I surveyed 53 sales managers, asking them (among other things) what essential skills their top-performing salespeople possess.

Okay, it wasn’t an actual survey. However, our team at Sales Readiness Group (SRG) recently completed rolling out a sales training program from a large sales organization, and I was reviewing my notes from interviews with frontline sales managers as part of the customization process. As I studied these notes, I started noticing trends.

Intrigued, I reviewed notes from conversations with sales managers from other large projects SRG had recently completed. These sales organizations were in different industries — technology, financial services, life sciences and manufacturing — and had sales cycles that ran from simple to highly complex. Nevertheless, several clear themes emerged.
Here are critical insights based on my unscientific “survey” of these 53 conversations.

Prospecting is Always a Problem

This one was nearly unanimous. The inability to consistently add new sales opportunities to the top of the pipeline was a significant concern for most managers.

Great reps differentiate themselves through disciplined prospecting. For those managing enterprise salespeople in my survey, better prospecting often meant that the salesperson was expanding their footprint in an existing account or booking appointments with senior stakeholders at new accounts. For those managing small- and mid-sized business (SMB) teams, better prospecting started with their salespeople having the discipline to maintain high activity levels consistently.

Great Reps Do These Three Things

When I asked about the selling skills that set their top performers apart from the bottom performers, the answers typically included active listening, call planning and asking thoughtful questions.
It surprised me how often sales managers identified active listening as the number one sales skill they correlated with top sales performance.

Product Knowledge Has to Translate Into Solutions

It’s a given that successful salespeople must have excellent product knowledge. But the sales managers told me that the best-performing reps on their teams could apply their product knowledge to the customer’s unique problem.

The secret sauce of super reps was the combination of having product knowledge, gaining a deep understanding of the customer’s problem and then applying their intelligence and creativity to solve that problem.

Pay Attention to the Intangibles

The sales managers didn’t agree on everything. When it came to the intangibles, their responses varied. Attributes such as work ethic and curiosity (this one surprised me) were often mentioned, but so were coachability, competitiveness, resiliency and motivation.

You can’t train on the intangibles, but you can hire on them. However, your own cognitive biases can get in the way here. You’re susceptible to hiring people like yourself. You can overcome this similarity attraction bias by looking for the attributes of other successful salespeople on your team and replicating the top performers.

While I fully acknowledge that my “survey” results are unscientific, I think many of the ideas and concepts these 53 managers discussed will resonate with most sales leaders.