Sales and marketing

Are Traditional Sales Skills Still Relevant?

Categorize this post as “thinking out loud.” I’m not sure what I think about this issue, so I’m using the post to help me think through it and to get your input and ideas.

Author: David Brock, president, Partners in Excellence
LinkedIn: David Brock of Partners in Excellence

We all know the story—buying has changed profoundly, complex buying is chaotic, we need to be customer focused/driven, we need to create value in every interaction…..

At the same time, customers have many more sources/channels for information to help in their buying decisions, AI/ML technologies will make many transactional sales roles less necessary (tough this isn’t new news).

And we have the convergence of information overwhelm, increased sources of distraction, accelerating change, and skyrocketing complexity–in our customers markets, in their own organizations, with competition/partners, and within our own organization.

In the face of all this, for the most part we are training our sales people in the same skills I learned many decades ago, and my predecessors learned decades before that.

Sales Training Programs: Truly Evolving?

To be fair, the training programs have advanced somewhat in their current implementation, though much of it seems cosmetic. Many are leveraging technology for delivery or to provide implementation support tools, but when I speak with both vendors and customers, I find them describing the same skills I learned:

  • prospecting
  • qualifying
  • questioning/probing/listening
  • objection handling
  • closing
  • effective demos
  • competitive selling
  • territory management
  • account management
  • deal strategy development
  • pipeline management
  • understanding customer decision-making
  • understanding buying processes
  • financial selling
  • negotiating
  • developing relationships
  • trust-based selling
  • and so forth.

Even concepts of insight based selling are repackaging of consultative, solution, customer focused selling programs of the 60s, 70s, 90s.  And, there’s always endless product training (actually most of sales training ends up not being selling skills, but instead product training.)

Sales Training: A Case of Deja Vu

At the risk of repeating myself, these programs have been upgraded in how they are being presented. Rather than heavily product selling focused, they leverage more customer focused language, but under the covers, they haven’t changed substantively. Otherwise, why do customers constantly complain about being pitched, sales people not understanding their problems, and so forth.

At the same time, sales performance continues to stagnate or even decline. The gap between what customers consider helpful and sales people’s ability to be helpful is increasing.

Plus, sales execs and sales enablement execs are trying to fill the rapidly increasing gap between what customers want/need and sales’ ability/skills to execute.

Where possible, products/solutions are being repackaged to making buying/selling easier–in essence “transactionalizing” what had been a complex sale. Rather than making an enterprise sale, we are making individual or departmental sales. This has a number of advantages, skill levels don’t need to be as high, we can leverage role specialization more effectively (creating sales assembly lines with customer widgets passing through each station), and we can effectively leverage all the traditional selling skills.  Also, these are the easiest applications of AI/ML technologies. The more “predictable” the process is, the more it can/will be managed by technology, bots, and automated agents.

Where this can be done, it should be–but the more it can be done, the more we and customers will leverage technologies to reduce/eliminate the need for sales people.  Stated differently, I’d hate to be a SDR (the way we currently define the role) in the 2020’s. Even many AEs will be unnecessary in the transactional environment.

But there are limitations to this. Many of the original SaaS companies have found they cannot effectively scale this approach  (costs, staffing, and other issues).  Many complex buying/selling processes simply cannot and should not be “transactionalized.”

As we look at the changes that are happening with our customers, their markets, their competition, their growth strategies, the internal complexities they have in getting things done/achieving their goals, and the challenges they face in buying.  The question arises, “Do traditional selling skills help us more effectively and impactfully engage our customers, helping them get things done?”

Sales Skills: Common Themes

Of course, there are skills we call “selling skills,” that are critical to everyone in an organization. The ability to listen, question, probe and communicate effectively is important to every professional, whether they sell, or whether they work on teams internally.  Internal teams don’t think in terms of “objection handling,” but they have skills at resolving differences of opinions, contention/conflict within their own organizations. But one wonders, “do we need sales specific training,” or might we be more effective if sales people wen through the same skills training as the people they would be working with?

There are a lot of skills we don’t focus on in selling, but are critical to our customer success and our own internal success. Such as:

  • Critical thinking
  • problem solving
  • collaboration
  • project management
  • curiosity
  • facilitation
  • business management/analysis
  • dealing with risk/uncertainty/ambiguity and so forth.

Sales Training: Evolving Our Approach

What if we started training our sales people in the same skills that are critical to our customers and within our own organizations? Would they be able to engage the customer and our own people much more effectively, enabling both they and sales make more progress?

Maybe there’s a further step, why do we need to make these programs specific to selling?  What if we mixed different disciplines/functions/points of view in the same training programs.  Rather than a sales focused training workshop on problem solving, what if sales people train with finance, engineering, operations, and manufacturing people?

For example, one of the best training programs I’ve been through was a 6 week program on Commercial Banking at Wharton.  It wasn’t “How do you sell to commercial bankers,” rather it was on critical issues in commercial banking, all the participants except for 3 of us were commercial bankers.  In that workshop, I was learning with them, understanding their perspective, how they thought about things.  It paid huge dividends in my ability to have discussions with commercial bankers in how they could leverage the solutions I sold.

Increasingly, we both conduct and observe workshops that aren’t focused on sales people, but bring people from various disciplines together to learn.  How better to learn collaboration than to work with people you need to collaborate with, or curiosity by learning about different functions, or project management with people that will actually be on the projects we will be helping our customers manage?

Undoubtedly, there are training programs that need to be specific to sales people, just as there are for other functions.  But:

  • Are the old time, traditional sales training programs even necessary given the challenges our buyers and we face today?
  • Do we need to design those programs to be specific to sales, or could we get more value by conducting them for a multifunctional audience?

I could argue both ways–really I’m not sure, but leaning away from the traditional sales skills training.  What do you think?

David Brock is president of Partners in EXCELLENCE, a management consulting firm focused on sales productivity, channel development, strategic alliances and more. Read more blogs from Brock here.