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After two decades in sales and as a sales executive, plus an additional three years of heavy research into sales performance development and growth, I have found the most effective way to truly improve and sustain sales performance is to improve sales conversations. And the way to improve conversations is to improve the responses salespeople provide for any given question or situation.

The greatest assets any sales team has are the best responses they provide to current and potential clients. Collaborating as a team to improve responses and conversations should be the highest priority of sales teams for the New Year.

Conversations are the core of a salesperson’s work. Every step of the sales person requires conversations between a salesperson and a potential client: the pitch, the follow-up, the subsequent meetings and the close. If a salesperson is unable to answer questions properly or resolve concerns, the conversations break down and the sale fails

Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a way to improve conversations. Most sales systems available right now focus on helping sales teams set goals and measuring the final outcome of a sales pitch or phone call. None of them go right to the core: the conversations. All the goals in the world won’t mean a thing unless salespeople know how to reach them.

From my experience and research, I’ve developed 10 sales characteristics and practices that can propel salespeople to better, more agile conversations, and ultimately, higher close rates.

First, salespeople need to demonstrate knowledge of products and services. This sounds simple, but it’s surprising how many salespeople are unable to answer simple questions about their products or services when asked. A salesperson with a strong knowledge and understanding of the company’s products and/or services will be better prepared to answer questions and resolve concerns.

Second, salespeople must be passionate about the products or services. This can only really happen when a salesperson understands and has knowledge of the products and services. A potential client can easily discern if a salesperson is passionate about the service or product they are selling. Even with all the knowledge about a product, a salesperson can fall flat without passion.

Third, practice what you’re going to say. Again, this sounds simple, but when it’s done wrong it will provide poor results. Salespeople need to practice answering and resolving the questions and concerns they face on a weekly basis. They need to have time to consider their best response, and practice it. That response should then be reviewed by the manager and the other members of the sales team, who can then provide feedback. Once a salesperson has learned how they can improve their response, they should practice it again and again until it becomes second nature.

Fourth, learn from the team. While salespeople in a company tend to work alone or in small groups, they can benefit from the collaboration of the entire sales force. Sales teams should work together and learn how they can use their combined strengths and experiences to benefit each member of the team. When a sales team knows how to work together, they can cut out most of the time they waste each learning the same thing on their own, and can instead combine their strengths and knowledge to come the ultimate sales machine.

Fifth, give feedback. A salesperson will help themselves and their whole team if they can learn to analyze what each teammate is doing, identify techniques that work and ones that need improvement, and then successfully communicate critiques and suggestions to each other. As sales team members learn to see what works and what doesn’t, they’ll be able to not only help each other, but also be able to better critique their own work and make improvements.

Sixth, receive feedback. This is hard for most people. It’s easier to provide feedback to others than to receive it. But it’s a true strength when salespeople can be teachable and be open to feedback and know how to apply it to improve their work. LeBron James put it simply but powerfully: “I like criticism. It makes you strong.”

Seventh, be accountable. When salespeople learn to hold themselves accountable for their work and failures without constant follow-up, they will learn far quicker and be much more effective during their sales. This is a very difficult trait for many people. We all like to share our triumphs and successes, but it can be painful to account for our failings and struggles. But when we are able to admit our defeats and ask for help and support, we will find we grow and improve quickly.

Eighth, set goals. This is a classic, and one that will outlive man and beast. Goals should be set by every salesperson and every sales team. Goals provide milestones for salespeople to shoot for and provide a measuring stick to gauge progress.

Ninth, measure improvement. The only way for a salesperson or sales team to know if they’re making progress and increasing their skills is to measure their improvements. Measurements should include increased sales or closure rates, improved customer service, a demonstration of increased knowledge of the products and services, and improvements in skill and abilities.

Finally, gauge what works in real life. As salespeople and sales teams work together to build these characteristics and learn these skills, they must also be aware of what works best in the real world as opposed to what only works in training and role playing. Understanding how clients feel and act is crucial to implementing the above traits in a way that will best benefit the client and promote the sale.

Salespeople will find that as they focus their attention on their conversations, they will be far more successful. And as teams work together to build each other and promote their combined strengths, they will all improve at a far faster pace than each member could individually. This is especially true in this economy. When a company is competing in a recession, every conversation matters.