Labcast: Which Sales Competencies Matter Most?

December 15, 2011

In our latest episode of Labcast, sales speaker, author, and CEO of Objective Management Group Dave Kurlan calls in to talk about the most important sales competencies for early and expansion stage sales teams to focus on — and for companies to hire for.

Labcast 56_ The Core Sales Competencies with Dave Kurlan

For more from Dave, you can visit his blog at, and check out his best-selling book, Baseline Selling.

Podcast Transcript

Brendan Cournoyer: Hello everyone, welcome to this episode of Labcast. I’m Brendan Cournoyer, and today we’re joined by speaker, author, and sales development expert Dave Kurlan. Dave’s a founder and CEO of Objective Management Group, a leading developer of sales assessment tools. He’s also the author of the bestselling book “Baseline Selling”. Dave, how are you doing today?

Dave Kurlan: Good, how are you doing?

Brendan: I’m doing very well. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. Today the topic we’re going to look at is sales competencies.

Dave: Easy for you to say.

Brendan: I know it’s a topic that you’ve talked quite a bit about, and written quite a bit about. Just to get started I think the first thing we should clarify is exactly what we mean here by these core competencies. Are we talking about personal qualities, skill sets, experience, or really just all of the above?

Dave: It really becomes all of the above. What ultimately sales competencies are, are a collection of best practices that the top sales people, the top 6 percent do without even thinking about it. For the rest of us, for the other 94 percent, and that breaks down to 20 percent who are pretty good in their own right, and the 74 percent who suck who need to think about these things.

Brendan: Sure.

Dave: Yes, there are some skills. There are some beliefs. There are some qualities and attributes, parts of our DNA, but most of it is skill based.

Brendan: Now on your blog, there’s a post that identifies what you consider the most important competency for a salesperson, and that’s the ability to sell consultatively. So first question, if you could tell us a little bit about that and why that’s so important.

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Dave: Sure, and it’s an interesting topic. It gets talked about an awful lot, and I think more and more companies are understanding that they need their salespeople to get away from transactional type selling, where their salespeople present, talk about capabilities, tell the company story, tell a prospect what they can do, and then try to close and handle objections. They know they need to get away from that.

So they have some awareness that it’s important to sell consultatively. But just what consultative selling actually is, is kind of confusing. Everybody has a different point of view. The most common belief, and it’s the wrong belief, is that selling consultatively means to identify a need and present a solution, which if you were going to simplify it, it might be close to that, but that’s closer to solution selling.

Consultative selling is really identifying a need and continuing to ask dozens, if not hundreds, of questions to identify what’s driving that need, the real reason for that need, the possible implications of a problem or an opportunity that hasn’t yet been dealt with. It’s the process of having a consultative discussion, a high level discussion with somebody, where at the end of that conversation both parties completely understand what the problem or the opportunity is. Why it’s there. What brought it into being? What needs to be done about it in order to get to the next level, change what’s going on, take advantage of an opportunity?

In the process of that conversation, in the process of selling consultatively, because the salesperson is asking the appropriate follow up questions, there’s a sense on the prospect’s part that it’s been customer focused, that the salesperson really cares, has really been listening, has really been paying attention, gets it, and has the expertise to help.

In most cases, company salespeople ask a question. Maybe two. Maybe three. Maybe they have a list of questions, but as soon as they hear that need, as soon as they hear that opportunity, they’re off to the races and presenting.

Brendan: I’ve spoken to other sales thought leaders, strategists and that seems to be a real common theme.

Dave: You mean I’m not your first?

Brendan: Not my first. But, it seems like a real common theme where the idea is to not come off as that pushy, typical salesperson that’s really all about making that deal, and really become more of a trusted adviser and develop a relationship with these prospects so that it’s a mutual thing. You’ve gotten to the root of the issue, and you keep digging deeper until it’s clear that this sale is, obviously it’s good for the salesperson, but it’s really in the best interest of the prospective client as well, right?

Dave: It’s really the fact that nobody will spend money to buy anything unless there’s a compelling reason to do it. If you’re going to part with $100 or $1,000 or $10,000 or $100,000 or $1,000,000, there’s got to be a compelling reason for you to spend that money with that particular company, and the compelling reason often has nothing to do with the issue.

As an example, I was talking with one company and the issue was that they needed to hire sales people. The issue was that they were having turnover. But it turned out, that wasn’t their compelling reason to buy the assessments that we provide, it was just the issue. It took an hour, an hour and a half. But the compelling issue was that their primary investor, the guy on the board who was giving them millions of dollars to stay alive, the guy on board who could pull the plug any moment he wanted to was growing impatient with the fact that sales were flat. And sales were flat because the sales people they had been hiring sucked at their company. They didn’t suck where they came from.

Brendan: Right

Dave: They sucked at their company. So actually selling them an assessment for selecting new sales people would’ve been a disservice to them until we figured out why the people that they’d been hiring were failing.

So the real compelling reason was taking care of that shareholder who had the ability to close them down and who was growing impatient. That was the compelling reason. The real problem was they didn’t know why salespeople were failing in their company, and that’s really what we had to find out before we could go out and help them hire better sales people.

Brendan: Sure.

Dave: Every salesperson selling every kind of product or service, if they take a step back and understand what’s really going on, if they ask questions for long enough, if they decide to hang in there and figure out what’s behind the stuff they’re hearing, they’ll get to those compelling reasons.

Want more advice for improving your sales processes?

Check out our Top 10 Sales Management Tips of 2011.

Brendan: Now that’s an interesting point you made about salespeople who were good at one company, but not good at another. We create content geared towards a lot of startup, early in expansion stage companies, younger companies that are targeting rapid growth. What are some other competencies that are important for sales people, and do they differ when you’re talking about a younger company versus a mid-size or larger corporation.

