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Critical Selling Skills That Distinguish Top Performers

by David Brock on September 21st, 2015

Last week, Tim Ohai and I were talking about the future of selling.  We got onto a discussion of the critical skills needed for high performers.

I’ve continued to think about this over the past few days.  I’ve narrowed things down to the top 3 skills critical for top performers.  I’d like your take on it, because most sales training programs don’t seem to include these.

First, all the usual traditional skills are table stakes.  You must master the “advanced,” methodologies currently on the market:  Product knowledge, business acumen, customer/industry/market knowledge, financial knowledge, consultative/insight/solutions/value based/customer focused/challenger and related programs.  You must master the traditional selling basics, all the stuff like building relationships/trust, prospecting, pipeline management, deal/opportunity strategy, sales call planning/execution, questioning, qualifying, probing, presenting, objection handling, closing, oral/written presentation skills, and the myriad of foundation skills.  And of course, you know how to leverage all the traditional tools like

If you haven’t mastered all of these, you’re toast.  You just won’t be able to play in today’s world of complex buying.  You might as well pack up your notebook and go home.  You won’t survive, let alone be a top performer in any but the most basic (read low paying) sales environments.

But what about the future?

I’m not talking about 5 to 10 years from now, I’m talking about this year, next year and the coming year.  What are the top 3 skills that set consistent top performers apart from everyone else?

Tim and I went through a lot of wordsmithing in our conversation.  We originally wanted to get it to the top 2, but finally settled on these 3 skills.  Consistent top performers are:

  • Obsessesive learners.
  • Relentless in execution.
  • Collaborative problem solvers.

Let me dive into these.

Top performers take control over their learning and development.  They don’t wait for management to provide them training—though they leverage any training their company provides to the utmost.  Top performers recognize there are no easy answers (this links to collaborative problem solving).  They recognize we live in a world where time/space are increasingly compressed, the issues people and organizations face are increasing in complexity.  They recognize to help their customers and to meet their own internal performance expectations, they must constantly be learning.  They learn from every source they can–their managers, their peers, their customers, their competitors.  They are voracious readers and students.  They constantly search for that nugget of knowledge that gives them insight, so they in turn might provide others insight.

They are simultaneously very focused and very diverse in their learning.  They see a problem and are driven to learn about it so they can help solve it (see the connection to execution).  They are very diverse in their learning.  They read books, newspapers, blogs on various disciplines.  They don’t just single thread on sales–they know how limiting it is, they read biographies, history, economic, politics, fiction.  They look outside their company, markets, and industries.  They have a diverse network they tap into for ideas.

Top performers don’t learn just to learn, they learn to apply it in their own personal growth, the growth of their organizations, and their customers.  They don’t wait for things to happen, they make them happen.  They see opportunities, challenges, and problems and are driven to solve them.  We immediately recognize them.  They are constantly moving, they are constantly in action.  They are constantly engaged, both internally and externally in doing things–in applying their knowledge to achieve for themselves, their organizations, and customers.

In their drive to execute, they sometimes fail, they make mistakes.  But they seek to have their experience inform them–learning, analyzing, growing, refining, adjusting and tuning.

Top performers are problem solvers—but in a different way.  They recognize the only way they can solve problems is collaboratively.  They recognize no one has all the answers, but that by working with others they can discover the answers.  Since they are driven to get things done-to execute, they recognize they can only do this by working with others.  They recognize, perhaps unconsciously, that the problem solving process, working with others is a learning process–for each person involved.  Each problem is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to achieve.

Top performers are different.  They are always asking questions, they have ideas, they are curious, they are always active and engaged, they are driven to achieve–addressing new opportunities, solving problems and moving forward.

Each of us has it in ourselves to be a top performer.  It starts with mastery of basic capabilities (the table stakes issues), but then we have to not be satisfied with this, we have to push, always learning, always applying that learning through execution, constantly looking for opportunities and problems to address.

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  1. Dave, this may belong under your Learning category, but I think being continually curious – without ego – is really important. Keeps us from making early assumptions, fleshes out what’s going on in an account or opportunity, makes us ask “so what?” until we understand.

    • Andy, that curiosity (without ego) element is so important. I tried to capture it in the obsessiveness about learning. But it’s so critical, because it drives people to learn in very focused and pragmatic ways. Thanks, as always, for the great comment.

  2. Christina M. permalink


    I very much appreciate this blog post. In the world of sales, sometimes people try to over complicate their techniques and do crazy, outlandish, or even fraudulent things for the sake of doing them because they think it will make them the best. As a sales manager myself, when I on-board a new rep who maybe has little to no sales experience, I start with the basics, as you described above. It’s generally a red flag when you have a sales rep who blows through training sessions just to get them over with or reps who blow them off altogether. Obviously, a potentially great rep with arm themselves of the knowledge of the product and the industry and will keep up to date with their “education”. My take away from your explanation of relentlessness in execution is a rep who isn’t afraid to hear the word “no” and will keep pushing or revisiting the topic until they get that “yes”. This can also include doing role plays (which I love, but my reps sure don’t) which helps to get the awkwardness out of certain situations and just helps the reps be more prepared and quick thinking on their feet. And finally, collaborative problem solvers, even if a sales rep isn’t getting paid based on how the team performs, someone who is willing to help the team succeed is someone who is setting themselves up for upward movement into management. You’re absolutely right that not a single person has all of the answers and it’s a huge possibility that another set of eyes can offer a different approach or response to the situation in question. Thank you for sharing this information, more sales professionals need to see this.

    • Christina: Thanks for your very thoughtful comment (my apologies for the delay in responding). You hit so many wonderful points.

      1. Relentlessness is a frame of mind or attitude about never giving up. Part of it may be not accepting “no” for an answer, part of it is being driven to learn from your failures, constantly improving and doing better. Top performers will get “no’s” they can’t overcome, they will fail, it’s what they do with it that makes the difference. They don’t make excuses, they don’t assign blame, they learn and improve.
      3. On collaboration, it’s both internally and externally. Sales people, even if not on a team, need lots of help and support to be successful. They recognize this and leverage it to improve their ability to produce results.

      Great comments, thanks for contributing Christina!

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