Financial Competence is the Key to Successful Selling at the Executive Level


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In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey says trust is not built solely on integrity, but on competence as well.  For sales people wanting to become trusted advisors to customer executives, I believe business competence is an essential personal capability.  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 building trust with senior decision-makers. 

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.””

Customer executives want sales people who understand how money is made and how financial value is created.  They want sales people who appreciate the intricacies of setting a business strategy and executing initiatives to deliver the desired financial results.  And most importantly, they want sales people who can help them make the business and financial investment case and win the internal allocation battle for scarce CapEx and OpEx.  This involves a demonstration of how the sales person’s solutions can be inserted into the mix of business priorities and performance metrics 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 a fear of inadequacy which would damage credibility. 

However, in my subsequent experience working with sales professionals in a learning environment, I’ve found that financial competence may not just be missing in action – it may be missing altogether.  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 get a passing score.

The financial competence of most sales professionals is nowhere near the level required to successfully sell at the executive level.

Actions to Build Your Financial Competence

If you feel that financial competence is your Achilles’ heel of sales capabilities, the good news is there are a number of actions you can take to improve 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 press release, review the financial statements, and 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 trusted finance associate at your company and designate this person as 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 personal coach to answer questions about your company’s financial results. 
  3. Each week, commit to reading a couple of Shareholder Letters written by CEOs.  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 Investor’s tab.   Normally, these letters are a fairly quick read (unless you happen to select Jamie Dimon’s 32-page monster letter in JPMorgan’s 2010 annual report).  Shareholder Letters are chock-full of financial terms, KPIs and performance metrics, charts and graphs, and explanations of financial performance.  Identify the key financial themes, jot down some questions, and schedule a coaching session with your personal financial competence coach (see 2 above).
  4. Start to transition your focus to your publicly-traded customers and prospects.  Review their quarterly earnings announcements and annual Shareholder Letters.
  5. As you continue to build your financial competence, ask your coach to provide an overview of a recent investment analysis performed 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 evaluate your solutions.
  6. For the adventuresome, go to the SEC form 10K of your customer (outside the U.S. go to the Annual Report).  Locate Item #7 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, list the KPIs, record your questions, and consult with your coach.
  7. If your company has a more formalized approach to sales learning and development, seek help from a qualified person from this organization.  These professionals are familiar with tools and training (both formal and self-help) that can be customized for your particular situation and learning needs.         

 Applying Your Financial Competence   

Hard financial acumen sales skills are required to analyze customer business performance, articulate solution impact, and influence investment decision-making.  In a future blog post, I will talk about how to apply your financial acumen selling skills to maximize your credibility and build trust with executives within your own company and within your customer organizations.  Stay tuned. 

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jack Dean
As co-founder of FASTpartners LLC, Jack brings extensive technology buying experience as a Fortune500 Chief Financial Officer to the B2B technology sales training industry.He has facilitated client-sponsored business acumen training for 15,000 B2B technology sellers representing 150 global technology companies.Participants in Jack’s business acumen training have produced directly-attributed revenue of over $1 billion (in the 3 months after training) and training engagement ROIs averaging 500%.


  1. I think your observation is entirely correct, and can even be taken a step further. I think an astonishingly high level of people at the executive level in all areas of a company tend to be less financially competent than they should be. It seems that people who don’t NEED to work directly with the numbers often don’t put any effort into learning how to work with them.

  2. … financial incompetence is an issue both in the sales profession as well as in the customer organization. There’s a lot of room for improvement out there!

  3. Jack,

    Your article is right on target; it continually surprises me how rare these skills are among sales professionals, especially in light of how easy it is to learn.

    Your suggestions will go a long way, and even though I am 100% biased, I would like to suggest that they pick up a copy of my book: Bottom-Line Selling: The Sales Professional’s Guide to Improving Customer Profits. It’s the book they need if they can’t find a financial competence coach.


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