skills people need to master in order to successfully connect, sales trainers will do a huge service to professionals in all industries.