The Top 10 Skills Sales Professionals Need In 2020 (And Now)

In their preface to their 2016 report, “The Future of Jobs”, the World Economic Forum notes that we’re at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered by advancements in such things as genetics, AI, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and biotechnology. It’s a post-digital age that raises interesting, existential questions of ethics and identity that we won’t delve into here. But what’s significant about the report’s findings for sales professionals are the top 10 skills the industry will need in a few years’ time.

Ask a given sales leader what skills sales reps need and you’re likely to hear answers such as product knowledge, objection handling, prospecting and closing abilities, time management, etc. – or job specific capabilities. But while these are important, and will continue to be, there are other critical skills that will determine how successful sales reps of the future will be. That list, according to the WEF, consists of the following 10 abilities:

  1. Cognitive Flexibility
  2. Coordinating with Others
  3. Complex Problem-Solving
  4. Creativity
  5. Critical Thinking
  6. Emotional Intelligence
  7. Judgement and Decision-Making
  8. Negotiation Skills
  9. People Management
  10. Service Orientation

For space reasons, we aren’t going to elaborate at length on each of the skills here. Indeed, they should be self-explanatory ipso facto their titles. But what is particularly interesting is that this list falls under two overarching areas – Social Skills and Cognitive Abilities. And it’s under those larger umbrellas that we’ll dig deeper into the significance and meaning.

Social Skills

Includes: Coordinating with Others, Emotional Intelligence, Negotiation Skills, People Management, Service Orientation

In essence, the ability to understand people (emotional intelligence) and work with them (coordinating with others, negotiation skills) within an altruistic perspective (service orientation) is what will allow the sales reps of today and tomorrow to succeed in their careers – even as some of their job duties currently can and will be replaced by automation and AI technologies.

When this changeover happens, it will eliminate the drudgery of mundane tasks, freeing (or forcing, depending on your outlook) sales reps to concentrate on their interactions with customers, the bookkeeping aspects that took up so much time replaced by things we’ll talk more about under Cognitive Abilities.

With customer interactions moved to the forefront, sales reps will need to be able to interact with the people of their pipeline in an open dialogue and at a higher level than before. Thus, the number of order taker sales reps will greatly diminish, and the ones left standing will be the Trusted Advisors, who are service-minded and authentic in their question for finding the right solution(s) to alleviate the customer’s pain points and needs,

David J. Deming, a research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, is even more blunt in his assessment, noting that the best-paying, automation-resistant jobs place ever great emphasis on social skills, whereas those jobs reliant upon analytical and mathematical skills that don’t require a significant degree of social interaction are cratering in importance and capability of commanding significant wages.

Nor should this be particularly surprising. The supercomputer K can compute four times faster than the human brain and with 10 times as much data. And as far back as the late 1960s, a computer was winning against humans in tournament play, the first title at the Paul Masson Chess Tournament in 1968. Since that watershed victory, computers have beaten a master in tournament play, the AI earning its own master rating (1981), defeated a grandmaster in tournament play (1988), and eventually surpassed humans completely by 2004.

But what computers and other forms of AI presently can’t do is replicate human teamwork, communication, and emotion – which are all tied to social skills and will remain the single greatest source of human sales reps’ advantage for the foreseeable future.

Cognitive Abilities

Includes: Cognitive Flexibility, Complex Problem-Solving, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Judgement & Decision Making

Interestingly enough, the Top 10 skills have an even 5-5 split between the two broader categories. While AI excels at computation and mathematical calculation at speeds far beyond the reach of humans, their output still needs to be analyzed by a human who is able to think critically and logically, see how the data fits together in a larger picture, and how that bigger picture either identifies problems or signals where solutions can be found.

For example, a marketing application such as Google Analytics can tell you that your website has experienced a sharp, unexpected decline in views. What it can’t tell you is why there’s a crash in views. Currently, only an analytical human mind can judge and uncover that.

Perhaps you’re a small business in Arkansas and an ice storm knocked out power in most of your town for a week, which would naturally have an impact on views. Or maybe a larger, more prestigious company in your industry just opened up a new location in your city, and they’re drawing traffic away from your site. Each situation would call for a different response, as the cause is different, even if the effect is the same.

With this analysis comes judgment and decision-making. Creativity, to ironically invoke a cliché, entails thinking outside the box and being able to make connections that not only AI can’t make, who are bound by their inputs, but other humans.

While automation and AI will take over many of the current duties assigned to sales reps as time progresses, the emotional, analytical, and interpersonal skills still necessitate the use of human sales reps – indeed, to arguably even greater degree than before. The sales professionals of today and the near future will therefore need to develop and enhance their skills in those areas to stay top-performing and relevant in the present and forthcoming marketplace.