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Top 3 Basic Communications Skills For Salespeople

Excellence in communications is a requirement for salespeople, especially when the focus is on phone calls and B2B. Many salespeople seem to think that movies are a facsimile of life, and attempt to use the hard sale techniques they see on the silver screen in their daily work. This will inevitably lead to failure, since those techniques revolve around telling not communicating (it’s a movie, after all).

The latter is a two way process, and requires participation not only from the person telling but also from the prospect. Here are my top 3 basic communications skills for salespeople. By hitting all of them you’ll ensure you are communicating to the best of your ability. Your prospects will be happier and you will be more successful as a result.

1. Listen.

This is a topic I keep coming back to because it’s so often ignored; listening well is a skill we all seem to be losing rather rapidly. This is unfortunate since listening effectively forms the basis of a successful sales career.

In order to listen well, you must be entirely focussed on what the other party is saying. This is unlike a regular conversation, where you’re probably thinking about what to say next. Here, your entire mind must be bent to the task of understanding what the prospect is saying, including all the shades of meaning that may be present.

Listening also includes the use of auditory (or visual) feedback, meaning those nods or “mm-hmm” noises you make. These are a vital part of two-way conversation, and indicate that you are engaged with what the prospect is telling you. The use of these should be subtle, and should avoid disrupting the prospect’s flow in any way.

Instead, they should strengthen it by allowing the prospect to keep talking. If you’re on the phone with someone and they haven’t made a sound for a while, the natural tendency is to pause and see if they’re still there. The use of this kind of feedback avoids precisely this trigger, allowing the prospect to keep talking.

Another key point with listening is to take notes. It’s up to you how you do so, but I tend to prefer pen and paper over digital means. I’ve tried my way through a whole menagerie of those, and find the freedom to connect concepts easily to be the winning factor in favor of paper. You need to use what makes sense to you.

The important thing is to take copious notes, not only about what they’re saying but how they’re saying it. It’s often extremely useful to know how they feel about certain topics, and including this can make your closing process much easier.

2. Speech and silence.

Rhetoric is a word that has garnered some negative connotations in the modern era (similar to stoic and cynic), but whose original meaning (at least according to Merriam-Webster) is still intact:

language that is intended to influence people and that may not be honest or reasonable

the art or skill of speaking or writing formally and effectively especially as a way to persuade or influence people

Merriam-Webster online dictionary

The modern meaning of the word leads one to think of bombast-laden dishonesty, but the classical word referred to a standard part of ancient Greek and Roman education. Specifically, the study of rhetoric:

is the art of discourse, an art that aims to improve the capability of writers or speakers to inform, persuade, or motivate particular audiences in specific situations.


As such, it’s incredibly useful to every salesperson, and I encourage you to begin learning about it as soon as possible. The Wikipedia entry linked above is a good starting point.

Now that I’ve plugged an ancient discipline (I enjoy doing so; see the stoicism post here), we can move on to more practical tips. The reason I mentioned listening before speaking is because it is by far the more important skill. A salesperson should spend 80% of the conversation in silence, allowing the prospect to speak.

When you speak, make sure what you say is:

  • Clear and succinct,
  • Relevant to the conversation, and
  • Polite.

Speech is a skill that requires practice. If you follow the 80% rule then every word you say during your 20% must be chosen for maximum effect and relevancy. Your speech must be clear and efficient without causing a reduction in the spice and pleasure a conversation can provide.

Rather than providing examples, I encourage you to analyze your speech and improve it within your own context. After all, it should sound natural and very much your own. Don’t be afraid to be unique and try out new things.

Within the context of speech, silence can be a powerful asset. Silence can be used to encourage a prospect to speak further (people often feel the need to fill silences). It can also be used to indicate contemplation of what your prospect just said, lending weight to their words (and, of course, making them feel better). It’s something most people don’t think about, making it that much more powerful.

You should practice using silence in this way in your everyday conversations before you use it in professional calls. It’s very easy to get it wrong and create uncomfortable feelings with your prospects. The last thing you want is to make your prospect feel any negative emotion at all.

3. Tactical communications and mirroring.

The communications you practice are all about discovering your prospect’s intent, interest, and need. They’re about bringing a prospect to a point of decision, and causing that decision to fall in your favor. I like to call these tactical communications: you are communicating with a set of goals in mind, and have various rhetorical tools at your disposal.

I won’t go into depth here, but I would invite you to attempt to write down a conversation. Not a script, but rather how a conversation could go. It will have a tree-like shape, with each decision point branching into multiple possibilities. Begin to notice these decision points in everyday conversation; not the simple ones such as simply hanging up or being rude, but rather the ones that have more complexity. Try to see where you can take the prospect, and what possibilities you have at each of these points.

This exercise should help you begin to see what you can influence in a conversation without necessarily speaking much. There are often non-verbal tools you can use which are at least as effective as verbal ones, and can lead to the same results. They are more natural and tend to fly under the radar of anyone who’s part of the conversation.

One of those is mirroring, or adopting your prospect’s tone and rapidity of speech. When you’re speaking with someone new, you’ll (quite subconsciously) connect more readily if their speech is similar to yours. This includes vocabulary, tone of voice, and speed of speech.

In a cold call, or any call at all, you should focus on tone and speed. Vocabulary comes during the conversation, when you’ve had a chance to listen to the prospect. The tone is particularly important: if they’re relaxed, mirror it. If they’re highly strung, mirror it to a degree that seems natural. If they’re stressed, it’s best to call back later, or to tend toward a resolute tone. Think about the various situations you face, and adapt your tone accordingly.

Rapidity of speech plays a part in determining tone, and can be quite an effective method on its own. Matching the speed at which a prospect speaks immediately creates a connection, since speed is usually related to what they deem important. If they’re in a rush or value time, they’ll speak quickly. If they value the conversation itself, it’ll be slow and languorous. If they are explaining something to someone they think may not get it (usually you, even though you obviously will), they will speak at a medium pace and with crispness.

Use these two tactical considerations to your advantage, and let them help you create an instant connection with your prospects. These are two simple examples of tactical communications, and should be part of your arsenal regardless of what your strategy is.

Final Thoughts

This was meant to be a basic post, and as such, has barely scratched the surface of the tools that are at your disposal. The keys to developing good communications skills are self-awareness, practice, and reading.

  • Self awareness because you know better than anybody else how you’d like to sound.
  • Practice because you need to learn and master the techniques.
  • And finally reading because even though we all have it in us to be great communicators, those who preceded us have figured out some short cuts which we should all be aware of. They’ve also studied and categorized the art of communication, and it behooves us as salespeople to learn all we can from them.

I hope it has been useful to you, and, as ever, I wish you all the best!

Do you agree with what I wrote here? Disagree? Did I miss something? Could I have done something better? Please let me know in the comments!

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