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Business Acumen: A Critical Selling Capability

When I wrote How Winners Sell one of the most important messages I needed to communicate to my readers was this:  The timeless truth about sales is it’s all about money.  B2B sales is not about selling software or strategic advice or capital equipment.  It’s about your products and services improving your customer’s business.  I was very lucky to have learned that early in my sales career.

Many of the Tier One sales training companies don’t cover this subject.  They tell you that you have to sell high, get access to influencers, understand business challenges and opportunities.  But they don’t tell you what to do once you have that information and you’ve gotten access to those top-level executives.  This isn’t a problem if you fill that gap some other way.

During the time I was a sales consultant, I recommended to a number of clients that they put their salespeople and managers through business acumen training.  First, we helped each company assess the requirements of their customers with respect to business value justification.  Then, we went about building the right tools: business cases, customer testimonials that included specifics about the improvement they realized, ROI models, strategies and tactics for gaining and maintaining access to financial and business managers.  Then the reps were put through the training.  Finally the reps were coached and supported until business value justification became a standard component in every sales cycle.  In every case, the CEO and VP of Sales were convinced that there was a substantial improvement in sales performance.  (Unfortunately I couldn’t convince them to formally measure their return on investment in those initiatives.  Ironic.)

There are a few training companies that understand the importance of business acumen and are focused entirely on that subject.  One is Executive Conversation.  ESR has formally reviewed them.  You can listen to a fabulous podcast that I conducted with the CEO and one of their consultants.

Last week I received an email from Paradigm Learning about a white paper they just released (PDF).  They specialize in business acumen and learning.  I don’t typically provide links to white papers (here’s why), but this is an important enough issue for me to break my own rule.  This white paper discusses a broader view of business training than just sales.  This paragraph gets to the heart of the matter:

During a business acumen session, new managers at a major retailer found out just how difficult it is to make a profit. Their facilitator used this example: A warehouse employee dropped several cases of lightbulbs. The bulbs shattered and so did the opportunity to make a $25 profit. The first reaction of the class was, “So what’s $25 to us?” But after calculating the company’s net income at just over 1 percent, they realized that the store would have to sell $2,500 in new merchandise to make up for the lost profit on the shattered bulbs! 

Is your sales team business savvy enough to gain and maintain access with key business executives?  Can they:

  • Determine, by reviewing your customer’s financial statements, whether your products or services can drive business improvement and generally by how much?
  • Talk about the specific business impact your products and services have had on your other customers?
  • Mitigate a customer’s focus on price by bringing the conversation to a higher, more impactful level?
  • Work closely with the customers financial staff to enable them to construct a credible ROI model for your products/services?

Or better yet, try Executive Conversation’s fluency assessment.

Business acumen for B2B sales people has never been more important than now.  Prove to your customer how you will get them through these challenging times and they’ll get you through them in return.

Photo: © James Steidl – Fotolia.com


3 Responses

  1. Hi Dave,

    Couldn’t agree more – we tell them to talk to strategic decision makers and then we don’t teach them their language. FranklinCovey has a Business Acumen program you should check out. It’s based on Ram Charan’s work (http://www.franklincovey.com/tc/mediaengine/public/files/co_bba-w-ceu-info-3.24.pdf).

    I do not know how it stacks up against other programs. In your position, I thought you may want to know about it so you could assess it. I can connect you with a subject matter expert if you’d like to learn more. Thanks for reminding us of a great topic!


  2. AMEN! We do a Business Acumen agenda series once per year and every agenda has some element of developing and applying business acumen. One time training isn’t enough, its a muscle you need to continue to develop by reading, applying, “interviewing” business leaders, etc. Love the topic – it’s a big focus for us!
    Patrick (www.meetingtowin.com)

  3. This very topic has a different name: it’s called becoming a subject matter expert. Ultimately you need to be able to “feel your customer’s pain” and then talk about what you can do to make that pain go away. I don’t doubt that Business Acumen can be covered in a training class; however, I believe that the depth that a salesperson will need will only come from diving into his/her industry and reading everything that they can get their hands on, talking to everyone, and attending every industry event that they can worm their way into. There are no silver bullets, just a lot of hard work every day…

    – Dr. Jim Anderson
    The Accidental Negotiator Blog
    “Learn The Secrets of Side-By-Side Negotiating To Get The Most Value Out Of Every Negotiation”

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