Professional Salesperson — Business Professional?


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The other day, I wrote an article, Appointments With Sales People Fall Short Of Executive Expectations.  In it I cited data from a Forrester Research report on executive perspectives of sales people’s ability to understand their business needs, priorities, and issues.  I wanted to extend the discussion, focusing on a topic I’ve found a little nebulous, business acumen.

There are training programs on business acumen, programs that help you understand the structure of business, how they work.  There are MBA programs many sales people take to understand more about how businesses operate.  Those are all great, sales people should seek as much formal training as they can get.  At the same time, I think these programs aren’t enough.  Additionally, many sales people don’t have access to these kinds of formal training.

The best sales professionals I know develop their own “business acumen training.”  It’s simple, it’s ongoing, it’s driven by their natural curiosity and genuine interest in solving customer problems  (Which if you don’t have, no training program will ever give you the business acumen you need to connect with your customers).

Here’s what I see top sales professionals doing to better understand their customers’ businesses and more effectively connect with their customers:

  1. They read about the industry incessantly.  They devour “trade materials”  and industry publications, whether on-line or in print.  They use these to understand critical issues, trends, players, jargon.
  2. They devour their customers’ web sites—looking at the investor materials, downloading and actually reading annual reports, 10K’s , proxy statements, investor presentations.  They do this not only for their customers, but for their customers’ competition.   They look at their customers products and services–reading those marketing materials, understanding how their customers seek to position themselves with their customers.
  3. They attend trade shows and events their customers go to.  They attend not only to meet with their customers, but to wander, watch, listen, observe, and learn.
  4. They wander around in their customers, they take tours of the customer facilities, they listen to how people describe their jobs, their views of the company, what issues they face.
  5. They imagine themselves walking in the shoes of their customers.  They think, What would I do if I were running this company, function, department?  How would I improve this operation?  What are the realities of this business? They explore these ideas in conversations with their customers.
  6. They read broader business materials, to learn more about the business of business.  Whether it’s the business magazines and journals, or great blogs on various aspects of business management.  They understand critical issues facing all business professionals, they learn from thought leaders.
  7. They read books–not just the latest sales books, but books on other aspects of business, books on economics, current affairs, history….. and a few of the latest great fiction.
  8. They do all this critically–not blindly reading and accepting, but challenging the concepts, thinking about the ideas, discovering how they can apply lessons in their own world.

What have I missed–this is a starting point, but I’d like your ideas on how you develop “business acumen.”  What do you do?

There is no excuse for a sales person not to develop business acumen–it’s critical professional success, it’s critical to connecting effectively with your customers.  Don’t wait for your companies to provide a formal program, don’t limit yourself to these programs.  Become a student of your customers’ businesses, become a student of business.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Dave: great ideas. Salespeople need to dedicate themselves to lifelong learning. The alternative is stagnation. A related characteristic to lifelong learning is enthusiasm, something every salesperson needs for success.

    There is a difference between education and training, though, and it’s meaningful to salespeople. Education provides a way for people to understand abstractions and to solve complex problems. Training, on the other hand, provides tactical know-how. Both are important for salespeople, but knowledge for solving abstract strategic business challenges is a scarce resource. Many strategic B2B selling situations offer no roadmaps or formulaic processes to follow. Only risks, opportunities, trade-offs, and a mushy bowl of past baggage, unknowns, and resources to cobble into a solution. Too often, companies send salespeople with technical and sales know how to “engage” with decision makers and “influencers.” Too often, they fail. They’ve been “trained” to push product and overcome objections. Not particularly useful to buyers who demand insight and collaborative guidance.

    Different selling situations require different depths of business knowledge. If a company’s product or service has strategic importance to its clients, the salesperson’s knowledge should match the selling situation. In much of B2B selling today, that means abstract problem solving, which requires a combination of training and education. And you’re right that a salesperson must unfailingly improve himself or herself, and not depend on his employer to mandate it.

    Here are some questions to ask:
    1) am I passionate about learning something new every day?
    2) are there situations at work where I feel hindered or stifled by what I don’t know or understand?
    3) when I leave meetings or finish conversations with my prospects, do I feel confident that I have been valuable to them?

    If the answers to questions one and two are yes, and question three is no, there are opportunities to fill gaps with learning. Whether it’s training or education depends on what you value and what your customers value.


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