When people talk about Business Acumen for sales people they tend to cover a wide range of skills, knowledge and behaviours that they would like sales people to demonstrate in front of a customer. Here are some of the areas are commonly bracketed under Business Acumen:
- Accounts and financial statements
- Calling high at the C-suite, how to talk their language
- Understanding business models and strategies
- How and why companies chose to invest, including competition for capital
- How to map your products / services / solutions to the customer’s needs
If you were asked to design a 2-day workshop to cover business acumen, the question for you is “How would you allocate the time between each of the above subjects and also ensure that behavioural change happens back in the real world?” This was the challenge that a large software company recently gave to me and they were especially keen, and quite rightly, to focus on applying Business Acumen with their real customers. How do we give them all the knowledge and skills they need while ensuring that they change their behaviour in front of customers.
From previous posts, you will know that I am a keen advocate of the sales manager as coach being the ley reason that any sales person changes their behaviour in the long term (so I won’t re-iterate my thoughts here).
As I created my initial design ideas, I spoke to a friend who had been through the excellent 2 year IBM sales school, and he suggested that the major issue today was a lack of knowledge around business and how businesses actually operate. This led me down the well-trodden path of most Business Acumen courses and my first design looked very much like finance for non-financial managers – with a focus on the financial statements in the accounts. This is the trap of most Business Acumen courses and why they often end up being led by an ex-accountant who says things like “Now we are going to take a set of transactions and create the income statement and balance sheet, remembering that credits are negative and debits are positive, etc.” And you may like to consider what sales people going on such a course do afterwards?
But the key question is “What does a sales person actually need to do their job?” Once you start to strip away the unnecessary jargon and get to the key points that sales need to grasp the whole knowledge transfer becomes easier. Having enough financial acumen to be able to read key parts of the accounts, for instance the CEO’s strategy and the risk analysis for their business moving forward, are essential to having valuable business discussions with executives.
From there we can think about the customer’s buying process and how they evaluate your offer, not only against the competition, but also against other potential purchases in other areas of the business, sometimes known as the competition for capital. How do they measure success, how does the business measure the ROI of any potential investment, do they prefer capital purchases or revenue payments, is off-balance sheet important to them?
It’s very satisfying to take sales people without this knowledge and take them through the learning process that allows them to come up with new ideas on how to position themselves as offering true value to their customers. At the end of day 2 they consolidate the work they have been doing in teams and present to all the sales managers around a new way of engaging with the executives in one of their customers. This becomes part of their coaching development plan and is a great starting point for coaching conversations with their sales managers.
The learning I took away from this design was to go back to asking basic questions around what sales people need to know to do their jobs rather than trying to make them accountants.