In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey says trust is not built solely on integrity, but on competence as well. For B2B sellers wanting to become trusted business advisors to customer executives, I believe business competence is an essential personal competence. In my view, business competence is more important than “softer” communication/negotiation skills or detailed product knowledge. I also believe that financial acumen skills, knowledge, and capabilities are the foundation of business competence and that most sales people underestimate the importance of financial competence in articulating solution value and building trust with senior decision-makers.
Financial Knowledge is the Foundation of Business Acumen
According to Wikipedia, “Financial literacy is an important tenet of business acumen, but is not a synonym”. Ram Charan, the influential author and consultant, suggests that financial knowledge is the foundation of business acumen, and has described business acumen as “the art of linking an insightful assessment of the external business landscape with the keen awareness of how money can be made — and then executing the strategy to deliver the desired results.”
Walking the “Financial” Talk with Customer CXOs
Customer executives want sales people who understand how money is made and how financial value is actually created. They want sales people who appreciate the intricacies of setting a business strategy and executing initiatives to deliver the desired financial results and KPI metrics. And most importantly, they want sales people who can help them make the business and financial investment case, the financial justification argument, needed to win the internal battle for allocation of scarce CapEx and OpEx. This involves a demonstration of how the sales person’s solutions can be inserted into the mix of business priorities (Key Business Initiatives), performance metrics (Key Performance Indicators), and Critical Success Factors in order to accelerate business and financial outcomes.
Missing in Action or Missing Altogether?
In my experience as a former buy-side executive, financial competence was rarely “on display” with sales people. My hunch at the time was that it was missing in action due to the B2B seller’s fear that his/her inadequacy would damage credibility. This is a justified fear as you don’t get a second chance with CXO buyers to make a favorable first impression.
However, in my subsequent experience working with sales professionals in a formal learning environment, I have found that financial competence may not just be missing in action – it may be missing altogether in the tool bag of today’s B2B sellers. My company administers an online assessment of financial acumen selling skills as part of our blended learning framework and we’ve found that over 90% of sales professionals don’t achieve a passing score.
Bottom line: The financial competence of most B2B sales professionals is nowhere near the level required to successfully sell at the executive level.
Actions You Can Take to Build Your Financial Competence
If you feel that financial competence is your Achilles’ heel, the good news is there are a number of specific actions you can take to set about improving your skills.
1. Start paying attention to the quarterly earnings announcements of your own company. If you work at a private company that doesn’t report financial results, start paying attention to the quarterly earnings announcements of a publicly-traded competitor. Read the earnings news release, review the financial statements (balance sheet, income statement, and cash flow statement), and make a list the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) favored by your company (or your company’s competitor). Track these KPIs over the next several quarters and observe the trends.
2. Find a well-regarded colleague in the finance organization at your company and convince them to be your personal “Financial Competence Coach”. Many finance professionals are itching to help others, particularly sales and marketing professionals, improve their financial acumen skills. Start your relationship by getting your Financial Competence Coach to answer your questions about your company’s recent financial results and news releases.
3. Each week, commit to reading a couple of Shareholder Letters written by CEOs of other companies in your industry. These documents can be found in the Annual Reports of publicly-traded companies, which are available online by going to the company’s website under the Investors tab. Normally, these letters are a fairly quick read (unless you happen to select Jamie Dimon’s monster letters in JPMorgan’s annual reports). Shareholder Letters are chock-full of financial terminology, KPIs and performance metrics, financial charts and graphs, and explanations of financial results. Identify the key financial themes, jot down some questions, and schedule a coaching session with your Financial Competence Coach (see #2 above).
4. Start to transition your focus to your privately-owned or public-sector customers. Review their CEO letters, news releases, stories in periodicals, employee and customer newsletters, and other publicly-available information on their website and in search engines. Find a publicly-traded competitor of your customer and jot down a list of Key Business Initiatives (KBIs) and KPI metrics that are important to that company. These are the likely KBIs and KPIs (will need to be validated in Discovery) of your privately-held customer. You will be earning credibility if you take this step.
5. As you continue to build your financial competence, ask your Financial Competence Coach to provide an explanation of a recent investment analysis (CapEx or OpEx expenditure decision) conducted by your company. If you sell technology, the example should be a financial justification for a technology project. If you sell a service of some kind, the example should analyze a service offering provided to your company. This overview should include an explanation of the financial analyses conducted, a description of the benefit and cost categories and assumption used, and a summary of the investment metric calculations and hurdle rates. This exercise will help you gain insights on the process used to financially evaluate solution offerings.
6. If you want to dive deeper, go to the SEC form 10K of your customer (outside the U.S. go to the Annual Report). Locate Item #7 in the table of contents, which is called the Management Discussion & Analysis or MD&A (outside the U.S. go to the section that discusses financial performance). Review this section of the 10K, list the KPIs mentioned, note your questions, and consult with your Financial Competence Coach.
7. If your company has a more formalized approach to sales learning and development/sales enablement, seek help from a qualified person in this organization. These professionals are familiar with tools and training (both formal and self-help) that can be customized for your particular situation and adult learning needs.
Your Reputation and Professional Credibility Are at Risk
Financial acumen selling skills are required to analyze a customer’s business performance, articulate solution KPI and ROI impact, and influence internal investment decision-making. Your reputation and credibility are at risk, not to mention your ability to position the financial value of your solutions. You can’t keep putting your head in the sand and hope your customers don’t want to talk about the financial impact (KPI impact and ROI impact) of buying your solutions. They expect it! Take the initiative today to elevate your financial competence and apply it in the field with your customers and prospects.
- Do you agree that financial competence is critically important?
- How else can you elevate your financial competence?