How to Unlock Sales Person Competency

Brian Lambert

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To begin understanding sales competency, you have to begin with the ultimate assumptions about professional selling. Can we all agree that professional selling is ultimately:

1 - Grounded to a buyer(s) behavior and decision process?

2 - Focused on helping a transaction occur?

3 - Bound by an ethical responsibility to do “what is right”?

If we can all agree on these things from all sides of the table we can begin to dissect the sales profession step by step using the system's approach. If the buyer, marketing, purchasing, and even HR professionals can agree to this, then we can begin to arrive at a common definition of “sales competency. ” Obviously, this is a long way away. Though I have worked on the definition of “what” professional selling competency is for six years, I still have work to do toframe it up all the way.

Sales competency is ultimately defined as a salesperson's knowledge, skill, abilities, and values. All four components must be in alignment to the customer in order for a sales professional to become competent. Because competence is defined as knowledge, skill, abilities, and values, sales professionals have a difficult job ahead of them if they wish to become better. Becoming better is not easy and most sales organizations do not provide adequate training to cover the breadth of competency – because it has never really been defined before.

Effective sales professionals are continuously learning and they have developed a framework and process for accessing their knowledge. They have a solid “knowledge foundation" and they understand their strengths and weaknesses. Because skill is determined by the knowledge a salesperson has gained plus their experience level, salespeople do get better over time. But it takes too long in almost everyone’s opinion. Sales Management wishes that sales people would “ramp up” quicker. Sales people wish they could sell more, faster. The buyer wishes that all salespeople were “competent” and reliable.

Some of the most skilled sales professionals have stayed in one vertical market or industry for a longer period of time. They have also stayed in the same sales role for a longer length of time (such as outside sales). Why? They have followed a defined career path with increasing levels of responsibility and complexity of sale and they have been able to gain effectiveness, efficiency, and competency.

Ironically, a “truly” competent salesperson would have the ability to move into any organization and gain the trust of the buying decision-makers. They would be able to create a situation where buying can occur within an ethical environment at a fair price no matter who they worked for. They would have the knowledge to speak to a CEO, the front-line manager, or the newest employee about what issues and challenges they face almost immediately – no matter what vertical market they served.

They way to get there is to strive and push to increase your knowledge, skill, and ability so you can be the best at what you do.

To accomplish this, you need a framework. Since 1999, I have been personally interviewing hundreds of salespeople and I have been a “bag carrying/quota carrying salesperson. I have also been vigorously studying the sales professional as part of Ph. D. research. My dissertation and final Ph. D. publication will be on the area of individual selling competency. The remaining part of this book offers you an important framework that many salespeople have leveraged to succeed, gain more confidence, and attain their greatest accomplishments in selling.

The Components of Salesperson Competency

For anyone in any profession, they usually seek to become better. To do this, they must first start with an objective analysis of where they currently are and where they want to be. They must objectively analyze their performance against existing benchmarks from their organization or from their professional trade association. They must understand what their current performance “situation” is and where they need to be. They need to understand who their performance is impacting.

For professional salespeople, they must objectively ascertain:

  • What results are currently being achieved?
  • What results are desired of me?
  • ow large is the gap between my current situation and the expectations?
  • What is that impact of that gap? To myself, to my employer, to others?

The goal for you, then (as an individual sales professional) is to understand what you can control and improve upon in order to close the performance gap.

If there is a gap in performance, the goal then is to clearly understand why that gap exists. Perhaps you don’t have the right information or support. Perhaps you don’t have the time or ability to perform all the work that needs to be done. Maybe the rewards in place are not giving you the proper incentives. These are “external” causes of the performance gap that you may not be able to control (and are usually the purview of your management team).

Usually, a gap in performance that you can control stems from the absence of the right activities, beliefs, or competencies that will lead to the desired level of performance.

  • Activities are visible outputs that you create as a salesperson. These outputs can take the form of something communicated, something thought, or something created.
  • Beliefs are internal thought patterns that lead you to accept something as “true”, especially a particular tenet or a body of tenets accepted by a group of persons (i. e. that all salespeople are bad people, etc)
  • Competencies are comprised of your knowledge, your ability, and your skill

  • Knowledge is acquisition of the right information necessary to perform.

  • Abilities are defined as the quality of being able to do something, either physically or mentally (like drive a car).
  • A skill is the proficiency, facility, or dexterity acquired or developed through training or experience (like driving a car very well).
Once you have defined why a certain gap exists and defined specifically, what you can control within that gap, you must understand what you can do about it. You should objectively and appropriately define specific ways to close your performance gap by addressing the root cause (activity, belief, or competency). To accomplish this, you may choose to read, attend training, interview others, listed to something, etc, etc. You may choose to accomplish this on your own or with others.

The key is to identify what you need to improve and learn it in the most appropriate manner for you. What this doesn’t mean is reading a book on sales methodology and “swallowing it whole. ” Most salespeople do not do this anyway. If a salesperson gets one or two “nuggets” of information from out-of-the-box sales training it’s considered good. To become an expert salesperson, you have to develop expertise in selling. You must be able to think effectively about problems that come up within professional selling. Understanding expertise is important because it provides insights into the nature of thinking and problem solving. Research shows that it is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems.

With this accomplished, it’s time to implement the new activity, belief, or competency. This is easier said than done. Because the choice you have made is most likely accomplished in a “vacuum”, you probably haven’t discussed why you chose to change a certain aspect, or you haven’t been able to ground your thought process to anything solid. By that I mean, if you don’t have something to serve as a checklist, framework, or scorecard, it’s hard to stay focused on implementing your new behavior. This is different than just “staying motivated’. I am specifically talking about the need to implement a lasting change. To do that, you need to make changes in a planned and managed fashion. The aim of this process should be to more effectively implement new activities, beliefs, and competencies. The changes to be managed lie within and are controlled by YOU. You must have a plan, work the plan, and measure your progress. This process is not unlike the change or “version control” aspect of information system development projects. This process starts with understanding the end result, assessing where you currently are and incrementally making the appropriate change until the desired result is accomplished.

Unfortunately, this is a “new way of thinking” for most salespeople. Why? Because to do this effectively, you have to understand “WHAT” professional selling is – this is very different than “doing professional selling. ” If you try to engineer a change on the latter, you quickly end up in the area of subjective “here’s what I think we should do” thinking. This is often counter-productive and not uniquely tailored to your specific needs. The best way to get where you need to go is – do this yourself. Sure, you can ask others for input, but use the other articles I have written as a guide. They are built on “WHAT” professional selling is.

Brian is the Chairman and Founder of the the United Professional Sales Association (UPSA). UPSA is a non-profit organization headquartered in Washington DC that has addressed the concerns and challenges of individual sales professionals. Brian has authored the world’s first universal selling standards and open-source selling framework for free distribution. This ‘Compendium of Professional Selling’ containing the commonly accepted and universally functional knowledge that all sales professionals possess. The open-source selling standards have been downloaded in 16 countries by over 300 people. Over 30 people have made contributions.

Because UPSA is not owned by one person or any company, it is a member organization and guardian of the global standard of entry into the sales profession.

Find out about the membership organization and understand the processes and framework of professional selling at the UPSA Website at

Find out more about Brian at:


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