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Standout in sales - 7 sales skills that actually make a difference

Posted by Simon Thiessen on 09-Sep-2015 10:00:00

Talking too much

Want to be a good salesperson? Spit those marbles out and stop talking!

How many times have you met someone who says they went into sales because they 'have the gift of the gab'? Is the ability to 'talk under water with a mouth full of marbles' really the most important skill a sales person can have? We don't think so. We actually believe that the ability to shut up is much more significant! After all, the world is full of people who can talk too much - but someone who knows when to listen is much rarer.

Think about this - nearly half of the population of many countries is introverted but, based on our observations and use of psychometric instruments in our sales training programs, nearly 80% of sales people are extroverted. Doesn't that mean that just 20% of sales people are more likely to do business in a way that suits nearly 50% of the population?

Other people suggest that the most important selling skills are things like managing objectionsclosing sales and finding new business. We agree that these are important - but they are really the result of more significant underlying sales skills.

Obviously the best time to identify these sales skills is when you are making decisions about hiring them - or not. 

Recruiting effective sales people with auditions

We believe that recruiting effective sales people depends on finding people with the right character - because that is the platform on which strong sales skills are built. 

If a sales manager conducts an interview well, they can actually turn the interview into a kind of live audition in which all of the critical sales skills and the underlying character traits are on display - or where the lack of them is revealed. 

So put aside all that information you want to share with them about the company and the job - and leave behind those questions about achieving sales budgets. Here are some strategies you could use to make that interview an audition.

The most important selling skills are really self-management skills because they reveal underlying character traits. Remember, you don't need to ask every question in this article - some questions will reveal more than one of the sales skills and underlying character traits you are looking for.

1. Skill - research; underlying character trait - discipline and diligence


Let's be honest about sales people - some are great at paperwork and detail but it isn't generally a strength. While this is frustrating for the sales manager waiting for the overdue monthly report, it isn't usually a performance killer. In fact, when we recruit people who are able to cope with the highs and lows of a sales career we shouldn't be too surprised when their attention to some detail is less than perfect.

But - and it is a big but - there are certain areas of attention to detail that a sales person can't succeed without. One of those is customer research. Many sales people thrive on the energy of dealing with other people - and all the preparation is drudgery to them. But they still need to do it. We all need the discipline to do some stuff that we don't enjoy so much. Without that discipline, a sales person won't succeed.

Test them out by starting your 'audition' with questions like - 'so what do you know about our company? Our competitors? Our history?


2. Skill - questioning technique; underlying character trait - interest in others

Good questioning skills are actually an indicator of a number of important character traits for a sales person - empathy, curiosity and problem solving ability to name a few.

All that important stuff we want to tell the candidate about the company and the job - a good sales person should be able to find that out for themselves. What isn't available through research can be found with good questions. Look especially for someone who:

  • has taken the time to prepare specific questions that fill gaps in their research
  • asks open ended questions early in the 'audition'
  • is prepared to follow up with extra questions when they feel they don't have all of the information they want
  • can confidently but respectfully ask questions about more delicate, uncomfortable or sensitive things (wouldn't you love to employ the sales person who confidently but without offence asked why the person they are replacing left?)

3. Skill - cope with challenging questions; underlying character traits - confidence, self-assurance

Sales people are never going to have the answers to every question a customer or prospect asks. They aren't going to have off the cuff responses every time they are challenged by a demanding or dissatisfied client. To deal with this, they need the confidence to stop and think instead of blurting out the first thing that enters their mind (or perhaps even bypasses their mind!). They need to continue the discussion without becoming rattled, defensive and plain old awkward!

Have a couple of your own questions prepared that will throw them off guard - but make them fair and make sure they are designed to help you assess whether the person and the role are a good match. If you have spotted a potential weakness in their resume, ask them about -  'I am concerned that you haven't/ have ... You are interested in their answer but probably more interested in the way they answer.

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4. Skill - self assessment; underlying character trait - ability/ willingness to learn


As Zig Ziglar said, 'if you keep doing the same thing, you are going to keep getting the same thing'. You don't want a sales person who keeps repeating their habits regardless of how effective they are because they are too lazy to learn from their outcomes or to change those habits. In ten years, this sales person will be about as good as they are today - they will have had one year of experience ten times!

Make sure you include some questions like:

  • What is one of the successes you are most proud of? What did you learn from it? (it doesn't really matter whether it is sales related or not)
  • Tell me about a time things didn't work out as planned? What did you learn from that?
  • What was one of your biggest mistakes - and what did you learn

If someone tells you they haven' made any mistakes, move on! This is the same person who will be sitting in your office blaming everything and everyone else for their lack of performance. If they recognise their mistakes but struggle to tell you what they have learned from them, they may still be a good candidate but you will need to coach them to be better at that self-reflection.

5. Skill - learning from others; underlying character trait - openness to input

You know those people in your team who just don't listen? Do you want more of them? I didn't think so. Really successful sales people are sponges for knowledge. They learn from everyone they meet. 

To find out if the person sitting in your 'audition' has an openness to learning from other people, throw a few of these questions in.

  • What's the most important thing you have ever learnt?
  • Who did you learn that from?
  • Who do you respect and admire? Why?
  • Who has been a mentor to you?
  • Tell me about a previous manager who taught you a lot. How did that happen?
  • Tell me about a previous manager who you struggled to learn from or that you didn't agree with. Why? How did that play out?

6. Skill - dealing with adversity; underlying character trait - resilience

You know that the person sitting in front of you is going to have some highs and lows if you give them a job. You also know that they will fly through the highs - but the lows are less certain. Will they crumble and lose confidence - or will they dig in and fix the problem. Once again, good questions are the key to finding out.

  • What is the hardest thing you have had to deal with in the workplace?
  • How did you deal with that?
  • What inspires you most?
  • What discourages you most?
  • When things aren't going well, how do you fix that?

7. Skill - goal setting; underlying character traits - focus, determination and persistence

One of the keys to persevering through tough times is having a goal that draws you through - sure there are problems now but they aren't so bad in context of the overall goal that is at stake. Ask people what their goals are, why they are important and how they are going to get there. 

Someone who can answer these questions is likely to be a good candidate as long as their goals match yours (or at least they are consistent with your workplace goals for them). Someone who doesn't have the answers may still work out but they will need coaching in this area from you.

recruiting_effective_sales_people_-_open_bookMake the 'audition' an open book exam

Do you remember open book exams from your days studying? It seemed too good to be true - taking all the answers in with you! Of course, clever examiners used that as an opportunity to ask even more challenging questions.

Could you apply this principle to your 'auditions'? Could you select some of the questions you will be asking and send them to the person before the interview? You would certainly learn a lot about their willingness to research and prepare.

When we select a Franchise Partner in our business, they are asked to complete an expression of interest that includes around twenty questions like the ones listed above. When they come to the final meeting at which we aim to make a decision (and where they make a decision about us) their answers are a really important basis for discussion.

Life as a sales manager can be challenging which is why we have created The Essential Guide to staying sane for the busy Sales Manager - a free download with twelve critical survival tips (see below!)

sales manager

Editor's note:This post was originally published in July 2014 and has been revamped and updated for comprehensiveness and better readability.


photo credit: Ed Yourdon via photopin cc photo credit: Auntie P via photopin cc photo credit: kiwikewlio via photopin cc

Topics: Sales, Sales Management