“Business acumen” is a concept spoken of quite often by sales thought leaders. I’ve talked about it, as well. Most of us agree that it’s something salespeople need in order to differentiate themselves and help buyers make the right choices. But I’m not sure everyone is on the same page in regard to what it means and the degree to which salespeople need to be upskilled in it.
According to Wikipedia, business acumen is “keenness and quickness in understanding and dealing with a business situation in a manner that is likely to lead to a good outcome.”
The Professional Leadership Institute defines it as “having a fundamental understanding of how a business operates, then using that knowledge effectively to make logical business decisions. Business acumen is a portfolio of knowledge, technical skills, and soft skills, used to positively impact an organization and its employees.”
The keys here are having a keen understanding of how business operates and being able to use that knowledge to make decisions that positively impact the company.
In a complex B2B sales environment, business acumen refers to a sales professional’s ability to understand the real business issues impacting the decision-making process, and to have effective conversations with each stakeholder that help them make valuable decisions for their company.
These are the conversations that elevate the sales profession beyond simply trying to “make quota” and into truly helping people achieve their desired outcomes in a way that benefits all parties.
Some of the skills and attributes that sales professionals can develop that represent business acumen include:
All of these levels of understanding take time, effort, education, and experience to fully develop. Some forward-thinking companies invest in graduate education for their salespeople to learn and develop these skills. But even if you don’t go that far, it’s important to recognize that general business education and skills training is critical to a high-performing complex B2B sales team.
In complex B2B sales, how you sell is why you win. In a sea of problems, solutions, competing interests, and challenging bureaucracies, helping companies make complex decisions is a differentiating factor for your sales team. Companies don’t make significant, disruptive business decisions based on the features of a product or the slickness of its marketing.
Business acumen: ability to understand & have conversations that help people make valuable decisions for their company.
Instead, buyers say “yes” to moving forward when they are able to achieve consensus across stakeholders that the risks and costs of the purchase will be outweighed by the likely outcomes of the decision.
Sales teams with business acumen can help buyers understand their own needs, identify their priorities, and develop a clear path to achieving their desired outcomes. Additionally, they can help facilitate the process of reaching consensus across stakeholders so that the initiative can move forward.
In contrast sellers who don’t have business savvy may have the wrong conversations at the wrong levels with the wrong people. For instance, a seller who understands your product and its benefits but not the high-level needs of a business entity won’t know how to have a valuable conversation with a CEO. Likewise, if they don’t understand financials, they can’t have effective conversations with the CFO.
Sales teams with business acumen can move away from product and solution selling to value-based selling, where they are having the right conversations, at the right levels, with all of the relevant stakeholders, to help them reach consensus within the organization.
Some superstar salespeople come to the table already well educated in business acumen. Others pick it up along the way.
But the majority of salespeople need nurture, education, training, and coaching in order to reach their potential as salespeople with business acumen. If you leave this to chance, then most of your team will go on pushing products and solutions at your prospects, and getting mediocre (at best) results.
To achieve a high level of business acumen across your sales team, you have to give it conscious attention. You don’t have to send your entire team to grad school to get an MBA, but if you want to excel in the complex B2B sales world, you do need to consistently develop these skills on your team. It should be built into your onboarding, training, upskilling, reinforcement, and coaching systems. Your sales coaches should be highly business savvy and able to teach and mentor that same business acumen to the people on their team.
Tell me, what is your company doing to grow the business acumen skills on your sales team? And where could you be doing more?
George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills, and processes. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals and the host of the Stop Killing Deals webinar and podcast series.
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