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Building sales competencies: Where to start

Building sales competencies

What are the main competencies sales people need to have to achieve the business results? Their competencies should drive revenue and profit, it should build the image of the organization and it should contribute to the customer satisfaction levels. It is clearly not the place in the organization to take any risks!

Why do sales managers and sales directors often get the feeling there are some square pegs running around, people just not making it, and yet they are highly skilled and hardworking people? Often these people were even the top sales people at a previous employer.

Following years as a Sales Executive, Sales Director, Sales trainer and coach, my view is that there is a missing step in many training and development plans in organizations – specifically for the sales team.

Getting to Grips with the Sales Competencies

So the interview went well, the brilliant new sales guy accepted the position and a couple of months down the track he seems to be a wrong appointment. It is just not working out and the customers are not happy with the new person. The disappointment and costs for both parties are massive and precious time is wasted as the full recruitment process has to start again.

Haphazard appointments harm the reputation and track record of both the organization as a good employer and the individual salesperson appointed. A little bit more planning and time spent prior to making an offer of employment will, to a large extent, eliminate this problem.

To be successful in the sale of a product or service, factors like the client set, market realities and the product or service itself determine the skills and competencies required for success. For instance, a very complex product or service with an average sales cycle of two years requires an inherently different type of sales person with totally different competencies than the profile of the over-the counter sales person for consumer goods.

How to Build a Competency Plan

Use customer interviews, market surveys, discussions with peers and colleagues, discussions with existing (good and bad) sales people as input to compile a competency matrix or table. Profile the successful sales people: what do they do and how do they handle situations? All this input provides a landscape of ‘ideal competencies’ for the sales person. Bear in mind that different sales positions in the organization might well require different competencies.

The next step is to prioritize the key competencies – where to focus first. Various companies, using professional models and highly qualified individuals specialise in competency assessment and their involvement will add credibility and accuracy to the process.

The following list of competencies and skills is merely an indication of what could be required by the specific environment of the organization:

  • Listening / Questioning and Clarification
  • Organized individual
  • Driver / Tenacity
  • Intellectual capability
  • Business acumen
  • Think out of the box (creative)
  • Problem solver
  • Tenacity
  • Dealing with executives
  • Handling of politics at the customer
  • Good negotiator and conflict handler
  • Disciplined / consistent individual
  • Analytical ability
  • Integrity / Ethics
  • Ability to mobilise the team
  • Persuasiveness.

Which Competencies are in Place

Once the ideal competencies have been profiled, the current competencies in the team need to be assessed to map against the ‘Ideal Competency’ list. This will provide a clear picture of the shortcomings or gaps in the team’s competencies and where to focus the training and development budget.

The assessment step applies to both existing sales people and new appointments. For new appointments, the manager should interview and test for specific key competencies identified for a position, scenario or customer set. Professional psychologists and trained people have the necessary tools to do this assessment. Where necessary, engage professionals to assist.

Sales Training Interventions

Most of the formal sales training courses focus on the sales process and provide a step by step guide to follow in the process, without addressing the key competencies required. The training course often provides tools, software and methodology to become more organized and disciplined, it assists with reporting and other internal matters, but does not assist with the other competencies like tenacity, integrity etc. Standardised sales training is excellent to get a common vocabulary and an understanding of ‘How we do things around here’. It is, however, highly debatable whether the sales people will execute effectively when they sit in front of the customer after only generic or standard sales training.

In broad terms, the sales training often focuses on the internal skills required in the organization. It focuses on the measurement and reporting systems. The skills or competencies required by salespeople when they are facing the customer are often neglected or plays second fiddle to the internally focused competencies.

Formal sales training should be complemented by customised interventions, built specifically to develop the customer-facing competencies. The focus should be on fine-tuning customer interactions. Interventions could, for instance, be be one-on-one coaching, team coaching to achieve a common goal, courses on complex negotiation techniques, listening and questioning skills, a well planned mentoring and feedback program, brain profiling (thinking styles), business skills, industry skills, etc. Interventions can often be fun or team building events and should be viewed as recognition of the potential the organization sees in the sales force. It is about creating well-rounded individuals that the customer will want to meet to discuss their business issues.

Think Before You Appoint a Sales Person

There is no time to take shortcuts in the development process of an organizations’ sales force. Recruit and train with a plan. Gain control of the situation – who is out there representing your company? Is the organization diligent in their appointments and training? Is the sales force creating the image the organization requires? Without an overall training and development plan based on the competency gap in the sales team, all efforts to get the sales team on track will remain shots in the dark.