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TD Magazine Article

National Audit Reveals Sales Skills Gaps in the United Kingdom

Skills development priorities are identified after a study uncovers that the U.K. salesforce is missing the mark when it comes to sales skills.

By and

Mon Sep 08 2014

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In 2011, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills conducted a survey of 87,500 employers across the country to analyze the skills of the country's workforce. The goal was to gain a view of the U.K.'s competitive position during the economic recovery.

The results show that many core sales skills are lacking. In fact, 56 percent of employers said their salespeople all too often fall short on customer handling, and 47 percent said job-specific competencies are missing.


To gain further insight on these sales skills gaps, SalesAssessment.com in conjunction with Sales Initiative magazine conducted the inaugural U.K. Sales Skills Audit in 2014. The audit's mission was to identify these missing job-specific and customer-handling skills.

Identifying the problem areas

The process began by analyzing skill modules from the current National Vocational Qualification curriculum, which was established from research conducted between 2003 and 2006 by the U.K. government's marketing and sales standards-setting body. This research identified five "core" skills that are critical for salespeople at all levels: customer contact, customer engagement, negotiation and closing, information and activity management, and business skills.

After these skills were identified, questionnaires were designed to assess each one. The audit tested for presence or absence of the core skills needed to succeed across different sales roles. The norm groups were identified by trials of 500 people, equally divided in numbers across North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The data were then used as the basis for comparison against a random group of 125 salespeople from across the United Kingdom, of all levels and roles.

Customer contact

Customer contact skills are about generating initial interest from the customer in the application, product, or service, and starting the process of creating rapport. This includes four skill areas:

  • spotting opportunities—using innovative approaches to meet customer needs; communicating benefits; and understanding the customer's business

  • using probing questions—understanding of information and what is missing or unclear; listening; questioning to clarify situations; and analyzing information

  • communicating—presenting a clear message; listening; summarizing information from the customer and other engagements; and using language familiar and acceptable to the audience

  • advising the customer—selecting the right approach; using the customer's preferred language and style; and engaging the customer.

The audit's customer contact module shows a very mixed picture: 10 percent of U.K. salespeople are very highly skilled in this discipline, while 44 percent of them are at a level that makes them effective in a sales role. Unfortunately, 46 percent lack these key skills. The communications element in particular represents a serious gap in U.K. salespeople's abilities: 54 percent of the respondents fall below the global average in this area.


Engaging the customer

These are the skills required to effectively engage the customer in conversation and start the process of qualification, with the objective of gaining an understanding of the customer's needs. The group comprises five skill areas:

  • matching customer needs to products or services—knowing products and services; analyzing needs or problems; and matching the need to offering

  • gaining awareness of competitors—understanding the market; and knowing

the implications of competitor activity on one's own opportunities

  • understanding the customer's needs—understanding requirements; and clarifying

  • testing and challenging assumptions—understanding customer assumptions about an opportunity; and questioning identified assumptions to gain clarity

  • keeping abreast of new products and services—assimilating of new products, features, and technology; and understanding the benefits to the customer.

The audit shows that 60 percent of the U.K. salespeople who participated in this survey fell below the competency level required to effectively engage with their customers. Only 36 percent of the salespeople surveyed had a skill level above the global average, and only 4 percent demonstrated highly developed skills in this area.

Shockingly, 73 percent do not have the skills to recognize the potential impact competitors may have on their ability to sell. What is worse is that 64 percent of the salespeople surveyed are failing to understand customers' needs. Fifty-five percent are below average when it comes to testing and challenging assumptions, while 73 percent are below average when it comes to keeping abreast of new products and services.

Negotiating and closing

These are the skills required to communicate the value of the benefits to the customer, often using simple financial metrics, and to close the deal. Three skill areas are relevant:

  • influencing customer expectations—prioritizing activities that move a customer relationship or deal forward; reaching mutually acceptable conclusions; and influencing customer expectations

  • negotiating—having a clear view of the desired end result; obtaining information to help close the sale; and anticipating and addressing customer concerns

  • objection handling—listening; probing and analyzing to ensure understanding; and having the ability to deal with all types of customer objections.

Nearly an equal amount of salespeople in Britain have above-average (46 percent) and below-average (48 percent) skills in negotiating and closing. Six percent of respondents are highly skilled in this area. The audit reveals that U.K. salespeople are most adept at negotiation, with 50 percent at or above the benchmark and 10 percent with highly developed skills in this domain.

