I've written extensively about sales skills over the years, so when my editor asked for a list of five essential skills, I really had to think about it before winnowing it down. Everything considered, I have to say that, today, these five skills are the most essential:

1. Getting Recommendations

I'm consistently struck by the number of sales organizations that don't use their existing customers to find new customers. Assuming your product is good and useful, your customers are your most natural salespeople. However, you need to make it easy for them to recommend you to their colleagues.

Please note that I'm talking about a recommendation rather than just contact info. When a customer (or anybody else) gives you some contact info, with which you proceed to cold call or cold email, typically with a lead in like "Joe told me you might be interested," that's a weak ploy and seldom provides much advantage.

A true recommendation is when a customer contacts one of his or her colleagues and actively suggests that the colleague speak with you. Such opportunities are easy to close because you're "pre-vetted." The colleague knows you're trustworthy because somebody he or she respects recommended you.

There are two steps to getting recommendations:

  1. Provide such stellar service that there's no question in the minds of your customers that you're such a valuable resource that recommending you to their colleagues will enhance your customers' standing with those colleagues.
  2. Ask. It's really that simple. Ask your customers if they know of anybody whom you can help. When they say yes, ask them to email a recommendation to that colleague and CC you on the email. Then you can take it from there.

2. Reactivating Contacts

For most sales teams and salespeople, the Rolodex (remember those things?) of existing contacts is a hugely underutilized resource. Unfortunately, most salespeople seem to be weirdly ham-handed when it comes to getting back in touch with a contact that's gone stale.

Typically, salespeople send an email like:

Joe, I hope you're doing well! I want to tell you about this new product that I'm sure you'll want to buy ... "

Such emails miss the point that reactivating a contact means reestablishing the relationship, and that requires more than a pro forma inquiry about somebody's health.

Rather than jumping into a sales pitch, you should put aside what you're selling and ask a real question about your contact's life and career.

And when I say put it aside, I mean really put it aside. Focus on the relationship. Get into a conversation. If there's business to be done, the subject will come up naturally.

3. Cold Emailing

If I were writing this post 10 years ago, this paragraph would be titled "Cold Calling," since that was a crucial skill. Since the invention of the iPhone in 2007, though, business people no longer take calls from strangers, and voice mail is going the way of the fax machine.

As of now, the only effective way to contact a stranger in a business setting (short of stalking them at a conference) is to write an email that will get opened and answered. Very few sales teams have this skill and instead use ineffective "spray and pray" emails that are chock-a-block with information and calls to action.

Since I've written extensively on this subject, I'll just summarize the rules:

  1. A short, relevant subject line.
  2. Sentence No. 1: a benefit that's meaningful to the customer. (What's in it for me?)
  3. Sentence No. 2: a reason why you're different or unique. (Why buy it from you?)
  4. Sentence No. 3: a simple yes/no question that will spark a reply to the email. (What's the next step?)
  5. Send it when the recipient won't be getting many emails.

4. Segueing Into a Meeting

This skill goes along with cold emailing, but only if you're doing it the right way. A cold email should never ask for a meeting, because that's asking too much, too soon. Even if your product is the greatest thing since sliced bologna, why would a stranger agree to spend his or her valuable time talking with you?

The purpose of a cold email is to get you into an online conversation (i.e., a trading of emails) with the prospect. Trading emails entails very little effort or risk on the part of the other person, so prospects are more likely to enter into such conversations.

However, once you're in the online conversation, you need to segue it into a telephone or face-to-face meeting. To do so, your subsequent email (i.e., the one you send after you've gotten a reply to your cold email) must add value without being verbose.

I usually recommend that the subsequent emails flesh out the "what's in it for me?" and "why buy it from you?" statements in the initial email. Substantiating (i.e., giving substance to) your initial claims helps the prospect decide whether you're worth the time and effort involved in a meeting.

5. Sensing the Close

The world's worst piece of sales advice is also the most well-known: "Always be closing." Everybody hates pushy salespeople; even pushy salespeople hate them! And there's no way to seem pushier than to constantly push toward closing a deal.

The trick to closing sales is not to push but to listen for the changes that take place in a customer's tone of voice and vocabulary when the person has decided to buy. Here are three things to listen for:

  1. The customer's voice becomes slightly lower and more relaxed.
  2. The customer mentions events that would only take place if he or she buys.
  3. The customer asks a question that only makes sense if he or she is going to buy.

The challenge here is learning to trust your gut that it's a good time to close. Sometimes salespeople avoid closing because they're afraid of getting a "no." Well, the only way you'll develop the sixth sense that it's time to close is by flubbing a few closes. It's all part of the process of learning to sell.