As we have moved from product sales, to solutions sales, to business improvement and acceleration sales, the skill sets for success in sales have changed. To be effective now, salespeople need to be great businesspeople; they need to understand how to create business results for their clients.
Business acumen is too rare in sales. We spend far too much of our time worrying about product knowledge, technical knowledge, and sales acumen when we should be focusing more attention on business acumen.
Business acumen takes time and effort to acquire. But it doesn’t take money, and it surely doesn’t require an Ivy League MBA. Here are seven ways that you can improve your business acumen, six of which cost almost nothing but conscious and consistent effort.
Self-Educate 1: Read Business Books and Magazines
The start of any education is gaining an understanding of the fundamental concepts and vocabulary. It is discovering what is already known. Fortunately, the fundamentals have all been researched, studied, written, edited, published, formatted, bound, delivered and made available at a shocking low price.
Business books take years to write and contain thousands of hours of research. They contain the valuable experiences of practitioners, including the stories of their successes as well as the mistakes that they made. The cost of a business book is about $25.00. If the author spent a normal work year writing it (2,080 hours), you are in effect paying a little over $.01 per hour for their work.
Business books are usually about 250 pages long. Reading at about 30 pages per hour, you can read a book in about a week by dedicating only one hour a day to reading. If this is too much, read a book every two weeks. I would tell you that doing so will mean you are reading far more than your peer group, but reading 26 books a year will mean that you have no peer group.
Reading business books alone will provide you with a basic understanding of business concepts and the accompanying vocabulary.
You can also pick up Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, Business Week, Forbes, Fortune, or Inc. magazine. Find something interesting and make note of how it might be useful.
Write your reading plan.
Self-Educate 2: Read Nonfiction Books That Have Nothing to Do With Business
Business books and magazines are great, but there is as much or more to be gained from reading nonfiction. There is a certain education and situational knowledge that comes along with being widely read. You run into a lot of ideas, a lot of concepts, and you find a lot of connections.
You would do well to pick up things like Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto or Better, neither book is about business, and yet, both books are absolutely about business.
You will do well to pick up my friend Bloom’s The Genius of the Beat: A Radical Revision of Capitalism, or his magnum opus The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History. Both books will teach you more about sales and marketing than many other books you might read, even though neither book is about sales or marketing.
Pick something that interests you, and I promise you will find something that applies to your job in sales and some concept that helps you to better understand business.
Free Education 1: Get Company Tutors
There are free training and development resources within your company. They are waiting for you to take advantage of all they have to offer. These resources are your co-workers in other departments throughout your company. They are the subject matter experts who would love to help you better understand their subject by showing off all they know.
Need a better understanding of financial reports? Easy. Go to your finance and accounting department and find a tutor. Ask them to walk you through a prospect’s P&L and tell you what they see.
Need help understanding how people in operations think about something? How about procurement, marketing, or executive management? Ask them to teach you about what they do and how they think about it. Ask them to give you something to read that will give you a very high level understanding. Ask them to join you for lunch to discuss your takeaways.
Find and develop tutors. There relationships are invaluable for greasing the skids when you really need something done for your clients, too.
Free Education 2: Get Mentors
There are mentors available to you as well. There are family members, community members, church members, neighbors, friends, and acquaintances all of which have subject matter expertise in some area of business. These people will willingly share their knowledge and their understanding of their business with you.
Ask them to mentor you and guide your education in their area. They will be flattered. They will be excited. And they will help you. Find two or three people who know about some area of business and rotate your Friday lunch hour with your new mentors.
Take notes on their experiences, their ideas, and their advice for learning about their area of expertise. Ask them to help you understand how the subject they know about might be thought about in your prospect’s companies and how you might address it when discussing your company, your product, or your service.
Free Education 3: Let Your Client’s Teach You Their Business
Your clients know their business cold. And even though you may believe you are supposed to know everything, they will be more than happy to teach you about their business.
They will share with you about all aspects of their operations, how they hire employees (human resources), how they compete in their markets (strategy, marketing), the challenges with serving their customers (operations, customer service), their financial results and concerns (accounting, finance, strategy), and how they lead and manager their employees (management and leadership).
More still, they will be grateful that you seek to improve your business acumen and that you are trying to understand their business (in part, because they are trying to better understand their business, too) because they know that your understanding will improve your ability to help them produce better results and faster. This is what they want and expect from their business partners and the salespeople who serve them.
Make a list of questions and ask a client to help you answer them. Take them to lunch, too.
Self-Educate 3: Write Down What You Have Learned
One great way to educate yourself is to write down what you have learned. As you obtain the business acumen lessons, the concepts, the ideas, and stories, write them down. Make notes on the important ideas, where you learned it, when you learned it, and how it might be useful to you and your clients.
The act of writing both helps you to remember what you have learned and it deepens your understanding.
Paid Education 1: Get a Formal Education
Guess what they give you before you even show up for you first MBA class? That’s right, it’s a reading list. See, you are going to have to give yourself your education, even if you pay others to guide you on your path.
There is nothing better than reading something, studying it, and then banging ideas around with a bunch of thoughtful people in a big room with whiteboards, projectors, and computers. That is the university experience, and it is a fun, exciting, and extremely rewarding experience if you are passionately engaged in it.
Mr. Peters’ strong admonition against an MBA be damned. An MBA is a great exercise in learning, and I promise you that you will see a whole lot more of them in sales in the future, as sales more and more requires extremely high business acumen.
In the past, success in sales depended very heavily on the salesperson’s sales acumen. While sales acumen is still necessary, business acumen is now equally as important as sales acumen (and in many cases, more!). The business of sales is now the business of business. Use this list to build a plan to improve your business acumen.
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