Building a Core Competencies Framework

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What skills and attributes lead to success in sales? For many sales enablement practitioners, this question can feel nebulous. With so many different types of sales roles, and people with diverse personalities and backgrounds in each, it can be difficult to parse out the competencies that are congruent across all successful salespeople at an organization.

But in order for sales enablement to drive meaningful and tangible improvements in sales performance, it is essential to understand who your salespeople are, why some excel, and where there are skill gaps. By identifying core competencies and building a framework to measure progress against each, sales enablement can better prepare salespeople for success and support them in developing critical skills.

Of course, this is no small task, and one that can quickly become convoluted with multiple teams, stakeholders, and competing priorities at play.

“You have to keep it simple,” said Devon McDermott, vice president of enablement at CM Group. “It’s something that is so easy to overcomplicate and over-engineer. What happens when you do that is that it becomes impossible to implement, it becomes impossible to support, it becomes impossible to update, and it very quickly becomes outdated and unusable.”

To help reduce complexity and create a firm foundation for your framework, start with the following steps:

  1. Designate a task force. Building competencies is a cross-functional exercise that requires involvement from key leaders representing teams across the organization. Bring together managers and high-performing individuals to help determine the skills that lead to success, human resources to align the framework to hiring and growth plans, and executive leaders to ensure the competencies align to organizational goals.
  2. Identify and vet the competencies. Lean on your task force to help you figure out what sales reps need to be able to do to be successful. Conduct interviews with the field, shadow calls and meetings, and encourage managers to share their observations. Pilot the competencies with a few top-performers to vet that the competencies are in fact the right ones.
  3. Create a scoring rubric to guide ongoing development. Within the framework, define what good looks like for each competency. Work with managers to rate each contributor on their team, and ask each individual to assess themselves. This will help shed light on areas where there are gaps, and also serve as a tool for both managers and individuals to use in developing goals for personal growth.

For many organizations, sales competencies can fall into four main categories: selling motions, product knowledge, soft skills & attributes, and systems & processes. While the exact skills that are needed for specific roles, industries, and companies will vary, here are some common core competencies within these four categories that can lead to success in sales.

A customizable competency framework is available for download at the bottom of this page.

Selling Motions

Selling motions are the methods or techniques a salesperson uses to deliver a product or service to a customer. Spanning each stage of the sales process, these skills look at how effective a salesperson is at connecting to customer needs and engaging them by proving value.

“We have attributes such as how well does the seller open a sales call by setting a meeting agenda, stating the value to the customer, and checking for acceptance,” said Terry Mitchell, director of sales enablement at Fujifilm. “We also have criteria here about how well the seller executes the agenda that they established, and they stay on task and focused. We talk about how the seller uses open and closed or layered questions to explore and discover possible pain points within the business, realized and even unrealized needs.”

For example, consider including the following competencies as a base:

  • Uncovers Needs: How well does the salesperson detect needs and dig into underlying factors influencing that need? How well are they able to prioritize customer needs?
  • Confirms Value: How well does the salesperson communicate the value of the product or service and connect the value to the customer’s specific needs?
  • Differentiates & Overcomes Objections: How well does the salesperson differentiate between the capabilities of the product or service versus competing solutions? Does the salesperson recognize objections and overcome them in a compelling way?
  • Creates Compelling Business Case: How well does the salesperson communicate the need for change and urgency to disrupt status quo?
  • Establishes & Executes Action Plan: How well does the salesperson create a plan of action, establish mutual agreement with the customer, and execute the agreed steps?

Product Knowledge

Having a deep understanding of the business your organization operates in and sells to as well as the specific problems you solve through your product or service is without a doubt one of the first critical stepping stones to developing competent salespeople.

While product knowledge alone does not dictate success, it is expertise that cascades into every other competency. Thus, it plays an important role in determining the quality of interactions with customers and the value that salespeople are capable of delivering.

“In order for someone to be able to give a good first call pitch about the company, they have to have a clear understanding of our messaging, what it is that we do, a comfort level with the problems that we solve, and a good understanding of the people that we sell to,” said Giorgia Ortiz, head of global sales enablement at Lever.

