Key Competencies for Selling During Tough Times

It’s over half way through the year and the economic outlook is still looking very uncertain.

Nevertheless, most medium and large companies are starting to realise that they can’t continue to cut costs and batten down the hatches in the hope that things will get better. These companies realise that buyers of their products and services are still willing to make purchase orders.

But economic pressures are forcing them to consider buying decisions as needing to be polarised between:

  • Price-led commodity purchases at a tactical level (which offer the selling company minimum margins); and
  • Value-based strategic buying (or investment) decisions at a more senior level (which offer selling companies more margin but require a more sophisticated selling approach).

As a result of this polarisation in buying decisions, selling organisations are focusing on selling value-based propositions to drive up their margins.

In addition, selling organisations are starting to invest in the development of their sales force. This why there are an increasing number of sales jobs being advertised with high remuneration packages. It also explains why selling organisations are beginning to spend more on sales training across so many sectors than was the case last year.

Most of the jobs that are being advertised relate to value-based or consultative selling roles, whether the advert makes this explicit or not. This helps explain the high remuneration packages being offered. Companies have realised that ‘Feature Advantage Benefit’ selling starts at the wrong end of selling. By opening discussions around the features, prospective buyers immediately begin to think about cost and price.

A View from the People Who Matter to Your Career

At recent sales training and leadership development events, we surveyed two communities to find out their opinions on today’s sales people and what they need to do to increase their earnings. The two communities we surveyed were the senior buyers who successful, top flight sales people have to sell to; and the senior sales leadership community that actually employ and develop top flight sales people.

Senior Buyers

The key messages that came from senior buyers was that top flight sales people needed to be more:

  • Aware of trends, issues and commercial drivers in the industry they are selling to.
  • Strategic in their outlook and consultative in their approach to proposing solutions.
  • Innovative in the way they develop commercial solutions with a clear line of sight to a tangible return on investment.
  • Able to get things done in their own organisations to propose and deliver tailored solutions.
  • Professional in their approach to contact, follow-up and their determination to see things through.

Senior Sales Leaders

The key messages that came from the senior sales leaders was that those people they considered to be suitable for top flight sales positions could demonstrate:

  • A great attitude in terms of positivity, proactivity and tenacity.
  • A strong level of insight into the target market place (the client’s industry) and the selling company’s industry.
  • C-Level consultative selling skills and an ability to drive client urgency to close deals.
  • A professional manner, high-impact communications skills and an ability to handle pressure.
  • An ability to manage the politics of large organisations and to influence key people on both sides of the relationship.
  • A creative but structured approach to problem-solving.
  • The commercial acumen that enables high-value deals to be closed at maximum profit.

These leaders also said they were continually disappointed with sales people’s inability to sell themselves via a CV and interview.

The Five Key Sales Competencies for Top Flight Selling

Taking the above evidence together, we have deduced that professional selling nowadays requires the development of the following five key sales competencies:


1. A high level of knowledge and a great understanding of the client’s industry and your own industry.

2. Superior selling skills, particularly consultative selling techniques and senior communications skills.

3. Self-awareness and self-confidence when engaging at the senior decision-making level.

4. A great attitude and mindset (positivity, proactivity and tenacity).

5. A good behaviour in terms of professionalism, following up opportunities and self-discipline.


All of these competencies can be learned by those willing to take up the challenge. The challenge is one of developing the right competencies in terms of knowledge, selling skills, self-awareness, attitude and behaviour to become a top flight sales person.

Industry and professional bodies are starting to develop, offer and recognise professional qualifications. You can develop the competencies you need by reading, analysing, observing, learning and practising in order to develop the competencies you need. Furthermore, the growing availability of online sales training means that sales professionals no longer have to spend their precious time attending self-development and sales training courses.

Final Words of Advice

If you’re in a sales role, don’t limit your horizon to information available within your current organisation. Use Internet-based resources and develop your networking to gather wisdom and experience.

If you’re trying to get onto the sales ladder, make sure you pick an environment that will enable you to develop the five sales competencies quickly and effectively.

Written by: Steve Eungblut, Managing Director of Sterling Chase

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