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

sales training skillsSales is all about closing the deal, no matter what, right? Not exactly.

While making sales is the obvious mission of every sales department, the very best salespeople are most concerned with relationships. Their interest is in providing value to the customer, acting as trusted advisors, problem-solvers, and consultants.

Top sales reps are focused on solving problems for the buyer—even if that means admitting that their solution might not be right for a prospective customer. To do that effectively, however, the salesperson must have two well-honed sets of skills: product knowledge and people skills.

The most important sales skills, according to the experts

A few years ago, I interviewed several 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.

I asked all of them about the most important skills salespeople need to close deals. All of them 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 came up again and again was sales as a form of service. Sales, said these experts, isn’t something you do to someone — it’s something you do for someone.

The primary job of a salesperson, said the experts, is to really delve into what their prospects need so they can connect them with a product that solves their problems. This helps buyers trust them.

To become a customer advocate worthy of customers’ trust, your reps require both product skills and excellent soft skills, or — as they’re commonly known — people skills.

What is product knowledge?

Product knowledge includes 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 a deeper knowledge of your product.

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: Business is always changing. About 30,000 new products are launched annually, so there’s a good chance your business is also launching new products regularly. Your reps need to know what those products are, and how to sell them to customers.

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.

People with good soft skills are People persons. 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.

While the list of soft skills is long, some of the most important sales soft skills include traits like perseverance, empathy, 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?

A 2022 study of more than 20,000 job listings for salespeople posted between 2019 and 2022 show that many of the top skills sales organizations are looking for are soft skills. Skills such as “anticipating the customer’s future,” collaboration, and adaptability rank high on the list of desirable qualities in a sales rep.

That doesn’t mean those companies can always find people who naturally have those skills. A common soft skills misconception is that people are just born with a certain level of 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 may sometimes be true, it’s important to realize that soft skills aren’t a given. 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.

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 soft 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. This is especially true now, post-pandemic. According to Salesforce data, 88% percent of customers believe trust becomes more important in times of change.

Buyers want understanding and human connection from salespeople.

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.

To discover how you can get the most out of your sales team through training, download our latest eBook, Rev Up Revenue: Sales Training for Every Career Stage. This resource provides insights on how to empowers your reps through training, no matter where they are in their careers. Download the eBook today!