Without a deep understanding of and a keen interest in business, you cannot be consultative. Developing business acumen, a fundamental competency for B2B success, not only lets you capably advise clients on their business decisions, but gives you the specialized knowledge and experience to earn their business. In this post, I outline three common barriers to developing business acumen, then suggest three concrete ways to overcome them.
Barrier #1: Too Little Interest in Business
The world of selling has changed more in the last ten years than in the thirty that preceded them. In the 80s and 90s, a salesperson could do fine by telling their company’s story and sharing the features, benefits, and advantages of its products or services. Those behaviors would now mark you as someone who is selling a commodity using a transactional approach, which at best makes B2B selling more difficult.
To succeed in modern sales, you must understand your client’s business, their overall strategy, and the trends and factors that are going to impact their business in the future. That data forms the context for your advice, but understanding it also gives you essential credibility. If you do not look and sound like an expert, your clients will reject you for someone with greater business acumen.
Barrier #2: Lacking Curiosity
In The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need, I provide a competency model for modern B2B salespeople, including a list of nine character traits and skills necessary to succeed in sales now. I stand by that list, but if I were revising it today, I would put curiosity at the top.Learn Anthony's core strategies & tactics for sales success at any level with The Only Sales Guide You'll Ever Need
My curiosity about business grew after I was left out of a conversation my client was having with their team. They were speaking about ideas I did not understand and using vocabulary I lacked. After the meeting, I asked my client a dozen questions about that conversation, admitting that I just didn’t understand several concepts. He patiently explained his business and defined the key terms for me, and I was a better partner for being vulnerable enough to confess my ignorance.
When you sell business-to-business, your clients will expect you to know enough about business to be able to make solid recommendations— in addition to knowing about the intersection of your business and your client’s business. The more curious you are about how things in business work—especially in your client’s field— the better your sales results will be.
Barrier #3: Unaware That You Need Business Acumen
To be fair, you might not know how important business acumen is to holding the “one-up” position in the relationship, where you can provide expert advice to your client because you have greater knowledge and experience about the outcomes that you provide. Your professional training probably focused on your company’s product or service, so maybe you’ve never even thought about general business concepts, or industry verticals, or the trends and factors that are going to impact your client’s business and their future decisions. The more you know about business, the better you can present yourself as a person who can be trusted to provide business advice.
Now that you know what stands in the way of improving your business acumen, here are a few ways to gain some working knowledge.
Solution #1: Watch or Listen to Business Shows
As much as you may want to catch up on sports, politics, or even Howard Stern while you are on the treadmill or driving to work, you are better off engaging in content that sharpens your business acumen. In about an hour of listening to or watching CNBC for business news, for instance, you are going to hear stories about the general economy, results in industry verticals, political decisions that are likely to impact business, and stock prices.
You will also hear CEOs and leaders describe their strategies for responding to whatever is going in the world, as well as their views on potential risks and threats to their business. You can quickly become conversant in business vocabulary this way, and soon you will be more aware of the trends than your clients are— even trends that impact their industry verticals.
Solution #2: Read Business Books and Magazines
One of the best ways to learn how business leaders think is to read their biographies, especially their autobiographies. Significant decisions are often dramatic, making for good reading and even better learning. You might start with Jack: Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch (General Electric) or Only the Paranoid Survive: How to Exploit the Crisis Points That Challenge Every Company by Andy Grove (Intel). The business magazines you can find online or at your local Barnes & Noble will contain similar stories and insights.
For an investment of about 25 dollars and six hours, you can better understand how leaders think about their business and how they make decisions— two things that should be near and dear to your heart, since that’s exactly what you’re helping your clients do.
Solution #3: Ask Your Clients to Teach You Their Business
Education will help you develop long-term business acumen, but you can also ask clients directly about their work and decisions. If that’s a scary prospect, think of it in terms of an investment: by facing your fear of looking “stupid” in front of your clients, you can better understand what’s important to their business and their future decisions. After all, you need that knowledge to help them produce better results!
If you don’t know how something might impact your client’s business, ask them to share with you how they are thinking about it. When they use words or concepts that are unfamiliar to you, ask them to help you understand their meaning and significance. Ignorance is the best place to start learning— and most of us are ignorant about almost everything— so there’s no shame in asking questions. The only way to develop business acumen is to actively work to gain the knowledge and experience you are missing.
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