Sales Training: Product Knowledge, Soft Skills, or Both?

A couple of years ago, I conducted a series of interviews with sales leaders as part of an in-depth exploration of success in sales. For the project, I talked to sales thought leaders, authors, and trainers, including Richard Harris, Mark Hunter of The Sales Hunter, Andrea Waltz, and Max Altschuler of Sales Hacker.

soft skills trainingI asked all of them about the most important skills salespeople need to close deals. Without fail, all the sales leaders brought up people skills.

Waltz, the author of Go for No! talked about the importance of not fearing rejection. Harris talked about the importance of an authentic dialogue between salesperson and prospect. Hunter discussed the need for good listening skills in a rep. One concept that kept coming up again and again was the idea of sales as a form of service.

Sales, said these experts, isn’t something you do to someone — it’s something you do for someone.

At first, I thought that was a canned answer, a way to make sales sound more appealing than it actually is. But the more interviews I did, the more I began to see that the sales experts truly believe that salespeople are helpers. Their job is to really delve into what their prospects want and need, so they can connect them with a product that solves their problems. This helps buyers trust them, and when buyers trust salespeople, they’re more likely to buy.

In order to do that, your reps need two sets of skills. They need to know your products and they also need to be well trained in soft skills, or rather, people skills.

What is product knowledge?

Product knowledge is pretty self-explanatory. It’s all the information a salesperson needs to sell your product effectively. While yes, that means your reps need to be able to talk about features and benefits, they also need to know pricing, messaging, industry trends, competitive intel, etc.

Buyers are more likely to trust a competent salesperson. That means the sales rep knows exactly what they’re selling and how it can help the buyer. This means your reps need to know your products and services backward and forward. They should be able to answer questions about how the product integrates with other products, for example, and they should have a working knowledge of competing products. This will help them overcome objections from prospects who are using competing products and concerned about switching over.

How often do you need to train product knowledge?

Product knowledge isn’t something you can train once, during onboarding. You should be training all your reps regularly on product knowledge for two reasons:

  • To keep product information fresh in your sales team’s minds: Your reps might talk about your products and services day in and day out, but there might be aspects they’re forgetting, and there also might be some new developments with your products. Perhaps your team’s been hearing a lot of objections around one feature, or maybe your product team discovered and corrected a defect. Refresher training can help make sure your team has the latest information.
  • To update your team on new product lines: According to the Sales Management Association, 8 out of 10 companies have introduced a new product or service in the past year. Additionally 70% of businesses pursued new markets or verticals and 61% made significant changes to their value proposition. Business is always changing, and you need to give your reps the tools to keep up.

What are soft skills?

If hard skills (or product knowledge, in the case of this blog post) are the skills you need to do your job, soft skills are the skills that make a person pleasant to work with, for one thing, but it goes way beyond that into qualities such as adaptability, curiosity, empathy, generosity, and others.

People with good soft skills are People people. They’re empathetic, good listeners, excellent team players, and super communicators. They come to work on time, are good on the phone and support their colleagues. They’re the skills you want your reps to have as they build relationships with potential customers.

To take it one step further, here’s an interesting “flip of the script,” according to Josh Bersin:

…most people think ‘hard skills’ are hard, and ‘soft skills’ are soft. I’d suggest the opposite is true. Hard Skills are soft (they change all the time, are constantly being obsoleted, and are relatively easy to learn), and Soft Skills are hard (they are difficult to build, critical, and take extreme effort to obtain).”

While the list of soft skills is long, some of the most important sales soft skills are in fact very “hard” to do well and consistently, including traits like perseverance, creative problem solving, managing relationships, and resourcefulness. Reps with empathy, for example, can put themselves in your customers’ shoes, really listen to objections, and truly understand what product that customer needs to solve their issues. A rep who is a team player supports their colleagues and doesn’t try to steal leads, or close deals that aren’t theirs.

In other words, they’re a pleasure to work with, whether you’re a sales prospect or a sales manager.

Can you train soft skills?

Many times when we’re thinking about people skills, we assume that people are just born with their emotional intelligence. We might also think their parents did a good job raising them, or that they worked out people skills for themselves as children somehow.

While those things might be true of an individual, it’s important to realize that soft skills aren’t a given. People aren’t just born with them. You don’t have to accept a new hire’s existing emotional baseline, nor should you waste precious hiring time scouring all the resumes online for a master communicator.

Soft skills can — and should — be taught.

Or, again, in the wise words of Mr. Bersin,

We as business, HR, and L&D professionals have to stop calling these ‘soft skills’ and start thinking of them as ‘power skills.’ They are the most important skills we have in our companies, and we have to build them, nourish them, and continuously evolve them with vigor.”

You want your sales team to know how to build a relationship with a customer, how to listen to their worries, have a conversation and ask the right questions. When you train the “power skills,” you’re giving your team the tools to build those relationships. Just as you wouldn’t throw a rep into a conversation with a customer without giving them some product knowledge, you shouldn’t throw them into a conversation with a customer without the skills to actually have that conversation.

Trust is key to making sales

When making a buying decision, decision-makers expect product knowledge from a salesperson, but the top quality they desire in a salesperson is trust, according to LinkedIn’s State of Sales report.

Buyers want understanding and human connection from salespeople; 96% of buyers say they’re more likely to consider a brand’s products or services if sales professionals have a clear understanding of their business needs, or — in other words — empathy.

The sales leaders I interviewed were right: at its best, sales is service. Yes, you want to make a sale, but you definitely don’t want to sell the wrong product to the wrong buyer just to make a buck. That will inevitably damage both your relationship with the customer and your company’s reputation.

When your sales team is well-versed in both people skills and product knowledge, they’ll be able to tell which product fits your prospects needs, and which buyers are right for your organization, and that’s an important step toward building trust and closing deals.