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Build Your Soft Skills

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain how soft skills benefit sales professionals.
  • Describe the main soft skills that lead to sales success.

Soft Skills Are the Secret to Sales Success

Soft skills are techniques you use to interact effectively with other people. These are also called people skills, because they’re how you foster trusting relationships and understand other people.

Soft skills are critical for sales because they help sales teams create trust, the key to open communication. With open communication in place, prospects and customers are more likely to share their problems. Understanding these problems allows sales teams to provide the right product or service solutions.

However, many sales professionals struggle to perfect these skills—or lack them altogether. The LinkedIn 2019 Global Talent Trends Report highlights this fact, while noting how important soft skills are to sales success.

  • Eighty-one percent of companies find it hard to hire talent with excellent soft skills.
  • Ninety-one percent of organizations want more soft skills.
  • Ninety-two percent of hiring managers say soft skills are more valuable than technical skills.
  • Eighty-nine percent of managers said bad hires usually don’t have soft skills.

Clearly, soft skills are an indispensable part of business success. But which ones are most important for sales?

The Essential Soft Skills of Sales

Sales leaders agree that sales is increasingly about acknowledging the human first. That means relationship-building—at every stage of the sales process.

How? By using the following core soft skills.

  • Open-ended questioning
  • Active listening
  • Reading body language and facial expressions
  • Mirroring conversation
  • Building rapport
  • Showing empathy
  • Negotiating
  • Persuading
  • Guiding instead of selling

Here’s what each of these looks like in more detail.

Open-Ended Questioning 

Put simply, open-ended questions can’t be answered with a yes or no. They require explanation, which allows you to gather details that you can use in future negotiations or decision-making. 

For instance, you might start an open-ended question with “How…?” or “Why…?” Other common starters include, “Can you explain…?” and “What is the process behind…?” These allow you to unpack nuanced topics.

Think of this in the context of job interviews. A hiring manager might ask, “How would you solve [company problem]?” The open-ended question elicits a detailed response that gives the hiring manager a sense of how the candidate would solve a problem on the job. This valuable information can be used to make a hiring decision.

Active Listening

After asking an open-ended question, you need to collect all the valuable information the other person shares. You can do this only with active listening, or focusing intently on the responses the other person provides without interjecting. In addition to focus and quiet, active listening involves taking mental notes about key points that you can use in future discussions.

Here’s where some sales teams often trip: Many people think they engage in active listening, but they’re listening only long enough to formulate a response. There’s a big difference. Active listening results in a clear mental summary of the other person’s situation, opinions, or thoughts. Listening to respond usually involves absorbing one or two key points, then focusing mental energy on sharing your own thoughts as quickly as possible.

A woman is smiling while talking to a man who is standing with his arms crossed. The man seems slightly unsure of the situation.

Reading Body Language and Facial Expressions

Whether you’re talking to someone face-to-face or engaging with them virtually, paying attention to the other person’s body language, facial expressions, and vocal tone can help you understand how they feel. This allows you to adjust your messaging or tone to avoid a negative response—or incorporate more of the messaging that triggers a positive response.

Here are a couple of classic signs to look for: Are they rubbing the bridge of their nose when you describe a complicated scenario? They may not understand you. Are their arms crossed? They might be nervous or uncomfortable. Has the tone of their voice changed during conversation? They could either be upset (if they become more stern) or happy (if the tone is bubbly and energetic).

You might already do this with your spouse or friends. For example, if you bring up a controversial topic and your sister’s face drops, you can take that as a cue that she doesn’t like the topic. It’s probably best to change the subject to avoid making her upset.

Mirroring Conversation

Mirroring can be summed up in three words: repeat, confirm, clarify. To be sure you understand what you hear when actively listening, repeat back the key points you’ve gleaned from conversation, confirm that you’ve understood correctly, and if not, ask for clarification. This ensures that you can confidently use whatever information you’ve gathered in future negotiations and discussions.

You can also mirror body language and facial expressions, like smiling in response to a smile. This can make the other person feel more comfortable. Be careful, though—don’t mirror negative behaviors like arm-crossing, slouching, or frowning, as they amplify the negativity and hamper open communication.

Building Rapport

People like to do business with people they like. Building rapport is how you secure that “like.” In theory, it’s a simple practice: Find a common connection with another person that builds an emotional bond and mutual familiarity. Often, that connection can form through a shared interest or background.

For instance, let’s say you approach someone at a networking event and you notice their T-shirt features the flag of your home state. You can use this to strike up a conversation and build a connection. With the conversation started, ask questions to find other points of commonality. The more you have in common, the easier it will be to build a strong, trusting connection.

A woman showing empathy to another woman by giving her a pat on the back

Showing Empathy

Empathy is understanding what someone else is feeling and going through. Think of empathy as the glue that binds a relationship. Rapport is built on mutual interests or backgrounds, and empathy demonstrates a genuine concern for others’ wellbeing. 

Why is this critical for sales? As The Center for Creative Leadership notes, empathy improves human interactions, builds trust, and supports more effective communication—all of which are important for team collaboration, customer relationships, and ultimately, inked deals.

Let’s say you have a friend who was recently laid off from his job. Even if you haven’t been laid off yourself, you know that your friend is sad, confused, angry, perhaps even shocked. You can show empathy by acknowledging his emotional upheaval and actively listening to his concerns. Phrases like “I know this is really difficult for you…” or “I understand how hurt and frustrated you must be…” are helpful ways to show you care. 

Negotiating

Negotiating involves two parties sharing differing needs in the same situation and discussing compromises until they reach a mutually beneficial resolution. Both parties express what they want, actively listen, and clarify their most important values, then determine how each side can compromise until both parties feel like they’ve “won.”

Let’s say your daughter wants to play video games with her friends. Before saying yes or no, you can negotiate. You share what you want—for her to do her chores and homework before she plays. She counters with a request to go play now and finish her work later. During negotiation, you reach a compromise—she’ll do her chores, then go play and finish her homework later.

A woman and a man are negotiating a sale. The numbers each person is offering are listed in chat bubbles with the target number shown above in a red bubble with a check mark to show a compromise that suits both parties.

Persuading

Pushback and objections (disagreement or concern with your sales pitch) are common in the sales process. If someone isn’t ready to act or make a decision, it means that barriers are still present. Rather than getting discouraged and giving up, this is your cue to use persuasion.

Put simply, persuasion is the use of incentives or compelling information to help another person overcome reluctance to act or make a decision. There are different techniques for persuading someone, but if successful, all of them result in action.

For example, let’s say you want to go to a baseball game with your friend. He would much rather stay at home and watch TV, but you don’t want to go alone. So you use persuasion to get him to go, offering to buy him a hot dog if he tags along. After a couple of compelling offers—a hot dog and a soda—he finally relents when you agree to buy him a home-team T-shirt.

When persuading, there is a fine line between being helpful and being pushy. The best persuaders find compelling incentives and let these move the other person to action or a decision instead of getting aggressive. 

Guiding Instead of Selling 

People don’t want to feel like they’re being sold to. They want to be guided through the sales process. What’s the difference? A hard sell feels like someone is telling you to do something. Guiding someone through a process or decision is giving them the sense that they are taking the lead—even if you’re directing them.

Students often appreciate the guiding approach, as it gives them a feeling of accomplishment. For example, a high school freshman working on a complicated calculus problem would probably appreciate a teacher who asks questions and provides hints that point them in the right direction. The resulting work is done by the student, but led by the teacher.

Now that you understand the basics of sales soft skills, it’s time to put them to use in the sales process.

A female trail guide happily showing an enthusiastic man a map that shows the Path to Success.

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