Information and activity management

These are the skills required to work effectively and in an organized manner, with clear plans and reports, with the purpose of achieving sales goals and targets. This group involves three skill areas:

  • paperwork management—timely completion of records; and accurate recordkeeping

  • achieving goals, objectives, and targets—understanding targets and how to achieve them; and understanding financial metrics and drivers

  • planning and managing activities—planning activities to achieve objectives or solve problems; and managing records.

The audit found that there are no U.K. salespeople who are highly skilled in information and activity management, and those with above-average and below-average skills in this area are evenly split at 50 percent. Recordkeeping management proved to be the area where U.K. salespeople had the least amount of skills; 67 percent fall below the global average skill level and 33 percent have an above-average skill level.

Business skills

These are the skills required to establish personal and company credibility with the customer for the purpose of realizing benefits from the relationship. This final group of skills covers four areas:

  • self-management and professionalism—gaining customer and business awareness; completing actions; improving skills and performance; and setting and adhering to standards and accountability

  • problem solving—analyzing problems; using others' expertise; and using logic and new approaches for problem solving

  • exercising judgment and making decisions—prioritizing; evaluating risk; evaluating and responding to customer problems or inquiries; and deciding when and how to seek further information or refer to others

  • resilience and follow-through—coping with multiple conflicting pressures; having persistence; and initiating and committing to delivery.

The study found that 66 percent of those surveyed are at a level that would make them successful, but only 4 percent are in a position to achieve excellence. Seventy-four percent of respondents had above-average problem solving skills, while self-management and professionalism skills in the United Kingdom sit at 65 percent above the average.

Salespeople in the United Kingdom also performed well when it comes to resilience and follow-through; 52 percent of them perform above the average and a further 13 percent are excellent in this regard.

Training needs

The results of the audit indicate that sales skills in the United Kingdom need to improve dramatically, which means development needs to start as early as possible in a salesperson's career. To facilitate this, many of the underlying approaches to sales training may need to be challenged—and perhaps the just-in-time, bite-sized e-learning approach focused precisely on areas of skills deficits may soon replace many of today's broad-brush training approaches.

The figure below ("Sales Skills Development Priorities in the United Kingdom") indicates specifically where development priorities must lie in the United Kingdom. This information can help sales managers and sales directors develop their sales training plans moving forward.

Government figures show that 49 billion British pounds (approximately US$82 billion) were spent on training in 2011, when only 38 percent of employers had developed a training plan. How relevant these training plans are to real-world needs is still something of an unknown.

Where to from here?

The U.K. Sales Skills Audit will run every year, expanding both in the number of participants and number of countries in which it is run. Additionally, topic-based research will be conducted every quarter.

Ongoing studies compare salespeople who have achieved recognized qualifications with the general population. In the U.K. government's own research, huge differences were found in skill sets among sectors; this is something we are planning to explore in more detail at a later date.

There is significant evidence that the sales profession is in a perilous condition, and the objective for the U.K. Sales Skills Audit is to analyze the weaknesses to establish a basis for further research. One clear conclusion is that organizations need to invest more in training on the five core sales skills and particularly in areas where there are known weaknesses, such as in customer engagement.

By acting now, companies will increase their sales performance, profitability, and competitive advantage. Conversely, if organizations elect not to invest in their salespeople they could lose out to their competitors.

Sales Strengths and Weaknesses

Key sales strengths: Business skills

U.K. salespeople come across as credible. They have key strengths in areas of business, including problem solving, self-management, and professionalism. These results are generally expected in advanced economies such as the United Kingdom, where a significant level of investment in learning and development in these topics is expected to be in place.

Average sales skills: Customer contact

U.K. salespeople are as good as most at getting in touch with the customer. However, an inability to advise customers, spot opportunities, ask probing questions, and communicate with customers will inevitably mean that salespeople will not be introducing enough new, quality opportunities into their sales pipelines.

Poor sales skills: Customer engagement

The lack of customer engagement skills shows up as the most deplorable findings in the whitepaper, and yet customer engagement is one of the most important competencies. These skills to correctly qualify leads are the primary factors in delivering reliable sales forecasts.

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September 2014 - TD Magazine

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