Sales skills, product knowledge or good attitude. Which is the most important component in the sales equation?
I am often asked by salespeople and by sales managers what I believe is the most important sales principal. The question is usually put rhetorically more or less as follows:
"Who can argue that the most important thing in selling is attitude?" or "You do agree, don't you, that nothing is more important than product knowledge?" or "The most important thing in sales is skills, right?"
Sales consultants, especially the best known ones, often get caught up in this question. Some insist that attitude is the most important principle, others believe that product knowledge or skills should be emphasized. In any given seminar, you can hear sales trainers defending one of the three principles.
For example, you might hear a sales consultant say the following about attitude: "You can have the greatest product knowledge, you can master every selling skill, but if you lack the proper attitude, you won't consistently succeed at selling." At this point the consultant might add something like this: All of us have seen examples of salespeople who don't know the least thing about their product, who don't know a close from a greeting but still manage to get the sale time after time. Why? They have the right attitude." At another time you might hear a sales consultant say: "Customers look for a salesperson who can provide them with the information they need to make the best buying decision. The role of the salesperson is to provide that information. One cannot do that without specialized product knowledge." Finally, there are the sales consultants who insist that the most important thing is the mastery of selling skills or techniques. "Look", they say, "customers aren't interested in the nuts and bolts of our product. They simply want to have their needs satisfied. To do that the salesperson must be able to find out those needs, support those needs, and win the customer's commitment to those needs. In short, the salesperson needs professional selling skills."
All this reminds me of the three American professionals, a lawyer, a doctor, and a theologian, who hired an old fishing guide in Kenora, Ontario. The guide led the three in his small wooden boat to a spot about forty yards from shore where the three professionals soon caught their limit of walleye. The lawyer, then started asking the guide about his knowledge of law. The guide, who had never completed the fifth grade admitted he knew nothing about such matters, to which the lawyer replied, with great arrogance, "Why Man, you've lost a quarter of your life." Next the doctor inquired about the guide's knowledge of medicine. "I can hardly read the local newspaper, let alone books on medicine," came back the reply. "Well then you've lost half your life," said the doctor. The theologian then asked the guide about his knowledge of theology. "I do not even know what the word means," the old guide answered. "You dear sir have lost three quarters of your life," the theologian added self-righteously. Just then the boat sprang a large leak and soon all four found themselves in the water. The guide, an excellent swimmer, was half way to shore when he looked back and saw the three professionals frantically thrashing the lake with their arms. So he shouted to them, "Do you know how to swim?" All three managed to spit out a no. "In that case," the guide hollered back, "you've lost all of your lives."
The lesson in this anecdote is that nothing is more important than what the situation calls for. In terms more meaningful to those in sales, nothing is more important than what a given customer finds important at a given time. Be it attitude, selling skills or product knowledge that the customer needs, then the salesperson must have one or the right combination of these sales components to offer.
A wise manager once told me that customers go from store to store until they find a salesperson. "How I wish I knew," he said, "just what lines to memorize in order to know just what the customer is looking for." But, as one author wrote, "The trouble with memorizing our lines, is that the customers keep on forgetting theirs." In that statement lies the explanation of why it may be futile to ask which of the three... skills, product knowledge or attitude... is the most important. Such a question may be missing a vital point in selling: neither skills, nor product knowledge, nor attitude have any validity unless they are viewed from the customer's point of view.
Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at firstname.lastname@example.org.