When it comes to an under-appreciated and under-leveraged B2B selling capability, financial/business acumen tops the list. I believe this so strongly that in both editions of my book, How Winners Sell, I included a chapter on how to get a project funded. It taught readers figure how to cost-justify their products and services to their customers.
You may be aware of Executive Conversation, a sales performance improvement company that focuses on executive selling skills around financial and business acumen. Executive Conversation says there are five competencies required for B2B selling that are under-appreciated and under-leveraged:
- Business Knowledge. The ability to understand a customer’s business model and effectively interpret the macro economic factors impacting their performance.
- Customer Insight. The ability to gain the account insight required to identify new opportunities and to credibly engage around a customer’s strategic initiatives.
- Financial Acumen. The ability to interpret financial trends and analyze customer financial performance to pinpoint areas of need.
- Return On Investment. The ability to credibly quantify the financial impact of investing in your solutions using metrics meaningful to the customer.
- Executive Engagement. The ability to credibly engage, build relationships and sell at executive levels within customers.
Certainly Executive Conversation isn’t the only company that serves to transfer financial and business skills to salespeople. Back in January, Mercuri International acquired Celemi, a business simulation company. Smart move for Mercuri. Very good news for their clients.
Allow me to introduce another proponent of financial acumen, Jack Malcolm, who runs Falcon Performance Group, and is the author of Bottom-Line Selling: The Salesperson’s Guide to Improving Customer Profits. Jack was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
Dave Stein: Your book is Bottom-Line Selling: The Salesperson’s Guide to Improving Customer Profits. What does a salesperson has to do to affect their customer’s profits?
Jack Malcolm: At the big picture level, the first step is to see their customer’s enterprise as a vast engine for generating cash. They can improve the cash flow engine in three ways: making it more effective (increasing the customer’s sales and margins), efficient (reduce costs and improve asset efficiency, and fast (reduce cycle time of their business processes). That’s the financial impact. In order to arrive at the financial impact, they have to intimately understand the functional impact: how their solutions improve their customer’s processes, by reducing inputs and risk, and increasing or improving outputs.
DS: There has been a well-defined need for financial selling skills going back decades. Some training firms deliver this content, and there are few that focus on it alone. Why is it that more B2B companies haven’t taken hold of the proven way to increase sales and combat against commoditization?
JM: Probably the most common excuse is that they say their people are already doing this well, although with just a few questions it’s easy to figure out that they don’t know what they don’t know. As to the real reasons, I have three guesses: One is that sales managers are afraid of showing their lack of mastery of the process. The CFO of one of my clients told me that his own sales leadership does not understand the concepts I teach their reps. In addition, it requires a team effort between sales and marketing to work together to define the connections between their offerings and improving customer’s processes and profits, and that team effort doesn’t seem to be too common. Finally, a lot of companies pay lip service to a consultative, patient approach but at the same time discourage taking the time to fundamentally learn new skills by demanding immediate, short-term quota attainment.
DS: This book could be seen as too big a hurdle to jump for the average B2B salesperson who needs to improve their performance. Reading a book about financial acumen and selling skills is one thing. Getting in front of a customer’s finance person and making a business case is another. What’s the proven path to accomplish this?
JM: It’s an evolutionary process that goes through four stages—familiarity, application, validation, and mastery. The first step is to take the mystery and intimidation out of annual reports and financial statements. If they read the book with their customer’s annual reports in front of them, they’ll start seeing the connections. The next step is to begin applying the ideas by developing hypotheses about the process and financial impacts of their solutions, and then validate those with the appropriate process and problem owners, before they take it to the finance person or ultimate decision maker. Finally, when they do get in front of the finance person, don’t act like you know it all; approach them humbly enough so that they don’t try to shoot you down, and use the champions you have developed during the sales process to support you. Over time, knowledge accumulates and confidence grows. If it could happen overnight, everyone could do it and then it wouldn’t be exceptional.
DS: I would expect that anyone you would hire to sell for you would have to have the understanding and skills you outline in your book. What would you say to sales managers regarding their own professional development and the people they would hope to hire in the future.
JM: Sales managers have to set the example with the application of these skills; they need to coach to them and coordinate the internal and external resources to support the financial selling approach. In my experience teaching these concepts, it’s the curious, learning-oriented individuals who take them and run with them. If I were hiring, I’d hire for smarts, teachability and business sense rather than old-line sales experience. Sometimes bad habits can be very hard to break.
Jack Malcolm is President of Falcon Performance Group, which is dedicated to improving the effectiveness of sales professionals in the complex sale. He began his career as a banker, which seems like a strange qualification for a sales consultant, but it gave him a solid grounding in business and financial knowledge which he uses to teach a unique mix of business acumen and complex-sale strategy and skills that today’s demanding customers require from top sales professionals.