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Professional Salesperson — Business Professional?

by David Brock on August 13th, 2010

The other day, I wrote an article, Appointments With Sales People Fall Short Of Executive Expectations.  In it I cited data from a Forrester Research report on executive perspectives of sales people’s ability to understand their business needs, priorities, and issues.  I wanted to extend the discussion, focusing on a topic I’ve found a little nebulous, business acumen.

There are training programs on business acumen, programs that help you understand the structure of business, how they work.  There are MBA programs many sales people take to understand more about how businesses operate.  Those are all great, sales people should seek as much formal training as they can get.  At the same time, I think these programs aren’t enough.  Additionally, many sales people don’t have access to these kinds of formal training.

The best sales professionals I know develop their own “business acumen training.”  It’s simple, it’s ongoing, it’s driven by their natural curiosity and genuine interest in solving customer problems  (Which if you don’t have, no training program will ever give you the business acumen you need to connect with your customers).

Here’s what I see top sales professionals doing to better understand their customers’ businesses and more effectively connect with their customers:

  1. They read about the industry incessantly.  They devour “trade materials”  and industry publications, whether on-line or in print.  They use these to understand critical issues, trends, players, jargon.
  2. They devour their customers’ web sites—looking at the investor materials, downloading and actually reading annual reports, 10K’s , proxy statements, investor presentations.  They do this not only for their customers, but for their customers’ competition.   They look at their customers products and services–reading those marketing materials, understanding how their customers seek to position themselves with their customers.
  3. They attend trade shows and events their customers go to.  They attend not only to meet with their customers, but to wander, watch, listen, observe, and learn.
  4. They wander around in their customers, they take tours of the customer facilities, they listen to how people describe their jobs, their views of the company, what issues they face.
  5. They imagine themselves walking in the shoes of their customers.  They think, What would I do if I were running this company, function, department?  How would I improve this operation?  What are the realities of this business? They explore these ideas in conversations with their customers.
  6. They read broader business materials, to learn more about the business of business.  Whether it’s the business magazines and journals, or great blogs on various aspects of business management.  They understand critical issues facing all business professionals, they learn from thought leaders.
  7. They read books–not just the latest sales books, but books on other aspects of business, books on economics, current affairs, history….. and a few of the latest great fiction.
  8. They do all this critically–not blindly reading and accepting, but challenging the concepts, thinking about the ideas, discovering how they can apply lessons in their own world.

What have I missed–this is a starting point, but I’d like your ideas on how you develop “business acumen.”  What do you do?

There is no excuse for a sales person not to develop business acumen–it’s critical professional success, it’s critical to connecting effectively with your customers.  Don’t wait for your companies to provide a formal program, don’t limit yourself to these programs.  Become a student of your customers’ businesses, become a student of business.

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8 Comments
  1. Dave,

    Excellent list. From sales manager’s perspective, how about a 15 minute time slot (or maybe two 15 minute time slots) at every sales meeting for a rep (or reps) to train the peer group regarding something learned from the practices in your list?

    Todd

    • Great idea Todd. A super technique for solidifying knowledge in one’s own mind is to present it/teach their peers. This should be a regular part of sales meetings, rotating the responsibility to each person on the team. Thanks for adding this. Regards, Dave

  2. Great salespeople, like any greats in any industry are students of the game. Constant learning is the only way to stay ahead of the game. Nice blog.

  3. Dave: great post + great ideas. Agree w/ points Todd + Chad have added. Couple of things, IMO, worth adding to your list of top performer attributes:
    – They calculate the math of the customer’s situational risks + the business value of more adeptly managing those risks. Their math is both creative, revealing, + adds up. They’re not ‘calculating’; they’re analytic.
    – They think outside the box for customers who feel boxed in. They find solutions customers often can’t even imagine. They’re habitually creative thinkers, with ‘creative habits’ like the most accomplished artists in any craft.

    Trust this adds some value. – John

  4. Love this post.. I really feel sales professionals should be able to read and understand a financial statement

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