A Salesperson’s Go-To Guide To Improve Business Acumen

A lot’s been said about the skills and traits that will enable salespeople to perform at their optimum best.

Among the most frequently mentioned are product knowledge, customer empathy, problem solving, persuasiveness, and sales methodologies. No sales leader in her right mind would let loose a sales rep who lacks every one of those crucial attributes on the floor. Nor can a salesperson achieve decent performance metrics without strategic thinking, affinity to technology, and presenting. Anyone selling something to enterprises without these skills would be operating at a very serious disadvantage.

The list of required skills can go on and on.

But one trait that’s often missing or overlooked in the most wanted lists is business acumen.

What Is Business Acumen?

Business acumen refers to a strong understanding of business situations, enabling a person to quickly assess risks and opportunities, make smart decisions, and take actions that often lead to positive outcomes.

It’s also called “business sense,” “executive mindset,” or “business savvy,”. Business acumen stems from a practical awareness of the different aspects, units, processes, and roles that comprise a successful business, and how these components relate to each other.

In essence, business acumen is knowing how businesses behave.

A person with good business acumen possesses or develops some measure of leadership, innovative thinking, entrepreneurial mentality, and strategic sense. Using a business-centric frame of reference, he or she should be able to perform the following:

  1. See the big picture as well as the little details comprising a business organization.
  2. Determine how a specific business sustains cash flow and generates profit.
  3. Identify major factors or market disruptions that can benefit or negatively impact a business.
  4. Appreciate general business concepts and common documents like financial statements, articles of incorporation, business communications.
  5. Grasp corporate objectives and mentally map different ways of achieving those objectives.
  6. Internalize how the owner of a specific business might think about issues and make decisions to solve problems or achieve success.

Why You MUST Improve Your Business Acumen

Some salespeople fail at building meaningful relationships or at closing deals simply because they do not grasp the fundamentals of how businesses operate and make decisions. Sure, salespeople might know the technical features of their product and have been extensively trained in how to articulate their benefits, but these aren’t enough to build strong connections with dynamic business organizations.

Selling is pretty straightforward:

You won’t go very far if you don’t know your customer.   

In today’s sophisticated B2B markets, businesses don’t really need salespeople in the traditional sense. They’d rather find and consume product information online at their own convenience than be personally called over the phone by a rabid salesperson prodded by a sales quota, armed with a call script, and conditioned not to go beyond a prefabricated sales pitch.    

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about building your business acumen skills. . One of the best things to do is learning how to speak like an executive by learning how to speak Excel.

A post shared by John M Barrows (@johnmbarrows) on Apr 15, 2018 at 10:21am PDT

Instead of stereotypical sales practitioners, businesses need accomplished advisors and consultants who:

  • understand where their clients are coming from
  • know how to probe aspects of the organization to identify pain points
  • have the ability to create unique solutions that will address specific challenges
  • recognize relevant business goals enough to orchestrate outcomes that lead to customer success

Without business acumen, a salesperson will never get that done.  

Real-World Examples Of Business Acumen In Action

Quite a number of popular business personalities pop up each time the term “business acumen” is used. You’ll hear some anecdotes or comments about Richard Branson, Henry Ford, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and other business figures.

Here are a few concrete instances showcasing how some of these industry giants use their astute business acumen to gain advantage/benefit:

Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett developed strong business acumen through extensive experience, having run a string of businesses non-stop from an early age.

As a kid, he sold magazines, bubblegum, and worked at a grocery store. During high school, Buffett and a friend invested $25 for a pinball machine which they strategically placed in a barber shop. The small business expanded within months to several pinball machines at different barber shops. Within a year, they sold the business for $1,200.

Buffett, now a billionaire investor, leverages his business acumen to intuit the profitability of companies and determine whether these companies are worth investing on.

Jeff Bezos

Led by Jeff Bezos, Amazon operates the world’s largest online retail business in terms of revenue and market capitalization.

Customer data gathered over the years allowed Amazon to understand customer behavior and focus all other business units towards customer satisfaction. This led to a series of corporate acquisitions and product innovations that strengthened Amazon’s supply chain strategy and diversification efforts.   

Richard Branson

Like Buffett, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson started running a business early.

From publishing a magazine and operating a mail-order business during his teen years, Branson eventually came to lead a conglomerate that controls more than 400 businesses.  

Business Acumen Is Not Just For CEOs

Business acumen is not only for business owners, entrepreneurs, or corporate leaders. For companies to thrive in the highly competitive landscapes of tomorrow, business acumen should flow in their corporate DNA. Specifically, a B2B company’s sales force — which owns the revenue streams that sustain and enable the company to grow — should be staffed by people who truly understand how businesses work and how enterprises behave in different scenarios.

Without business acumen, sales professionals will find it extremely difficult to build and sustain strong and value-driven bonds with corporate clients.

In contrast, a salesperson with good business acumen will be able to perform the following critical tasks during sales engagements:

  1. Plan and execute custom engagement strategies by determining the best approach in providing value based on the specific customer’s business context.      
  2. Build trust by conveying a strong understanding of businesses and their hierarchy of priorities.
  3. Ask the right questions and obtain important answers fast.
  4. Identify challenges, problems, and pain points.
  5. Keep business conversations relevant, meaningful, and insightful.
  6. Collaborate with the customer in building possible solutions to pain points.
  7. Assess whether custom solutions proposed would be feasible in terms of related costs and sustainability on the part of the vendor.
  8. Find the sweet spot for both vendor and customer.    

