How many times have you heard that the key to selling well is for the customer to see the salesperson as a partner or trusted advisor rather than a vendor? Countless sales training programs will say this in some form in their advertising collateral.

The reality is that most of the time, sales professionals think they are perceived as partners, but their customers do not really see it that way. Building a relationship as a trusted advisor comes from consistently displaying credibility and creating value over time.

Do you answer the door at your house to someone trying to sell you something and, after a brief conversation, perceive them as an expert who truly understands your needs as a homeowner? Likely not. Having an established business relationship with a customer organization ahead of time can certainly shorten the distance to trust and partnership, but the process cannot be rushed.

A few things that can bridge the gap between a salesperson starting out as a vendor and later being perceived as a partner are knowing the audience, the customers’ businesses and the larger context of the marketplace. Business acumen is the foundation for doing these things well.

David J.P. Fisher defines business acumen as “the ability to combine experience, knowledge, perspective, and awareness to make sound business decisions. It’s the practice of good judgment and the capacity to consider a holistic, long-term view of organizational needs.”

The urgency of business leaders’ challenges today makes it harder for salespeople to get (and hold) their attention. Businesses are squeezed by external challenges (supply chain issues, recovering/adapting to pandemic impacts) and internal challenges (talent retention and acquisition in The Great Resignation). Thanks to shrinking budgets and organizations scrutinizing their bottom lines, sales cycles are longer and include more decision-making stakeholders. Data is expected in purchasing decisions to illustrate a clear ROI. Being nimble and creative are no longer unique distinctions — they are required qualities of leaders in organizations. A salesperson must be empathetic about these things and insightful about solutions, while translating the value of what they are selling into a seamless business conversation.

When developing salespeople and providing them with educational opportunities, here are tips to keep in mind that will increase business acumen and create better selling behaviors.

Know Your Audience

It might seem controversial to say that not all salespeople need to be seen as trusted advisors. But if they are selling into a procurement department, that might not be the best audience for a holistic business discussion. A procurement contact might be more interested in direct answers and knowing they have secured the best economy of scale for their purchase.

Business acumen and thorough research are required for conversations with any kind of C-suite or senior-level stakeholders in the decision-making process. No matter who a salesperson is selling to, they must know their audience and what their contacts value in a conversation. Customers should feel that a discussion with a salesperson was a good use of their time.

If it is a business discussion with a senior-level stakeholder, going in with thoughtfully prepared questions about the business will create a foundation for partnership. Jumping into a features and benefits conversation or asking leading questions that segue into a sales pitch will solidify vendor status. Salespeople should use research about their contacts, the company and the industry to explore the contact’s business goals, needs and pain points — then articulate how the product or solution addresses those items. This approach can lead to more meaningful opportunities for both parties (for a customer, discovering additional capabilities or needs that can be addressed; for salespeople, additional business opportunities).

Know Their Business

Salespeople might think they have strong business acumen, but most C-suite executives will be able to tell the difference between simply name-dropping financial metrics and asking insightful questions about the economics of their business.

Taking a walk in a customer’s shoes means understanding the challenges and opportunities in their industry, their business model and what is important to their customers. A knowledgeable salesperson will always read the annual report of any publicly traded company.

What challenges and successes does the annual report mention? What risks to the business? These are common items included in the narrative that explains the story behind the numbers.

Know Their Context

Consulting firms publish trends by industry each year (and throughout the year), as well as CEO and senior leader surveys across industries. These reports helpfully consolidate trends within and across industries from leaders’ perspectives and through extensive research. For example, in Protiviti’s “2022 and 2031 Executive Perspectives on Top Risks” report, key issues in board rooms around the world include succession challenges and top talent retention as a top-three risk in the short-term (2022) and long-term (2031). Labor costs, rapid speed of disruptive innovation, cyber threats and hybrid work environments are also listed as top-10 risks in the short and long term.

It is not enough for a salesperson to only follow general world news to be an informed professional. Knowing the bigger context of a customer’s business and how it fits into the big picture — their industry, marketplace and global impacts — will create better insights to connect the dots between the salesperson’s solution and the customer’s needs.

Educating salespeople this way will also help them speak the customer’s language, as every industry has its own terms, key metrics, unique challenges, competitive scene and emerging opportunities.

Research and relationship building take time. But so do most B2B sales cycles. Salespeople can utilize the information they learn to keep a conversation going with the customer between milestones in the sales process, congratulating customers on third-quarter results and asking their contacts’ perspectives on industry news.

Is the extra work worth it? Compare this to a buying situation for yourself. Would you rather work with a realtor who is intimately knowledgeable about their market and its nuances, or one who relies on search results alone to find you a new house? Trust takes time — and it takes work ethic.

“The consultative sales approach may seem simple, but it isn’t easy to execute well … Consultative selling is a fundamental business strategy centered on creating value through insight and perspective that paves the way toward long-term relationships and genuine solutions for your customers,” Scott Edinger writes.

The research and self-education in which a salesperson invests creates a foundation for a better business conversation. It may take practice to weave thoughtful questions and insights that add value to a customer conversation, but it cannot happen at all without a baseline of business acumen.

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