Great Salespeople Aren't Born -- They Work At It
How to survive -- and thrive -- in today's competitive business climate.
By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

No question about it: Sales is a hot career these days, with lots of big companies eager to hire top salespeople, even if they have to raid competitors to do it. But the salesperson's role has changed radically in recent years. Glad-handing and golfing are (for the most part) out; analytical thinking and creative problem-solving are in. I recently chatted with Kevin Kearns, president of giant sales training firm Huthwaite, based in Sterling, Va., about what it takes to be a sales star now. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Q: You say that salespeople need different skills now than they did in the past. Why is that?
A: Partly, it's the Internet. So much information is easily available to people now that they can get detailed product descriptions, and do comparisons of products and services online. So selling now is not about hawking a product, describing its features, and so on. Instead of communicating value, customers want you to create value. It's a big difference.

Q: What do you mean by 'create value'?
A: People buy something because it solves a problem—their particular problem. So, to succeed, you need to be adept at figuring out what each customer's problem is and how you can help solve it. Sometimes, to be truly effective, you have to enlist the support of other people in your own company as well. For example, you might arrange for your IT department to design a way for the customer to order and inventory your product more easily. Or your marketing people might pitch in and help a customer sell its product or service. Sometimes you can identify a way to build more unique customization into your product or service so that it fills a customer's exact need. But to arrive at anything like that, you have to be an excellent listener. Mediocre salespeople talk most of the time, during a sales call. Great ones listen most of the time.

Q: What else do great salespeople do?
A: They plan each sales call meticulously rather than "winging it." They also conclude each meeting with suggestions for moving the process along, rather than using high-pressure tactics to close the deal. Incidentally, lots of people think that great salespeople are "born, not made," that is, that you have to have a certain kind of personality or you're out of luck. But all the behaviors of successful salespeople can be learned. In fact, anyone thinking of going into sales should take a couple of classes, partly just to see if they like it.

Q: Another idea people have is that it helps for the salesperson to develop a personal relationship with the customer. Is that still true, if it ever was?
A: Well, of course you want to be cordial, and so-called soft skills do matter, as they do in any job where you're dealing with people. But there are very few golf outings anymore. Nobody has time.

Q: Do you foresee any more changes coming in what salespeople will need to know or do?
A: I think we'll see a real winnowing out—and, in fact, we're already seeing it. Truly good salespeople who know how to identify and solve problems for customers will be increasingly successful, with more and more employers competing for their talents. Mediocre salespeople will disappear. Only the very highly skilled will survive.

Q: This new emphasis on succeeding by solving problems is interesting, because frankly it sounds like that is what any businessperson—in sales or not—has to try to do. Isn't it?
A: Yes, it is. If you really think about it, any job in an organization has some element of sales in it. Now, as president of my company, I find myself doing more selling than ever before, even than when I was technically a "sales guy." So there's no question that learning some of the basics of good sales techniques can help anyone build a more successful career.


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