Consider including competencies similar to the following:

  • Demonstrates Business Expertise: How well does the salesperson demonstrate knowledge of the customer’s business, industry nuances, and challenges? How well does the salesperson demonstrate knowledge of the product or service?
  • Collaborates to Develop Tailored Solutions: How well does the salesperson collaborate with the customer to develop a solution based on the customer’s unique business needs?
  • Confirms Business Solution: How well does the salesperson validate that the solution solves the business needs of the customer?
  • Creates Strategic Justification: How well does the salesperson connect solution capabilities to the customer’s purchase requirements and build an economic and strategic case that justifies the purchase?
  • Resolves Customer Concerns & Questions: How well does the salesperson recognize customer concerns and use evidence to resolve them?

Soft Skills & Attributes

Technical and tactical skills are critical, but to effectively execute key responsibilities of a sales role and connect with customers on a deeper level, reps need to also embody certain soft skills. These are traits that enable people to interact harmoniously and build relationships with people, which in sales are extremely important to win mind-share with customers.

“Bringing in those soft skills is critical,” said Tanya Kunze, CEO at Swift Coaching. “Because it’s something that is so intrinsic to them, they will strive for success and you won’t need to manage them as hard as you would if they weren’t engaged.”

Below are five attributes that can help enhance a salesperson’s ability to establish relationships with key stakeholders and customers:

  • Storytelling & Presentation Skills: How well does the salesperson use compelling stories and memorable content to engage the customer? Does the salesperson deliver a cohesive storyline that is easy to follow?
  • Builds Rapport: How well does the salesperson build trust, credibility, and rapport with the customer?
  • Tenacity: How persistent is the salesperson in engaging the customer? Does the salesperson demonstrate determination and perseverance when faced with obstacles?
  • Professional Poise: How well does the salesperson demonstrate professionalism when interacting with the customer?
  • Creates Engaging & Empathetic Dialogue: How well does the salesperson listen to the customer and make them feel truly heard? Does the salesperson encourage a dialogue using engaging questions?

Systems and Processes

Every organization has a plethora of systems sales reps need to navigate and defined processes they are expected to follow to keep the business running smoothly. At the same time, many organizations also have a number of sales tools to help reps execute aspects of their job more effectively, aligned to these system and process requirements.

“[Sales reps] need to understand and know the systems that they’re going to be using and what resources are available to them in their job,” said Bill Parry, director of enablement at Redwood Software. “Those systems need to be second nature to them. So many sellers hesitate calling somebody because they don’t know how to input a lead or how to finish an order or how to ‘insert frustrating process’ that we have created and they don’t know how to do it right.”

To ensure all salespeople are following the established processes and leveraging the resources available to them, consider holding salespeople accountable to the following competencies:

  • Understands Sales Stages: How well does the salesperson understand the sales stages followed by the organization?
  • Understands Buying Process: How well does the salesperson understand the customer’s buying journey, the stakeholders involved in the decision, the processes they need to follow to make a decision, and how that correlates to the organization’s defined sales stages?
  • Confirms Purchase Timeline: How well does the salesperson anticipate and confirm the timeframe in which the customer plans to make a purchase?
  • Effectively Utilizes Sales Tools: How well does the salesperson leverage resources available to them to streamline or automate sales processes or enhance the quality of their interactions with customers?
  • Accurately Reports Status & Next Steps: How well does the salesperson confirm next steps and accurately report on the status of customer decisions?

Building robust competency frameworks for the sales roles that sales enablement supports can have massive benefits for the sales organization as it creates clear guidance for professional development, skill tracking, and coaching. Using the defined competencies in roleplays, practice sessions, live on-the-job training, and more makes it clear to sales reps what is expected of them and enables managers to provide more consistent support to their teams.

“The individual seller demonstrates his mastery of the skill and essentially moves from a lower rating of a one or a two to a higher rating of a four or five,” said Mitchell. “At the end of the day, it’s all about improving the skills and then demonstrating the competency.”

On the other hand, competency frameworks also empower enablement to be able to create more personalized and meaningful programs for the various teams they support, from onboarding and ongoing training to certifications and assessments.

“What that does is ensures that we’re focused on continually developing and empowering the teams we support to make sure that they’re executing flawlessly, leveling up, and seeing progress in the organization,” said McDermott.

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