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Rethinking Sales Skills And Competencies

by David Brock on June 29th, 2017

Wayne Gretzky has the famous quote describing why he is an all time top performer in the NHL.  I’m sure you know it, but he answered the question about how he managed to perform so well by saying, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it is.”  (Yeah, I know this quote has become a cliche, but it is still great!)

Unfortunately, as I talk to executives and sales people alike, particularly around skills and competencies critical to sales success, I get the impression we are focused on “where the puck is.”  That is, most of what we look for in recruiting and train for are classic sales competencies around prospecting, questioning, listening, objection handling, closing, deal management, pipeline, account management, and all sorts of other things.

Fundamentally, they were the same skills and competencies my managers were looking for when I was hired into my first professional sales role.

But the world has changed profoundly in the 30+years since I was hired into that first role.  The rate of change and the complexity involved in that change seems to be increasing–stretching the capacity of everyone to deal with it.

Given this reality, it’s odd that we continue to focus on the same old skills and competencies.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying those skills and competencies are no longer important–they are.  But they are insufficient for dealing with the issues our customers and organizations face today.

While there are great technologies that can help sales people, and things like AI offer great promise.  For the foreseeable future, their primary impact will be to augment the skills critical for success–not replace them.

We need to start equipping our people and organizations with the skills and competencies critical for the coming years.  We need to be looking at:  critical thinking and problem solving, project management, collaboration/team leadership, change management, business management acumen.  We need to build people’s capabilities to be “organizationally savvy,” navigating both the customer and our own organizations effectively and efficiently to align resources, get support, and get things done.  We need to find people who are comfortable with ambiguity and paradox.  We need to recruit and build skills in creativity and curiosity.  We need to look for people that are mentally tough, self directed.  We need people comfortable with technology but not held prisoner to technology.

Likewise, as we look to sales leaders we need to rethink the skills/competencies for them.  Those new skills and competencies for sales listed above are critical for leaders as well.  But on top of these, new leadership skills,  particularly in thinking about and managing complexity, systems thinking, business model innovation, cross functional collaboration/innovation,  coaching/people development, are among those critical for leaders in this new world.

Skating to where the puck is, continuing to focus only on the same skills/competencies we have always focused on is a recipe for failure–for our people, for our customers, and for our organizations.

Today’s approaches won’t get us to where we and our customers need to be tomorrow.


Afterword:  We’ve developed several tools to help sales leaders think specifically about the skills, competencies, attitudes and behaviors critical for success.  One is our Sales Competency Model.  Email me at for a copy.

Afterword 2:  Thanks for those who pointed out my lack of spelling competency.  I originally misspelled “Gretsky.”  It has been corrected in the text 😉



One Comment
  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    I guess I began re-thinking Sales Competence in 2000, I was about 20 Years into SPIN and Miller Heiman.

    When 2008 Struck we ALL had to re-think!
    Relationship Selling stopped dead. Safe accounts were lost, or didn’t reorder.

    Insight Selling, the Challenger Sale stopped many Evidence Based Selling Skills evangelists in our tracks.
    Since 2000 slowly, but inexorably, Behavioural Economics is having an impact on Selling (and giving insight into Buying), Thaler, Kahneman and Tversky, have given us insight into Decision Making. Today it’s called Decision Science, and if you don’t know about it, then Sales and Success are going to elude you, or you may just be Lucky!

    Predicting Buyer’s Irrationality, and living with it, is a lot more important than knowing their MBTI type, their EQ, or being their Trusted Advisor!

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