Business Acumen Vs. Sales Acumen

Sales acumen encapsulates the traits, experience, skills, and mindset that make a salesperson excellent at selling. These prospecting, value articulation, problem solving, objection handling and negotiation, and relationship building. Professionals who possess good sales acumen generally have high levels of customer empathy, grit, self-motivation, and persuasive skills.

On the other hand, having business acumen is essentially having a strong understanding of business fundamentals as explained in previous sections. In the B2B universe, selling without business acumen can be very difficult:

  • If a salesperson lacks knowledge about business issues and trends affecting the customer, keeping conversations relevant and meaningful will be quite challenging. Thus, making it harder to grow the sales pipeline and walk prospects through different stages in the funnel.
  • In B2B sales, lack of business acumen is like a person without medical background trying to make a diagnosis (opportunity assessment), identify a disease (pain point), and prescribe the appropriate medicine or therapy (business solution).

Understandably, sales acumen precedes business acumen in importance when it comes to every sales-focused interaction. However, because customer-centricity increasingly pervades the emerging landscape, business acumen becomes nearly as important as sales acumen in the world of B2B sales.  

In a market where your customers are looking for trusted advisors and consultants instead of a sales rep, you can’t fulfil their needs as a sales practitioner without business acumen:

  1. For your team to stay relevant, your sales force should be familiar with the language, concepts, and priorities of business.
  2. It’s only through the lens of a business decision maker could you frame a custom solution that precisely addresses your customer’s main problems.
  3. And it’s only on top of strong business fundamentals could you best articulate why the solution you are offering is an excellent investment for the customer.

High-performing B2B salespeople serve as trusted partners and consultants to their customers. They understand relevant business models and industry trends that affect their prospects.

How To Develop Business Acumen

For sales organizations as well as for individuals who want to be entrepreneurs, business owners, or corporate leaders, one thing about business acumen stands out as very good news:

Business acumen can be learned.

It’s not an innate ability. Anyone with enough motivation can develop business acumen through experience, self-learning through reading and networking with business leaders, and formal training.

Salespeople can start by learning as much about a specific enterprise they are engaging. They should know more about the specific industry the enterprise belongs to as well as the key factors that drive this industry.

They can also learn more about their own organizations, the different units that comprise the company, the various processes that help it generate profit, and the ways and roles through which strategic decisions are made. You can initiate proactive efforts to network with workers and executives across different departments and get to know their own challenges and how they get things done.     

Tools, Books, And Resources For Building Business Acumen

Moving outward, the next step is to voraciously read books and consume multimedia materials such as audio files, , and videos that will help you quicken your goal of building a decent level of business acumen.

There are also more formal ways of training such as going to school and signing up for workshops and seminars. While enrolling in an Ivy League business school or joining a branded business training from top-notch providers will definitely bolster your business acumen, you can save on costs by checking out free online courses first.

Top resources to get you started:


1) Business Insider

2) Entrepreneur

3) Inc.

4) Fast Company

5) The Harvard Business Review

6) Bloomberg Businessweek


1) The Sales Hacker Podcast

2) Make It Happen – B2B Sales Talk with John Barrows

3) Entrepreneur on Fire – EOF

4) Duct Tape Marketing

5) HBR Ideacast

6) B2B Nation: Smarketing

7) THE $100 MBA

Bonus: 45 Best Sales Podcasts to Follow in 2018



1) Seeing the Big Picture: Business Acumen to Build Your Credibility, Career, and Company by Kevin Cope

2) The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell

3) The New One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

4) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink

5) Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman

6) The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt

7) Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin

8) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . And Others Don’t by Jim Collins

Bonus: 30 Recommended Read by Sales Hacker: Best Sales Books for 2018

Free Online Courses

1) Principles of Management, Saylor Academy

2) Economic Analysis for Business Decisions, MIT Sloan School of Management

3) Introduction to Finance, University of Michigan

4) Organizational Analysis, Stanford University

5) U.Lab: Transforming Business, Society, and Self, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

6) Behavioural Economics in Action, University of Toronto

7) Entrepreneurship 101: Who is Your Customer?, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

8) Innovation and Commercialization, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Excellent Salespeople Think Like Business Leaders

Sales skills alone may have been sufficient to close deals in the past but the game has completely changed altogether. Sales teams now need to adopt entirely new playbooks to win. A key element integral to that playbook and a crucial trait for all your salesfolks is business acumen.

Enterprise customers demand a lot more from vendors these days. They don’t need and are often turned off by run-of-the-mill sales reps. Instead, they deeply appreciate trusted consultants who understand the priorities of their business and recognize the different market drivers that influence important decisions in their industry.

Business acumen enables a salesperson to build trust, create sound engagement strategies, make smart calls, and deliver solutions that squarely address their customer’s problems and orchestrate business outcomes clients expect.  

Salespeople with strong business acumen are the new power players in the game of B2B selling. Because they know exactly how to help client organizations succeed, they eventually help their own companies achieve sales targets and deliver a winning performance.

The post A Salesperson’s Go-To Guide To Improve Business Acumen appeared first on Sales Hacker.

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