Many salespeople fail to create or win new opportunities because they don’t know enough about business. They mistakenly believe it’s enough to know their product or service to have just a tiny bit of sales acumen -- mostly a rehearsed script for overcoming objections.
Product knowledge alone might have been enough in the past, but today your dream clients aren’t interested in hiring just a salesperson.
They want someone who can help them solve their business challenges. They are looking for a partner who will help them visualize a better future and guide them toward it. A salesperson who just recites product features and benefits is no more valuable than a good website, and less valuable than a really good YouTube video. Your dream clients want trusted adviser.
To become a trusted adviser, you must be able to dispense excellent, sound advice. And to do that, you must have business acumen: an understanding of general business principles and the ability to use them to make thoughtful business decisions.
Business acumen takes time and effort to acquire, but it does not necessarily require money or an Ivy League MBA degree. Here are seven ways to improve your business acumen, six of which cost almost nothing more than conscious and consistent effort:
1) Read Business Books and Magazines
The first step in acquiring business acumen is to master the fundamental concepts and vocabulary of business. Fortunately, both topics have been thoroughly researched and written about, and information is available at a shockingly low price.
Business books take years to write and represent thousands of hours of research. They contain the valuable experience of practitioners and theorists, including the stories of their successes and mistakes.
The cost of a business book averages only about $25. If the author spent a full work year writing it (2,080 hours), you are paying a little over one cent per hour for his or her work. That’s an amazing amount of value for the price!
Read widely and from a variety of fields. Read books on marketing, management leadership, and even a book or two on finance. Read biographies of business leaders to understand the challenges they faced, how they thought about those challenges, and the choices they made to overcome them.
In addition to business books, read magazines such as Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg Businessweek, Forbes, Fortune, and Inc., all of which will introduce you to useful ideas. Over time, you will become familiar with the language of business and begin to understand many of the major themes, ideas, trends, and issues. Download my list of recommended reading here.
2) Read Nonfiction Books That Have Nothing to Do with Business
As much as business books and magazines will help you develop your business acumen, you can gain even more insight by reading nonbusiness books. Reading widely can provide you with plenty of situational knowledge and a lot of interesting and useful ideas that will help you make connections.
You would do well to pick up books like The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right or Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, both by Atul Gawande. Neither volume would be considered a business book, yet each teaches valuable lessons easily applied to business of all kinds.
You would also benefit greatly by reading Howard Bloom’s The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism or his magnum opus, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History. Both books can teach you more about sales and marketing than many other books you might read, even though neither is specifically about those topics. Instead, they are about culture and the deep needs of human beings. They’re part science, part history, part psychology, and part marketing.
Choose nonfiction books that interest you. Even books about topics that seem to be far afield, like history and art, can be very useful. I promise that you will find something that applies to your sales job and some concept that helps you better understand business.
3) Find Company Tutors
Your company almost certainly offers free training and has resources aimed at employee development. But one often overlooked resource is your coworkers -- in your own and other departments. Most people would love to help you understand their areas of expertise by showing off what they know. Company tutors may not be formally offered, but, hey, you’re in sales. You know there is always a way to get what you need.
Need a better understanding of financial reports? Go to your finance and accounting departments and ask staffers to walk you through your dream client’s financial reports and tell you what they see.
Need help understanding how people in operations think about a certain business challenge? How about procurement, marketing, or executive management? Ask people in those departments in your company to tell you about what they do and how they think. Request reading material that will give you a higher level of understanding. Then ask them to join you for lunch to discuss what you’ve learned. Not only will you be gaining valuable business acumen, you’ll also be creating relationships with people whose help you may need later on.
Find and develop tutors. You can reciprocate by giving them an education in how sales works. Believe me, they will be thrilled to teach and to learn.
4) Get Mentors
You probably have family members, neighbors, friends, or acquaintances that have expertise in some area of business. Most likely, these people would be happy to share their knowledge and understanding with you, if you ask.
Ask these people to mentor you and educate you in their areas of expertise. They will probably be flattered and excited to help you. Find two or three who know about a certain area of business and rotate your Friday lunch hour between these new mentors. Take notes on what you've learned from their experiences, their most important ideas, and their advice for learning more.
Don't be shy about reaching out for help. There are always people who are willing to educate you. You just have to ask.
5) Let the Client Teach You His Business
Your clients know their businesses backward and forward and will be more than happy to teach you about them.
A client may be able to share with you many aspects of the company's operations, including hiring employees (human resources); competing in markets (strategy, marketing); serving customers (operations, customer service); financial results and concerns (accounting, finance, strategy); and managing and leading employees (management and leadership).
Learning from your clients about their businesses is a working person's MBA. The practical knowledge and experience you gain can do much to help you create value for your dream clients.
In addition, your clients will be grateful that you are trying to understand their businesses and improve your general business acumen. That's because they know that your improved understanding can help them produce better and faster results.
Make a list of questions that you’d like to ask your clients about their businesses. Invite members of client teams to lunch and ask what they believe is important about their businesses.
I spent the better part of 10 years asking my clients to teach me their businesses. I asked about every area of their operations and told them very directly that I wanted to understand the business as well as they did. Later, after years of asking questions, I was able to ask questions that demonstrated my own developing expertise in their organization.
6) Write Down What You Learn
Keeping track of the lessons you learn is a great way to educate yourself. Make notes about important ideas, where and when you became acquainted with them, and riff on how your new knowledge might be useful to you and your clients.
The act of writing not only helps you remember, it also encourages you to think about what you have learned. And thinking, of course, deepens your understanding.
If you take notes on your computer or tablet, go back through your notes, highlight different passages, and add your comments and thoughts. Doing so will bring you greater clarity and help you remember what you’ve learned. Reviewing what you have learned once a quarter will not only make what you learned actionable, it will also help you generate new ideas.
7) Get a Formal Education
This is the only one of the seven ideas that costs more than a few bucks -- and if you are willing to devote the necessary money, time, and mental energy, the university experience can be fun, exciting, and extremely rewarding in building your business acumen. Consider an MBA, extension classes, certificate programs, a master’s degree in some aspect of business, or even a bachelor’s degree.
Before you even show up for your first class, you will be given a reading list. So by the time you get there, you'll have had time to think about what you've read and be able to discuss the topics covered with your classmates. There is nothing more invigorating than banging around ideas with a group of thoughtful people who have just read the same books you have.
Can't afford an MBA? Don't worry. Your local community college offers classes in business, finance, accounting, writing, and a host of other subjects, all of which can enhance your business acumen.
And, of course, if you truly work the first six ways of improving your business acumen, you'll have the equivalent of an informal MBA.