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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.