August 1, 2023

No, not all customer-facing reps need sales training. Here’s what they need instead.

Engaging Customers with Meaningful Interactions

Everyone who interacts with customers needs sales skills, but it doesn’t mean they need sales training. Let’s talk about Hannah.

Hannah is a Customer Success Manager. She knows how to run accounts, analyze data and she understands the fundamentals of her job. But many of her clients are seemingly indifferent, skipping project review meetings and ignoring her updates. This account is not growing and in danger of being lost.

Hannah needs sales skills. Some sales skills, not all.

Hannah looks uncomfortable with this advice.

But I’m not in sales, she says. She doesn’t mean to, but when she says the word sales she has that micro-aggressive tone of someone describing a pile of throw up.

Sales. Yuck.

Hannah is a customer success manager. She is a lawyer. A consultant. She is pre-sales and a marketing executive. Hannah is the CEO of a startup. Hannah represents a lot of people.

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The prospect process (highlighted) differs from the customer process. Customer-facing training needs to better address this.

Here’s what I would say to Hannah. Today, more employees interact with customers and partners. This means there are more opportunities to build relationships but also more opportunities to screw them up. We need to help all customer-facing representatives up their game when it comes to engaging with customers. Core sales training largely helps with this goal. But, BUT, Hannah, you don’t need to go through all of sales training. Many of the philosophies and tools are the same but not the process. Your process differs from that of sales.

In fact, maybe, Hannah, this is our fault. Maybe we keep labeling these skills as “sales”-related when today, it’s generally business related. It is customer-focused skills that should be taught through your customer process. Hey, Chat GPT, create 5 course title ideas for us:

  • "Customer First: Building a Customer-Centric Culture"
  • "Delightful Connections: Mastering Customer-Centric Behaviors"
  • "Customer-Centric Excellence: The Art of Customer Engagement"
  • "Engaging Customers with Meaningful Interactions"
  • "Customer Centricity Bootcamp: Strengthening Customer Focus"

Maybe I’ll use one for the subtitle of this article.

They should teach this stuff at schools, but they don’t so it is up to organizations to help build these skills. What specific skills am I talking about? Here are four worth digging in to:

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Active listening is the gold standard when it comes to communication tools. If you think there is a better approach to communication, you haven’t been listening. There are a million free youtube instructional videos on the topic of Active Listening and there are courses charging tens of thousands of dollars and everything in between. All of them can work. Or none of them. I won’t get into this here, but the bottom line is, you have to care and you have to learn to stop talking so much.

Upweight Questions: How does someone talk less? Simple, ask more questions. Smart questions. In this example, use Upweight Questions that focus on where the customer is trying to go and understanding their priorities. There are a million free youtube instructional videos on the topic of asking great questions and there are courses charging tens of thousands of dollars and everything I between. One questioning framework to try out is GROW, commonly used for coaching and also great for customer-service roles. Here are questions to get started but the real art is in creating specific questions for each customer:


  • What specific goal are you trying to achieve?
  • What is it specifically you are trying to change?
  • What outcome do you want to see?


  • How far off is the achievement of your goal?
  • What do you need to do that you are not currently doing?
  • Is the right goal for you?
  • Do you have the skills, capital, etc. necessary to adequately achieve this goal?

Obstacles or Options

  • How could you do things differently?
  • What options exist to help you achieve your goal?
  • What specifically will you change to achieve your goal?

Way Forward

  • Exactly how committed are you to reaching your goal (use a 1-10 scale with 10 being the most committed)?
  • How will you know when you have achieved your goal?
  • Who, what resources, or what else do you need?

Storytelling: I keep saying we need to talk less, but at some point we need to say something. Rather than tell the customer what they have been doing – as many client review meetings do, show them what else they could do with examples. Storytelling is another term that has been overused and misunderstood. A story could be a 1-2 sentence example of a situation that suggests that you know what you are talking about.

There are two pieces to work on here: putting a strong story together and collecting enough stories so that you have the right story at the right time. Train on these elements and practice, practice, practice.

Ultimate Active Listening: When you use the skills from Active Listening and Storytelling you can combine these to form another tool called Ultimate Active Listening. I wrote about this in more detail here. Basically, this is where Hannah summarizes everything she just heard to validate the information is accurate. It also shows she understands the situation and is outlining specific next steps focused on driving results.

So, Hannah, on behalf of sales trainers everywhere, I apologize for thinking that standard sales training is the right way to help. Customer-facing reps need customized solutions. While there is a good amount of overlap with sales training, your journey is different. Your customer lifecycle is different, so your training should be delivered through this filter.

I'm officially re-building my "Sales for Non-Salespeople" course and changing the title to something more like "Engaging Customers with Meaningful Interactions." Although it won't come straight from ChatGPT :)

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