The skills that Sales Sherpas™ need to guide their customers through their buying journey are much different from what drove success in the past.
The future of the sales profession seems to be changing daily. New technology and rapidly changing customer needs are combining to reshape the foundations of the success as we move into the heart of the 21st century.
So it begs the question:
How can you stay relevant and excel as a sales professional? What skills will keep you on the path to success?
Luckily, LinkedIn puts out an Emerging Jobs Report every year which has some insights we can use. The first LinkedIn Emerging Jobs Report in 2018 contained some important trends. And those trends have stuck around as shown by the most recent 2020 Emerging Jobs Report.
These reports make a compelling case that salespeople will continue to fulfill a valuable role in the near future. And in an increasingly high-tech world, it points to the value of some decidedly old-school skills as the key to sales success.
Sales Robots Aren’t Replacing Humans Yet
First of all, salespeople can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s pretty clear that there is continued demand for sales professionals. These types of positions aren’t going to be completely replaced by technology anytime soon. Of the top ten emerging (high growth) jobs listed in 2019, five of them are some form of sales role: Application Sales Executive, Professional Medical Representative, Relationship Consultant, Sales Development Representative, and Business Support Consultant.
And in 2020, sales and customer success roles showed similar growth rates as data scientists and full stack engineers.
So even though technology and automation are replacing some of the roles and responsibilities in the sales process, we’re not ready to surrender the entire sales process to AI. Human interaction still plays a key role in connecting and engaging with new customers.
For example, tech companies that leverage AI and machine learning are still in need of those with people skills to help move projects forward. And there continues to be high demand for those that can find and develop new customer relationships.
We need to look at what skills are needed to excel in these roles. What are employers looking for? It turns out that they aren’t the technical and product-driven skills you might think.
Soft Skills Are in High Demand
With the rise of technology, it would seem that time spent developing “hard skills” would be useful. It’s easy to think that future-proofing your sales career comes from product knowledge and getting the latest industry certifications. Likewise, learning the ins-and-outs of AI, CRM platforms, and marketing automation stacks seems an obvious place to focus your professional development.
But those areas will only get you so far. Industry knowledge and digital fluency remain important, but they’re just a start.
When you dive further into the 2018 Report, you’ll find the section entitled “Skills with the Biggest Skills Gap” listing. These are the skills that have the highest demand and the lowest supply. They indicate what employers are looking for and what they are having a problem finding.
And what are employers looking for?
People skills. Employers want the soft skills that revolve around human interaction and the less quantifiable aspects of business. In fact, they represent six out of the top ten areas with the biggest skill deficiencies listed in 2018. They include: Oral Communication, People Management, Social Media, Business Management, Time Management, and Leadership.
The 2020 report goes further and says, “The future of the tech industry relies heavily on people skills.” So bringing those skills to the table is critical no matter the industry.
The skills that are going to drive success for salespeople are the ones that focus on human-to-human interaction. And those who are best at being “human” are going to be in highest demand.
The Six Skill Gaps You Can Work on Today
When focusing on your professional learning, it’s important to focus on these soft skills. The market is making it clear they want professionals who can master these less-quantifiable business areas. They are harder to define and quantify, but they are key to driving business.
The six soft skill areas that the report lists are key places to focus. As the 2018 report outlined, “people with these skills are hired faster than people without these skills”. Whether you are trying to get a new sales job, keep the one you have, or move up in your organization, it’s valuable to grow in one or more of these areas to move your career forward.
1. Oral Communication
It’s clear: “Oral Communication remains the skill group with the biggest shortage in nearly every city across the country.” The ability to communicate is the foundation skill of a salesperson. Many things can be outsourced or automated, but conversations can’t be. It’s especially hard to replicate empathetic conversations. The ones that create trust, uncover challenges, and secure commitments. It’s more than just being a good talker. It’s about creating a connection and moving a relationship forward.
“We still live in a world where people want to talk to other people – it’s human nature. Use yourself as a judge. Do you want to talk to a person or an automaton? Ultimately, this comes down to basic supply and demand. The ever-growing reliance on tech as a tool is creating a talent pool that isn’t very good at an essential skill and this means excellent communicators will be increasingly in high demand as this gap continues to widen.”
– Douglas Vigliotti, author of the Salesperson Paradox
2. People Management
There are more people involved in buying decisions than ever before. When the sales cycle involves connecting with your principle contact, their boss, a finance representative, an internal champion, and an end user, you need to navigate and influence the dynamics between them. It’s going to be critical to manage people through the process. Likewise, you need to marshal your resources and team. That means skills like teamwork, collaboration, and mediation are going to be more and more important.
“The skills of a great sales professional mirror the skills of a great coach. You have to have great questioning and listening capabilities, know how to be supportive, and always be looking for collaborative opportunities. One of the keys to developing these is self-awareness, because the more you know how you are wired, the easier it is to understand other’s preferred work and communication styles.
– Mike Allison, host of The Sales Training and Coaching Podcast
3. Social Media
Digital communication is here to stay. Even though the platforms, capabilities, and etiquette continue to evolve, the ability to connect with a broad audience quickly and with minimal effort is going to continue to grow in importance. Sales and marketing are going to continue to overlap and it’s important for you to harness the power of personal brand and online content to spread their message and stay connected to prospects and customers.
“Sales is marketing and marketing is sales in today’s digital landscape. There is no way around it. To drive demand, you must build brand. Understanding how to use marketing as the key driver of getting visible, valuable, and connected to your buyers six months before they are ready to buy is crucial in today’s selling landscape. Attention at scale is one of the newest forms of prospecting (they used to call marketing).”
-Jack Kosakowski, CEO of The Creation Agency
4. Business Management
The salespeople that bring the most value to their prospects and customers are the ones that can help them make better business decisions more quickly and with less effort. That means that they must understand how their customers can leverage the services and products that they offer. Just providing information isn’t enough in this information-soaked environment. You need to provide usable business intelligence that customers can act on.
“Businesses need context, not product catalogues. It’s important to understand how your offering fits into their larger goals. Sales professionals that can add value to a conversation by injecting insights that allow their partners to make better and faster business decisions will dominate their industry vertical.”
-Will Barron, host of The Salesman Podcast
5. Time Management
If this sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. But the demands on sales professionals’ time aren’t likely to diminish anytime soon. The ability to create efficient processes and structures to guide your time use is going to be critical. From mapping out tactical plans on a daily basis to creating quarterly and annual strategies, it’s going to be important to bring those meta-skills to bear on your sales activity. The salespeople that can identify and stay focused on the most important activities are going to thrive.
“Time management is less about managing your time and more about managing yourself. You have 86,400 seconds to spend every day that don’t carry over and can’t be repeated. So it’s all about defining and working towards clear priorities. When you make something your priority you will know exactly how you want to spend your time and with whom.”
-Judy Hoberman, author of Selling in a Skirt
The lone wolf salesperson is increasingly a thing of the past. Not only do salespeople need to know how to navigate their customers’ businesses, they have to lead their own teams. Managing your internal team to sell and then deliver your solutions will is going to be key. Sales is more relational and less transactional, and it’s necessary to be able to rally and guide your team through the entire life cycle of an engagement.
“The seller behaviors that buyers desire are more typically associated with leadership than with selling. In our study with 530 B2B buyers, we learned that buyers are more likely to meet with and more likely to buy from sellers who show up as leaders. They inspire, challenge, enable, and encourage their buyers along with modeling clear and consistent values that demonstrate credibility, trustworthiness, and a desire to collaborate.”
-Deb Calvert, author of Stop Selling and Start Leading