Over the past 10 years, I've had in-depth conversations with more than 75 sales gurus, as well as hundreds of sales professionals and managers.  Based on that experience, I have concluded that there are eight–and only eight–truly essential sales skills.

If you have these skills already, fantastic. If you don't, it's time to start filling in the gaps.

1. Researching Prospects

Chances are your prospect knows plenty about you, your firm and your competition.  In order to add real value, you'll need to know even more about the prospect, the prospect's business and the prospect's own customers.

2. Planning Meetings

Every contact with a prospect or customer should end in some kind of commitment from the customer—an agreement to do something that will move the process forward.  This is only possible if you plan carefully to make it happen.

3. Creating Rapport

The first decision that every buyer makes is: "Do I want to do business with this person?"  To create that all-important instant connection, you've got be curious, personable and really care about the people you're trying to help.

4. Asking Questions

If you can't satisfy a customer's real needs, you can't make a sale. And if you don't ask the right questions–or if you ask them the wrong way–you'll never know what the customers really need, and therefore will never be able to help.

5. Listening Actively

This is even more important than asking the right questions. When customers are talking, it's not enough to keep your mouth closed. You've also got to keep your mind open to discover ways to truly be of service.

6. Presenting Solutions

This means creating and describing a specific solution to previously agreed-upon needs.  Note: It is the exact opposite of a sales pitch, which is a one-size-fits-all way to say "all I care about is making a sale."

7. Asking for Commitment

All of the above is completely pointless if the activity doesn't eventually result in some sales.  If you don't ask for the business at some point, it's not going to happen. So learn how to ask.

8. Building Relationships

Your short-term goal is to walk "arm in arm" with the customer as they arrive at the best possible solution. Your long-term goal is to become part of that customer's essential business network ... and vice versa.

I'll be discussing all eight of these essential sales skills in detail–with specific tips and techniques–over the next few months in this column, so stay tuned.  Probably the best way to stay plugged in is to sign up for my free Sales Source "insider" newsletter.