I'm frequently asked, "What are the most important skills a sales professional must have to succeed in today's competitive market?" The first step in acquiring the skills for success is recognizing that a sales professional is a professional, just as a physician, an attorney, or a commercial pilot are professionals.

Our research has shown there are three critical components that form a solid foundation for learning and result in exceptional performance for all professionals. They are systems, skills and disciplines.

The System is a set process or organized procedure that leads to a predictable result. Skills consist of the individual's knowledge and their ability to execute the system. Finally Discipline, probably the most critical component, is about the mindset of a professional -- how they think. Discipline is about the quality of execution and it includes the individual's emotional or mental stamina that is required to achieve the highest standards of performance. In short, these three areas represent knowing what to do, how to do it, and having the mental stamina to actually carry it out at a quality level.

That being said, the most important skills today involve the ability to:

  1. Research and prepare. Before you engage with a new customer or a new opportunity "you must be prepared to not be prepared." That is to say, you are so prepared that you are able to be relaxed, open minded, and ready for any path this conversation may take you and your customer. Top sales professionals don't just "wing it." They understand their customer's industry, their customer's business and the job responsibilities of the individuals they will be working with. They also recognize the characteristics of a high quality opportunity.
  2. Diagnose. The amateur salesperson "presents," but the successful professional "diagnoses." Quality diagnosis is the ability to guide the customer through their actual situation in a manner that brings awareness, clarity and ownership to the problem they are experiencing, or the opportunity they are missing. Top professionals understand how the absence of their solution might be affecting their customer, both their business performance and their individual job performance.
  3. Dollarize. The key skill required to accomplish this is the ability to help the customer quantify the financial impact of the situation. "How much is it costing them not to have what you are about to propose?" Understanding the cost of the problem provides the customer with a tangible measurement and a clear incentive to take action.
  4. Collaborate. A fourth critical skill area is the ability to collaborate with the customer to "co-design" the solution to be proposed, in a manner that leaves the customer with pride of authorship and the confidence to invest.
  5. Communicate. Creating a competitive edge requires a new way of thinking about the sales process and how you interact with your customers. This forms the foundation for the interpersonal communication skills that enable you to work with customers and colleagues in a way that builds mutual respect and, ultimately, long-term success for both your customer and yourself.

Perhaps the best way to summarize these characteristics is to reference the key skill from which our success derives, which is our mindset. How we think, our mindset drives our behavior, and our behavior leads to our performance. Our mindset forms the stance we take with respect to our customers. The Hippocratic Oath of a physician --"First do no harm"-- is at the heart of the thinking of the most successful sales professionals. They believe that their success will come from making their customers successful. They approach their customers thinking, "How can I help them succeed?" rather than "What can I sell them?" They think like a business person, rather than a salesperson. They see it as a process done "with" the customer rather than "to" the customer.