You’ve got technical knowledge, market intel, front-line experience, and the tools you need.
But there’s something else you need to succeed: the intangibles or “soft skills” matter, too.
Let’s take a look at the differences.
Hard skills are specialized.
They include everything required by a specific job role. Engineers need to know how to design and draft blueprints. HR professionals must understand employment law and how to handle records related to hiring, promoting, and terminating employees. Like every function, selling requires certain hard skills, too, depending on what’s being sold and how.
Hard skills are acquired through education and on-the-job experience. Resumes showcase hard skills. People receive certifications, degrees, and promotions because of the hard skills they demonstrate. Hard skills are testable, demonstrable, and easy to define, teach, and measure.
Soft skills are universal.
They’re the same for people in any job function. These skills are transferable to any job role.
Soft skills are acquired through life experience. They are demonstrated through interpersonal relationships, positive attitude, conflict resolution, creative problem solving, quality decision making, and ability to handle stress and change. Soft skills are not as tangible, observable or measurable as hard skills. They are linked to personality and preferences, and this can make interviewing for them, assessing them, and performance managing around them uncomfortable.
Most sales job descriptions profile the ideal candidate as having a hybrid of soft and hard skills. Despite this, companies spend only 27.6% of their training investments on soft skills development (source: Green & McGill).
Definition of Soft Skills
Soft skills are “the personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.”
These attributes include a broad and combined range of people skills, communication skills, personality traits, habits, attitudes, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, team orientation, cognitive processing of information, and ability/willingness to tolerate ambiguity and rapid change.
The term “soft skills” is sometimes used interchangeably with terms like intangibles, leadership, character traits, interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, common sense, being a “people person,” life skills, influential, likeable, politically savvy, and team player. Each of these terms depicts a facet of soft skills but doesn’t fully encompass all that the term is intended to convey.
The soft skills that matter most in sales are the ones required for effectively establishing trust, influencing others, and forming relationships with buyers. No one has mastered all soft skills, just as no one has or will master all hard skills for all functional areas. The right blend, along with the desire to keep learning and growing, is what makes some sellers more effective than others.
Why Soft Skills Are Important
Having “soft skills” doesn’t make you soft. But relying disproportionately on “hard skills” will make you seem hard, cold, distant, and uncaring. If you’ve proven yourself through hard work and functional prowess, you may have neglected the simultaneous development of relationships and connections. After all, those skills weren’t a part of your sales training and aren’t on your annual performance reviews.
If you’re struggling to make sales and retain customers despite your technical expertise and ability to correctly represent your products, it could be that there’s a gap in your soft skills.
A Harvard University study found that 85% of professional achievements are determined by soft skills and only 15% by demonstration of hard skills. Studies by Stanford and Carnegie Mellon produced similar findings, as early as 1918. A study conducted in the UK with McDonald’s predicted that half a million people in the UK alone are held back annually from career progression due to a lack of soft skills.
Researchers conclude that soft skills are every bit as important as hard skills in job success, no matter what the role is. In sales, though, there’s a heightened need for soft skills because relationships and interpersonal interactions are so critically important. Customers are looking for value and an engaging experience at every touchpoint Sellers who lack soft skills are unable to produce strong and sustained sales results.
Over-Emphasizing Soft Skills
In sales, soft skills are generally recognized as being vital to the role. Often, in hiring, prioritization of soft skills causes sales managers to overlook the essential hard skills. Sometimes, a strong display of one interpersonal skill initially masks deficits in other soft skills.
Here’s a classic example. An affable candidate aces the interview, making people laugh and want to spend more time with him. He’s likeable, outgoing, and at ease as he talks about his sales experience and how much customers like him. No one notices that his answers are a little bit evasive when it comes to performance. No one digs into his slightly scattered answers that suggest there might be some issues with focus, ability to connect the dots, or responsiveness to subtle cues.
The personality this candidate leads with may be all he has to offer. Too often, this isn’t discovered until it’s too late. That’s not fair to the candidate, and it’s unfortunate for the organization and its customers, too. As important as soft skills are, they’re simply not enough (especially when they aren’t diversified).
In sales, you owe it to yourself to continually build your skills. Don’t settle for product and process training alone. Technical knowledge and functional skills will only take you so far. It may be uncomfortable to work on soft skills. It may be difficult to self-assess your own gaps in soft skills. And it may be an unusual request when you ask for training or coaching in any area of soft skills. Nevertheless, you owe it to yourself and everyone who’s counting on you to acquire, hone, and continually build your soft skills for selling.