Dave: Well, let’s go back to what you said about you’re a younger company, more like a startup, and you’re developing content. That puts you guys in the category of underdog. Anybody that’s got a new company, a new technology, a new product, a new service, anybody that’s selling something that’s higher priced than their competition, anybody that’s selling something real expensive where there’s a story to tell or a value proposition that needs to be communicated, anybody that isn’t the market leader, the brand name leader, the price leader, or the clear quality leader, everybody else are underdogs. When they’re an underdog, there’s a resistance to the brand.

The reason a salesperson might succeed, for instance the company we’re talking about, a lot of their salespeople came from large well-known companies. One of the companies that their salespeople came from was a company that you know. It’s called EMC. These people succeeded at EMC. But EMC, in this past decade, was like IBM of decades before. Nobody could be faulted for buying IBM. That was a risk free decision for the person buying the technology.

Brendan: Sure.

Dave: So when the salespeople were working for EMC, representing EMC was an easy sale. You couldn’t be blamed for choosing EMC for storage. So they go to this startup company, which not only was a new company, but they also had a new, less proven technology, and they were more expensive. So three variables that they didn’t have to deal with at EMC, and suddenly they’re not good enough.

The real problem is when salespeople come from a strong, well-known brand where they don’t have to overcome any resistance, and they go to an underdog, where 24×7, it’s resistance. If they don’t have the experience and success overcoming resistance in a nice, nurturing way, they fail.

Brendan: We talked some of the common competencies that are important for a salesperson, but you also wrote a post about some of the key competencies that no one really talks about, and they’re somewhat under the radar and under appreciated, but still very important and play a major role. I was wondering if you could highlight a few of those that you think are especially important, that not a lot of people consider right now.

Dave: Well, if it’s the post I’m thinking about, the first one on the list is, it’s not about you. I wrote another post on that today, where I pointed out that a lot of salespeople get their prospects angry because they talk about what they’d like to do. “I’d like to schedule time to meet with you.” “I’d like to schedule time to talk with you.” “I’m going to be in the neighborhood/the city/the country.” “I’m going to be on your planet.” “I’d like to show you what we’re capable of doing.”

Who cares? Certainly not the prospect. That’s not dealing with their needs and their issues and what’s convenient for them. If salespeople would stop thinking about themselves and start thinking about their prospects, they can ask questions like:  “Would it make sense for us to . . .?” “Would it add any value if we . . .?” “Would it be helpful if . . .?”

Most of the B players – the A players already know how to do this, and the C players are just so lousy it doesn’t matter – but the B’s, a lot of them are very selfish and self-centered, and they’re always thinking in terms of what’s in it for them instead of, how do I show this prospect that I care about them, and how can I be respectful of them while still getting a win-win outcome?

We just talked about another one of the ten that fly under the radar, which is resistance. I was using the resistance example when a salesperson is working for an underdog. But one of those ten under the radar competencies is the enemy is resistance. It’s not who you’re selling against, because you can overcome that.

If you’ve got an open-minded prospect or an open-minded customer, you can talk with them about the differences and what’s important to them. But if you’ve got a closed-minded prospect, in other words the resistance has been raised, you could have the best product at the lowest price and they don’t want to hear from you because they’re resisting. It’s so important that a salesperson master the ability to lower resistance. Not overcome it, because that implies pushing and shoving and bullying. But lowering it, which is a subtle, artful part of selling.

If I remember correctly, one of my ten would have to do with happy ears.

Brendan: Happy ears?

Dave: Happy ears. Salespeople hear what they want to hear, hear what they’re hoping to hear, and they don’t question it, they don’t qualify it, they don’t push back on it, and they don’t challenge it. They just accept it as fact. Then days, weeks, and months down the road they wonder what went wrong that prevented them from getting this deal. It’s because they weren’t asking the right questions. They weren’t qualifying what they were hearing.

Brendan: I think that’s a great little summary, and I’d love to, when we post this podcast, we’ll provide a link that listeners can click on to go back to the original post. We’re just about out of time. I just want to thank you again for taking the time to talk to us, and before we go I’d love to give you the opportunity to tell us a little bit more about Objective Management Group and some of the work that you guys do.

Dave: Well, thanks. Objective Management Group, or OMG, which was named way before OMG was in fashion, is the leading provider of sales force evaluations. That’s where we look at a sales force’s people, systems, processes and strategies to answer business questions that need to be answered and haven’t been answered because companies didn’t have the intelligence. It helps identify things that need to modified, changed, fixed in order for a sales force to get to the next level, and grow revenue and profit.

We also have the world’s most accurate and predictive candidate assessment that’s totally customizable so we can predict with absolute certainty whether the candidate that you’re talking with has the ability to succeed sell your product or service into your particular market, calling on a particular decision maker at a particular price point against a certain kind of competition. OMG has been in business for about 20 years. We go to markets through 150 certified, trained partners that we have deployed around the world.

Brendan: Very cool. Well we’ll obviously have a link here as well so people can go to the OMG website to get more information, and also for your blog, they can access that from

Dave: Yep, that’s a good starting point.

Brendan: Excellent.

Dave: That will get you to any of my companies, or to my blog.

Brendan: Excellent, very good. Well thanks very much Dave again. We really appreciate you taking the time, and hopefully we get to do this again sometime.

Dave: Thanks for inviting me. It was fun.

Brendan: You bet.

Content Strategist

Brendan worked at OpenView from 2011 until 2012, where he was an editor, content manager and marketer. Currently Brendan is the Vice President of Corporate Marketing at <a href="">Brainshark</a> where he leads all corporate marketing initiatives related to content, creative, branding, events, press and analyst relations, and customer marketing.