In the new world of “selling with perspective”, sellers need a foundation of business acumen to help the customer envision how they will be successful. The catch with perspective selling: your perspective means nothing to a customer until they internalize and value it. Getting them to value your perspective requires that they trust that you fully understand their situation.

I have the benefit of a degree from one of the world’s foremost business schools, plus work experience in corporate and general management. It’s natural for me to look across my client’s entire business when pursuing an opportunity. Years in banking disciplined me to dive deeply, gaining understanding client business challenges they WOULDN’T tell me about. I developed the tools to search for added value in unconventional corners of a target company.

But, just because I do it, does that make it something valuable for anyone else? Should you even want to emulate these behaviors? Consider:

  • A Fortune 100 software company has provided a virtually-taught MBA for their enterprise sales force. The goal: to elevate discussions from CIO concerns to how the company’s solutions can impact larger strategic issues.
  • A Fortune 50 industrial conglomerate places high-potential employees through a rigorous multi-disciplinary multi-year rotation of jobs.  This anchors their overall business acumen before placing them in roles like enterprise sales.
  • A 2012 article in Harvard Business Review described business acumen as one of “The (New) Skills You Need To Succeed in Sales

Few of my clients can afford the time or money to get every one of their sellers an evening MBA, or fund a three-year fast-tracker rotation. So what do you do?

Business Acumen Essentials: Foundation of Sales Success

Borrowing from the HBR article cited above, Sellers need to combine financial insight, business expertise and customer understanding. Leveraging these capabilities enables them to provide perspective beyond what a customer has articulated. Modern customers expect business-to-business sales people to “demonstrate a broad strategic understanding of their organization and the impact on the customer’s bottom line of the solutions they sell”. I’ve written previously about adding value at every stage of the buying process. Providing perspective increases sales effectiveness, and business acumen forms the foundation…at least the foundation for doing it well.

The kernel within selling with perspective is customer-perceived value. The more clearly a seller can communicate to customers from the customer’s point of view, the more easily customers articulate value to themselves.

Financial Literacy.

Sorry, “mathematically challenged” sellers: you don’t need a CPA, but you need to be able to understand a customer’s numbers. The good news is that it isn’t any harder than calculating your upcoming commissions. You can do this.

First, sellers should have a rudimentary grasp of basic financial accounting. That is, they should be able to read, understand, and draw high-level conclusions from financial statements that publicly held customers and governments make available. Sellers should learn the differences between profitability and cash flow. Depending on what you sell and to whom, more depth may be called for.

More importantly, Sellers need to understand cost accounting, fixed costs, marginal/variable costs and break-even analysis. This gives them a solid grounding in what types of solutions will most help a customer’s business

Business Fluency

Sellers often do better when they understand how their customers do business, and how they compete, and what options each has.

To provide general strategic literacy, I prefer Michael Porter’s “three generic strategies” model, as it’s easy to understand, and helps sellers quickly categorize a customer’s business model.  More importantly, sellers can generate useful strategies for a given customer. Combine that with Porter’s five forces model, and sellers have some great tools to start understanding the customer’s business frame of reference.

I have developed a more detailed tool, the value landscape.  This asks the selling organization to take a deeper look into the prospective customer’s business, including key inputs and resources, key differentiating capabilities, important management imperatives, and much more. I want sellers to be able to uncover which parts of the customer’s “money making machine” are mission-critical, which components of the machine are leaking oil, which are humming along, which ones aren’t connecting well with the others, etc. The value landscape is a situation analysis tool.

Once we introduce these tools, sellers need to be able to efficiently use them. Management teams need to put tools in place that streamline (sometimes automate) the customer analysis process. This involves identifying resources and training on how to use them, etc.

Customer Insight

Selling to full value means getting your customer to acknowledge and monetize full value. That, in turn, means facilitating all of the right conversations.

Using the analysis and value landscape, sellers can look at their offer’s advantage(s) more clearly through a customer’s eyes. They can also predict where in the customer’s operation a given (product) generate customer-perceived value.  That is, it’s easier to spot all of the business processes likely to be improved I call this exercise “value mapping”. It’s a guide for the opportunity pursuit, identifying interested parties – especially those in unconventional roles/personas.

Of course, value mapping also helps sellers facilitate “the usual suspect” roles/functions/personas.  However, opportunity plans start with better hypotheses for how their offer can creat value in the customer’s mind.  Thus, prospect conversations can be far more customer-centric.

Once my clients formulate these analyses and value maps, they are fortunate to use Miller Heiman Group’s rich portfolio of skills and methodologies.  These provide the mechanics to reliably and repeatably conduct great conversations, build great opportunity pursuit strategies, and execute key account strategies. We also build the coaching and management infrastructure to track, enable, and replicate great skills and behaviors.

Sales people are more complete and more effective when they use these skills and behaviors within the context of a “Customer Acumen” set of capabilities…built on disciplines to get sales people deep inside the customer’s own frame of reference. This adds that critical third dimension: customer-value discipline.

Please comment below, or share your own best practices in the area of giving your sellers “Customer Acumen”. As always, feel free to reach out if you would like to discuss in greater depth.

To your success!

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