The Most Critical Sales Skills to Teach
What sales skills should we be teaching?
When I decided to teach sales at The Ivey Business School, I hit pause on an entrepreneurial sales career and thought for the first time about how I could condense all my lessons learned into a single course.
But as I began distilling lessons learned from my own experience, I couldn't help but think:
This was what worked for me, but how can I be sure this is what will work for everyone else?
What I needed to do was expand what I knew (and thought I knew), and make sure that the content I was about to teach to hundreds, if not thousands of students in the coming years was not just entertaining, and true for some, but also useful and broadly applicable to many: that if applied properly, it would lead to repeatable and predictable results across industries, geographies, and various sales-related roles within a company.
And so began my own sales (re)education journey.
Developing proficiency in a new skill is challenging, especially in sales where some assert that such skills are innate. The lesser-studied, and scarcely understood domain of sales and professional selling has become increasingly important to organizations ranging from technology companies, charities, consulting firms, and service businesses.
In this article, I aim to understand what the existing literature suggests are the foundational elements that make salespeople great, and in turn drive results. In future articles, I'll suggest the best way to teach them.
Sales Research Review
I spent dozens (maybe hundreds) of hours pouring through academic, peer-reviewed sales research dating back to 1918, and uncovered hundreds of articles, yielding thousands of reported associations between salesperson performance and determinants of that performance.
The objective of sales education is to provide students with the skills and competencies required for successful careers in sales, or other careers. More specifically, a sales course should introduce students to the sales process, teach basic sales methods, and develop and/or reinforce in students the basic skills and behaviors used by professional salespeople.
Done right, sales training in undergraduate business programs provides myriad benefits for students such as improved job opportunities and placements, higher starting salaries, faster training to job cycle time, and increased promotability.
The question of what skills to teach, and how to teach them has implications not just for students new to the sales profession, but also for industry. The standard deviation of employee output as a percentage of mean output, over a variety of jobs found the greatest variability was among salespeople.
What does that mean?
In short, there are a lot of great, and also a lot of poor-performing salespeople. My task was to figure out what differentiates the best from the rest.
Selling is a highly individual activity where the ultimate success of a salesperson rises and falls more on her own abilities than on the shared teamwork of others (A Theory and Taxonomy of Individual Sales Performance). Not only is performance of salespeople highly individual and variable, but the definition of performance itself is challenging to define: how much was under the individual’s control, and measurable at the individual level? Is a salesperson great if they hit their annual quota because of one deal that was sourced through a family connection?
So what specifically are the elements that have the greatest impact on an individual’s sales performance?
In 1985, Gilbert Churchill complied a comprehensive review of all the research conducted in this area between 1918 and 1982. He included 116 studies in his meta-analysis and uncovered that the determinants of sales performance could be broken down into six main categories: role variables, skill level, motivation, personal factors, aptitude, and organizational and environmental factors.
Perhaps the most interesting conclusion from their research is that no single determinant explains a very large portion of the variation in sales performance. While the inherent traits (personal factors like age, sex, age, personal life) do influence performance, there are also many traits that are “influenceable” through training, and company-level procedures.
...the determinants of sales performance could be broken down into six main categories: role variables, skill level, motivation, personal factors, aptitude, and organizational and environmental factors.
Another comprehensive study examined the sales performance literature on salesperson performance for the period 1982-2008. Overall, they analyzed 268 studies representing the input of 79,747 salespeople from 4,317 organizations and found that five sub-categories demonstrated significant relationships with sales performance:
1) Selling-related Knowledge: The knowledge of both the product that the salesperson is selling, and an understanding of their customers – who the decision makers are, and how the product or service is likely to be adopted by a potential customer.
2) Degree of Adaptiveness: An ability to read and understand the clients' intentions and needs and match selling style accordingly.
3) Role Ambiguity: An important negative driver of sales performance – when role expectations are clear, the salesperson performs better.
4) Cognitive Aptitude: General level of intelligence which can help customers understand their issues, transfer knowledge, and substantiate their ideas with quantitative data.
5) Work Engagement: A positive state of high energy combined with dedication, and a strong focus on work.
Finally, there are elements of a sales job that place unique demands on employees, namely the degree of autonomy in the job, and the amount of rejection experienced. Therefore, successful salespeople must be self-starters, capable of dealing with a large number of rejections on a daily basis.
Given these characteristics, there are personality dimensions that influence sales person success such as energy management, conscientiousness (striving for competence in your work, organization, reliability), and rugged individualism (action orientation, decisiveness).
To validate what I found in the research, I conducted one-on-one interviews with sales educators, practitioners (managers, and individual contributors), and sales trainers (including those working full-time at leading high-growth companies, and those who work as private trainers serving many different companies across a wide range of industries). The interviews were conducted via Zoom and lasted between 45-60 minutes.
I then created a survey which was administered electronically and answered by top sales professionals from various industries, backgrounds, years of experience, genders, and educational backgrounds. All research protocols were approved by WREM in accordance with the Tri-Council Human Rights Tribunal. The interview notes and survey responses were analyzed to group common responses and discern patterns.
