The Fundamental Sales Competency

This article first appeared in the 2013 Industrial Distribution January/February issue. You can view it here.

When reduced to its single dynamic, buying and selling is an information exchange. The buyer provides the seller with information about his or her needs; the seller processes that information, and offers the buyer information about a solution to satisfy these needs. Accordingly, the fundamental competency in which salespeople must achieve mastery is communicating. Communicating in sales means asking the right questions, listening, and explaining the value of a solution to the buyer.

The Right Skills

Probing is the fundamental selling skill. Salespeople ask questions for several reasons: to gain information about the buyer’s needs; to discover the buyer’s definition of value; and to demonstrate a genuine concern by the salesperson for the buyer’s welfare. It follows that the questions must encourage the buyer to respond openly and honestly about their needs. This means two things for salespeople.

First, the questions should be open ended. Open-ended questions generally begin with why, how, what, or tell me about. These questions encourage the buyer to offer a lengthy response. When the salesperson’s objective is to get as much information as possible, the questions should be open ended. Second, the questions should have a neutral intent. Some salespeople attempt to shape the buyer’s thinking by asking questions that are self-serving. Buyers respond predictably to this—they get defensive and feel manipulated. How would you respond to this question by a salesperson, “Quality and service are important to you, aren’t they?” Who can say “No” to this question! If the intent is to get the other person to open up about his or her needs, the questions must inspire trust.

A complementary skill to probing is active listening. Active listening is more than the awareness of sound. It is patiently listening and responding to the buyer. This means setting aside one’s personal agenda to process accurately what the other person says. This is difficult for salespeople that want to shape the buyer’s responses to fit their presentation. If your intent is to give buyers the opportunity to express their perception of the unvarnished truth, you must listen actively and non-judgmentally to what they have to say.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be one with it in order to really understand. If we want to understand a person, we have to feel his feelings, suffer his sufferings, and enjoy his joy.” It is this depth of understanding to which salespeople must aspire.

Effectively Communicating Value

Probing and listening are the first half of the communications exchange; the other half of the communications exchange is effectively communicating your value. These simple rules of presenting will help you frame your message more convincingly.

Sell what is relevant. Make sure that what you present parallels how the buyer answered your questions. Your message must reflect the buyer’s needs, wants, and concerns. One rule of persuasion is to reduce the psychological distance between the sender and receiver of a message. Customizing your presentation to the buyer’s needs, as you heard them, accomplishes this.

Present a value proposition that resonates with the level of decision maker to whom you are presenting. For purchasing agents, present a logistics solution. For users, present a usage-oriented solution. For maintenance workers, present a maintenance argument. For high-level decision makers, present a financial solution that reflects a positive impact on their bottom line.

Present all three dimensions of value: product features and benefits; company value-added services; and personal commitments that you will make. The same product, from the same branch, from two different salespeople is two different solutions altogether. This is the essence of Value-Added Selling.
Keep your presentation long enough to convince, yet short enough to hold the buyer’s attention. Use the less-is-more model of communication. Practice brevity. A planned presentation does not mean a canned presentation.

Offer proof sources that demonstrate the safety and security of your solution. Sharing the risk via guarantees and warranties reassures the buyer that you are partners in this process.
Keep your buyer actively engaged throughout the presentation by asking involvement questions, conducting demonstrations, and giving the buyer something to sell with internally. There is a tendency for buyers to become passive as the salesperson tells his or her story.


Presenting a compelling argument means giving the buyer enough relevant information so that he or she is more anxious to buy than you are to sell. This desire peaks when the buyer has explained their needs and evaluated a solution that mirrors these needs, from a salesperson who understands what success looks like to the buyer. This happens with proper questioning, active listening, and compelling presentations.

Tom Reilly is a professional speaker and literally the guy who wrote the book on Value-Added Selling. You may contact him through his website

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