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The Top 10 Characteristics of Effective Sales Professionals

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Competition in selling is as intense as it has ever been. The sales professionals who succeed bring the extra 10 percent that makes the difference between a win and a loss. However, this 10 percent is elusive because it is not always clear what it represents. Many sales professionals are ready and willing to make the extra effort but are unclear on exactly where and in what way those efforts should be directed.

Here, we bring clarity to that challenge by isolating the top 10 characteristics of effective sales professionals. After more than 40 years of training some of the most ambitious sales teams, we have learned that these characteristics are essential to finding that last 10 percent.

The most effective sales professionals:

  • Follow a Customer-Centric Approach: As our CEO John Elsey commented, “Innovative sales leaders are focusing less on promoting their own competitive advantages.” This may seem like a counter-intuitive strategy in an increasingly competitive environment. However, instead, they’re exploring how they can create competitive advantages for their customer and help them lead their market rather than worry about how to differentiate themselves from the competitor.” The best sales professionals do just that. They consider what will make the customer stronger, and they speak to those needs.
  • Are Discerning in their Negotiations: A concession occurs when one gives something up and gets nothing in return. A trade is an exchange; the sales professional is giving to get. Trading means protecting essentials without unilateral concessions that leave money on the table. Effective sales professionals know the difference between the two. They know that trading cannot occur in an adversarial setting. In such an environment, a customer, otherwise willing to trade, may resist at the behest of their ego. Findings published in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review “serve to shatter the myth that adversarial bargaining is more effective and less risky than problem-solving.”
  • Build Trust to Overcome Commoditization: Effective sales professionals understand that trust signals fairness and that building trust requires exchanging information. This sense of equitable interests has been shown to create effectiveness in selling. Trust creates efficiency in selling because future deals begin on a fully formed foundation. Over the long term, product features almost always risk commoditization. Trust, however, is not as easy for competitors to replicate. In addition to trading information, sales professionals can build trust by citing previous customer testimonials and taking the time to ask questions. The answers to these questions help clarify needs.
  • Adopt an Agile Approach: Effective sales professionals know that they need more than a range of skills — they need the ability to identify when and where they need to employ each of those skills. Agility is a crucial competitive advantage because it allows the sales professional to address the customer’s evolving needs at every turn in the buying process. An agile sales professional understands not only how to position the solution but also how to implement the solution, because a “closed” deal never truly closes. The sales professional must work to provide continuous value for the customer. A selling opportunity is not a transaction — it is the potential for an ongoing relationship.
  • Become a Trusted Advisor: Unlike an ordinary solution provider, a trusted advisor is an expert whom the buyer seeks during a period of change. Inhabiting this role requires the sales professional to assert a point of view because they must navigate and, ultimately, reshape the customer’s thinking. Effective sales professionals widen the customer’s purview, revealing the full scope of risks and opportunities. They can do so by making observations specific without reliance on jargon. Additionally, effective sales professionals use reflection questions to encourage the customer to think more deeply about the topic. “How does this solution fit into your business model?” and “What hesitations do you have regarding this solution?” are both examples of reflection questions.
  • Understand the Buying Factors: Effective sales professionals know that the customer’s journey revolves around a set of buying factors, which are the set of facts, influences, and circumstances that all contribute to the result of a decision to buy or not buy. These factors are dynamic, interrelated, and exert pressure on the customer throughout all stages of the customer’s buying journey. By identifying and understanding these factors, a sales professional can organize a messy buying journey.
  • Seek Commitment to Close: Maintaining momentum is what brings the deal to a close. Therefore, the most effective sales professionals work to reinforce perceptions of value. If sticking points persist, they make them contingencies and instead gain conceptual buying. They sustain momentum with specific, actionable next steps in unambiguous language. Until the sales professional has a signed contract, they have not closed — they have only reached a commitment. Even if the sales professional cannot reach an agreement, they must consider the best option before walking away. This minimally acceptable outcome must be clear to the sales professional before negotiating. If the sales professional formulates this best option in the moment, they’re likely to leave money on the table.
  • Normalize Discussions of Risk: Customers are uncomfortable with the risk of implementing a solution. To overcome this hurdle, effective sales professionals normalize discussions of risk. They must help the customer understand that all decisions — even no decision — present risk. What’s important is that the risks are calculated, right-sized, and outweighed by beneficial outcomes. The most effective sales professionals reduce the customer’s fear and anxiety by adopting a tone that allows concerns to be discussed openly. As the discussion unfolds, the customer becomes more comfortable with the change involved in adopting the solution.
  • Synthesize Different Perspectives into One Story: Effective sales professionals understand the importance of synthesizing different perspectives and needs into one cohesive story for change. They build a story that acknowledges each stakeholder’s central pain point while also proposing a solution forward. Doing so reinforces common ground. Effective sales professionals lay the groundwork for this process in the early stages of selling. They take the time to organize and understand the disparate goals and concerns among the decision-makers. When sales professionals are learning and discovering, they can float ideas to gauge reactions and foster gradual buy-in.
  • Continually Qualify: The customer’s needs change throughout the buying process. As a result, the scope of the sale also changes. Stakeholders enter and exit. This shifting sphere of influence can cause the deal to drift or die. Effective sales professionals identify red flags and reevaluate the deal to determine if it’s still real. They need the insight and resolve to let opportunities go, when necessary.
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