A (much simplified) summary of my findings is below:
The interviews largely confirmed what the literature review suggested:
- Selling-related skills (discovery calls, objection handling, pitching, prospecting) are important
- "Softer" skills like resilience, emotional intelligence, and coachability also play a critical role
- Sales strategy (having and following a sales process and methodology) leads to more predictable outcomes
- Elements of managing ones self (work-style, emotions) plays a factor
- Resilience is almost universally mentioned as a mandatory element of sales success
When I parsed the data by experience (greater than 5 years, or less than 5 years), here's what I found:
Those with less experience put more of an emphasis on the importance of pitching, and investing in building relationships earlier in their career.
Those with more experience saw more value in a work ethic, and preparing for each phase of the sales process.
These distinctions make sense: Those earlier in their career are trying to establish themselves, meet with more potential customers, and want to build their professional network(s). They also tend to believe that getting to the "pitch" phase of a deal, and delivering a better pitch will lead to better outcomes.
Those later in their career recognized that a successful career in sales is a marathon: in a largely self-directed role, you have to be willing to put in the work even when there's no one looking over your shoulder. They also placed a huge value on each interaction with their customers, and specifically block time in their calendar to adequately prepare for pivotal moments or meetings.
In sum, those with more selling experience suggest that preparation for each phase of the buyer journey is more important than one critical moment (eg. the pitch).
So what does it all mean?
All of my research on sales success can be organized into four major categories: will, skill, strategy, and luck.
Sales more than any other role requires an individual to thrive in independent work environments. To be successful in sales, you need to be willing to put in the work - especially early in your career. Some companies have phenomenal training programs, but most early and growth-stage companies require sales people to invest in their own personal development (reading, listening to podcasts, sourcing their own mentors, etc.). Not unlike a lot of other roles, having the will to put in the work is a necessary but not sufficient element of sales success.
Clearly, there are a large list of specific skills that one must become adept at over time to be successful in sales. I can broadly categorize them into two areas: Hard Skills, and Soft Skills.
The Hard Skills can be further broken down into Selling-Related Skills, and General "Work" Skills.
Selling-Related Skills are the skills required to actually do the job of a salesperson, such as:
- How to prospect (sending cold e-mails, cold calling)
- How to conduct a discovery call
- How to handle objections
- How to pitch or demo
These skills match to the various elements of the sales funnel (top of funnel prospecting, mid-funnel discovery, etc.). In growing companies, these phases become specialized roles (a cold-calling SDR, and "closing AE"), but a well-rounded salesperson should be adept at all of them.
General Work Skills are not specific to sales roles, and are developed over time. These are skills like:
- How to prioritize your own workload and deciding what to focus on
- How to stay organized and develop your own system to get work done effectively and efficiently
- How to prepare for a meeting
Finally, Soft Skills (or what Philip Hanlon, President of Dartmouth College calls "Power Skills") These are among the skills that have been identified in the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs survey as some of the most valuable in 2025. This survey notably includes the newly emerging self-management skills like active learning, resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility as well as ‘power skills’ like creativity, originality, initiative, social influence and emotional intelligence.
Specifically as it relates to sales, resilience, action-orientation, positive mindset, emotional intelligence, listening, and coachability were called out in the research as critical to success.
Strategy can broadly be categorized as understanding your customer, the market, how your customer buys, and the planned steps that you take in order to get your product or service into the hands of your customer (closing deals). This includes both a sales process (the steps that you take to complete a sale), and a sales methodology (Sandler, MEDDIC, SPIN, GAP, etc.). This also includes an understanding of your product or service and why someone would choose it over other alternatives (a value proposition).
There are certain elements of sales success that were identified that would be challenging for an individual to change, such as cognitive aptitude (general intelligence), market timing. However, salespeople can to a certain extent create their own luck by managing their energy and mental state, and continuing to put in ample work effort over time.
The Success Formula
I think that these four elements of sales success can be summarized with the following formula:
Will and Skill are additive: Often, you can make up for a lack of skill by working harder than someone else. Having both improves your likelihood of success, but you can have more of one or the other and get by. In the same fashion, strategy and luck are additive. You could have a very non-strategic, non-specific way of taking your product or service to market, but perhaps because of the market timing, or a family connection that you have, you might experience some degree of sales success.
These two parts (will + skill) and (strategy + luck) are multiplicative: you must have one element of either side of the equation in order to see success in sales.
How to Apply This Formula
For practitioners you might consider using this formula to evaluate the success of your sales team. If the team, or an individual on the team is not hitting targets, consider evaluating the performance of the team, or the person by asking the following questions;
For educators or trainers, ensuring your curriculum covers each of these areas and specifically delves deep on not just the sales tactics or skills, but also general work or soft skills is key.
In future articles, I'll look at each of these categories and suggest the best way to teach them.
For decades, business schools have avoided teaching sales, despite the fact that it is one of the top in-demand jobs of the future, and consistently ranks as one of the top priorities of company executives.
There is a massive sales curriculum gap in business school programs around the world because sales is thought to be more art than science.
If you're interested in learning more about my courses, or private sales training sessions please contact me.