Whether you follow Insight SellingGap SellingSPINChallenger, or any other solution selling model, the heart of the matter is providing an outcome that creates value. To do this you need to bring useful insight, find a need gap, uncover pain, or teach/tailor/take control in a way that surfaces some problem.

Here’s the problem: all of these solution sales models presuppose that the rep understands business.

Sadly, the reality is that the average business acumen of most B2B sales reps is fairly low. Yes, they know their product offering. Yes, they may have a solid grasp of their industry’s competitive landscape. Yes, they may know the good questions to ask. But… how much do they understand about the actual businesses of the prospects and clients they serve?

Over the past year I got to go on a world tour as I rolled out a solutions sales training program for a global technology company. I met many sales people that ranged from tenured enterprise sales reps to new reps working for local distributors. I talked to sales people from all over the Americas and Europe. All of them had two things in common. First, they spoke English (I was amazed at the multi-lingual people that I met). Second, virtually all of them struggle to some degree with business acumen.

What Is Business Acumen?

The Wikipedia defines business acumen as follows:

Business acumen (“Business savvy” and “business sense” are often used as synonyms) is keenness and quickness in understanding and dealing with a “business situation” (risks and opportunities) in a manner that is likely to lead to a good outcome.

Sales professionals that want to add value need to understand their offering. In addition, they need to understand their clients’ businesses. Then, they need to be able to build a bridge between the two to create value. The problem is that that a good bridge requires support on either side. If the bridge is weak on one side, it will crumble.

My experience in working with sales people over the past 22 years is that the “business acumen” side of the bridge is weak. As a result, we struggle to bridge the gap. When we fail to bridge the gap, it’s not that we lose sales to the competition, it’s that the sales never happen. We lose to our biggest competitor: the status quo!

What Type of Business Acumen Do B2B Reps Need?

Wikipedia’s definition gives some good clues as to the things sales reps need to build their business acumen.

Executive Level Thinking

When I was a new sales rep my training told me to go talk to the top level decision maker. (Actually, it was very politically incorrect and misogynistic–they told me to talk to the M.A.N. with the Money, Authority, and Need. #eyeroll)

As a young rep in my 20’s, I nodded my head, but inside I was thinking, “What do I have to offer a business owner or executive?” Good question! I was toting around my undergraduate degree in business administration. However, I didn’t really have any real world business experience. As a result, I struggled to relate to executives. Truthfully, I spent the early years of my career selling to small business owners and mid level managers. It took me several years to develop an executive level thinking.

As I look back, I realize that most of my executive level thinking came from reading good books. At the time, books like Bill Gates’ Business At The Speed of Thought, Hammer & Champy’s Reengineering The Corporation, and Tom Peters’ Good To Great got me thinking as an executive. As I was reading these books and learning about business, I was able to see it playing out before me in the organizations I served. This is where the real learning began. Business acumen happened when I started to see my products and services from the perspective of an executive.

Ability To See Opportunities

According to Wikipedia, Raymond R. Reilly of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and Gregory P. Reilly of the University of Connecticut document traits that individuals with business acumen possess:

  • An acute perception of the dimensions of business issues
  • Ability to make sense out of complexity and an uncertain future
  • Cognizance of the implications of a choice for all the affected parties
  • Decisive
  • Flexibility for further change if warranted in the future

What does that mean? Sales reps with business acumen can see the big picture. They recognize opportunities for the business as a whole, not just the narrow set of benefits their products bring. They see the big picture in terms of how the future could be better.

Financial Literacy

Over the past 16 years I’ve always found a way to work my “Accounting In a Box” module into training. I do this with a lofty goal: In less than 15 minutes, I teach sales reps how to read the two key financial statements, P&L’s and Balance Sheets. It’s not that students become financial geniuses at the end of the 15 minutes. But what does happen is they begin to see how their products have the potential to actually improve their clients’ financial scorecards beyond the used car financial pitch, “I think I can save you some money” or the corporate marketing BS, “we can help in increase efficiency and productivity.” They also begin to use correct  words like COGS, S,G&A Expenses, and DSO.

Sales reps need financial literacy. They need to understand how implementing or not implementing their solution affects the financial scorecards of a company. I was fortunate that I had a position in my mid 20’s where I was compensated based on the P&L of my district. At the time, I was also completing my MBA. However, most reps do not have the benefit of feeling the pain of a P&L in the real world. They need this knowledge and understanding.

What Now?

How can we help our reps develop business acumen? In the impending world of AI, this may be the most important question for the next decade.

Here’s the challenge. Not every sales rep has a business degree. The ones that do learned business from a book. While I did my time in undergrad and graduate programs, they didn’t fully prepare me for the real world. I developed most of my knowledge in the most expensive school anyone can attend: UHN (The University of Hard Knocks).

There must be a better way to help our reps get business acumen so they can build better bridges and overcome the status quo. (My mind is spinning on this topic today!)

In the meantime:

  • Read Business Books (not just sales books!)
  • Read Business Journals like CFO Magazine and Harvard Business Review
  • Take a Class in Accounting (Yup..)
  • Take Your Business Owner Friends to Lunch. Ask them about their challenges. Get the inside scoop.
  • Take Your Clients To Lunch. Don’t try to sell them anything. Just ask them to school you on their business. How does it work? What are the challenges? How do they make money? What are the biggest problems?

The more you can develop business acumen, the more you will succeed in defeating the status quo.

Larry Levine

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