High-performing sales people combine three qualities. One, product expertise, emphasizes the importance of customer value over features and benefits most product training normally provides. Miller Heiman Group is well-known (too narrowly in my opinion; more later) for the second: Sales expertise. The world’s most complete set of skills and methodologies provides our clients with powerful tools: learning support, coaching, implementation and automation.   The third major element in the sales capability picture is customer acumen, or customer expertise. Let’s dive deeper into that area.

What Makes Up Customer Acumen?

Customer expertise covers a lot of territory.  I’ll start at high level, and work downward — each level is critical, though.

Business “Literacy”

First off, the best salespeople need basic business knowledge. Any sales leader who ever watched a salesperson confidently converse with executives understands how powerful this is. Some companies believe in it so strongly that they put their entire sales forces through an “online MBA course”.

Business literacy includes an understanding of strategy, marketing, finance, accounting, operations, etc. I compare business acumen to a mechanic’s ability to diagnose a piece of complex machinery: knowing what’s working well, and what parts of the machine are leaking oil, and being able to predict what will result if a fix isn’t implemented.

Industry Insight

Great salespeople understand a prospective customer’s industry. This enables insight into a customer’s frame of reference.  Understanding industry participants, trends, regulatory environment, etc. is now the price of entry in sales.  With so much information readily available to sellers before a first sales meeting, it borders on rudeness to force a customer to bring you up to speed. Sadly (or not–if this is a strength), sellers who meet this standard differentiate themselves strongly.

Company Awareness

More specifically, sales people need to know how a particular target company competes. That is, great salespeople know how prospects differentiate themselves from competitors. Are they the low-price competitor? A technology/product leader? A focus player, who specializes in one target submarket? How does this individual company choose to operate? The answers to these questions orient a sales person to where the target company desires to go, uncovering how to align a seller’s solution to customer concept.

Many business schools teach a tool called value chain analysis, usually a graphic display of value-adding functional areas connected by input/output lines. I developed a more complete Value Landscape (contact me to learn more), which adds important considerations: current strategies, management priorities, competitive and environmental forces, and a few more.

Sales people use overall value landscapes to create Value Maps, connecting challenges or opportunities within the landscape to impacts and consequences. This helps salespeople impactully articulate the cost of doing nothing using customer-validated figures.

Functional/Departmental Knowledge

Currently, most salespeople focus effort on a specific function or department their product or service most directly affects. At a minimum, an deal pursuit needs to capture all of the Buying Influences involved in a buying process. Master sellers use value maps to reach outside of the “normal” function and leverage how their product or service helps different parts of prospect companies work better.  Bringing them into the buying decision can be a powerful differentiator.

Here is where I want to highlight a major differentiator of Sales Methodologies vs. Sales skills training. Methodologies focus on aligning buying and selling processes. For instance, the expert practitioner of Strategic Selling or Conceptual Selling simultaneously acquires and harnesses customer knowledge to achieve win-win sale.  Miller Heiman Group methodologies bridge selling and customer expertise, which is why they are so successful.

Additionally, Full-Value Selling helps sellers utilize their overall understanding of the value picture in the wider company to enlist supporters and sponsors from outside of the “normal” department. Finding and exploiting the full value of your offering creates higher preference at higher prices (if you want them).

Mastery of Group Decision Dynamics

The best sales people approach each new opportunity trying to learn the group buying decision dynamic currently in play…especially in repeat customers. Every customer makes every decision differently every time. The best sellers approach each new sale on the lookout for key changes.  Sales methodologies help sellers understand each customer buying journey (net-new or repeat buys) individually, and tailor their approach to the needs of each opportunity, in the moment.



Excellent sales people are strong at all of the levels described above.  High-performing sales organizations develop all of these capabilities in their people.

How do you build customer expertise into your sales force? If you’re interested in learning more about how World Class organizations generate their exceptional results, share your questions or comments below. Feel free to contact me directly for more information or the research that validates anything in this post.

To Your Succes,

Pin It on Pinterest