“Business acumen” (BA) selling is what your prospects want today.

You’ve heard them all:

“Tell a story.”
“Use LinkedIn.”
“Sell the sizzle.”
“Sell our solutions.”
“Cold calling works.”
“It’s a numbers game.”
“Put that coffee down.”
“Email follow-up works.”
“Sell on social networks.”
“Research your prospects.”
“Reach the decision maker.”
“Present like a professional.”
“Increase your efforts by 10.”
“Become the trusted advisor.”
“Develop your personal brand.”
“Learn how to demo your devices.”
“Enhance the customer experience.”
“Probe for weaknesses, confirm, trial close, handle objections and present our solution.”

It’s all standard sales jargon — beware the cliché.

As a new copier rep, you’ll be forced to endure hours of being taught every selling technique ever created. You may find them new, but these schemes are timeless; repeated through the eons. And that is the problem. These standards are not nostalgic or even proven — they are old-fashioned. Prospects today learn product details without attending manufacturer-sponsored classes. The basic elements of a sale remain the same: We exchange value for value given. This will never change. What has transformed is the volume of relevant information available to your prospects. Sure, to be successful you’ve got to understand your product. But viewing your clients’ businesses holistically and effectively communicating your real-world understanding of them is the way forward. The future is business acumen selling.

This is a high-end concept, and it becomes more relevant every day. As prospects gain knowledge, the typical sales person degrades in value.

So don’t be typical.

Knowing good business practices, basic operational procedures and the impact of market turbulence on allbusiness processes will secure your standing as more than a just a trusted advisor. What’s more, the basic solution salesperson is on the path to extinction, and it isn’t just the internet sealing their doom — artificial intelligence (AI) is creating divergence from the specification-selling ecosystem.

Consider the following real-world elements:

  • Demand is waning — fewer prints and clicks.
  • Prospects expect much more — anyone can access a spec sheet, read a white paper or listen to an industry podcast, so what can you offer that others don’t?
  • Basic selling will dissolve because AI and predictive intelligence technologies will help purchasing companies identify internal areas for improvement and single out ideal partner/vendor profiles.

To be effective and not just survive in sales, the next generation must rise above speeds, feeds and solutions and practice business acumen selling, not solution selling.

For clarity, let’s take a look at the definitions of solution sales and business acumen:

Solution sales

Merriam-Webster defines a solution as, “an action or process of solving a problem.” Wikipedia defines solution selling as, “…  a sales methodology. Rather than just promoting an existing product, the salesperson focuses on the customer’s problems and addresses the issue with appropriate offerings (product and services).”

Frank Watts developed the sales process we call “solution selling” in 1975 at Wang Laboratories and began teaching solution selling as an independent consultant to companies such as Xerox Corporation in 1982.

Questions like “What keeps you up at night?” “What are your top three priorities for the year?” or “What are the biggest challenges you’re facing right now, and how did those arise?” are implemented by solution sellers.

So why is this method increasingly less relevant? First, every other copier rep is asking the exact same questions; they know and have heard all your standard, company-centric statements. Secondly, buyers have access to what you pitch: speeds and feeds

Business acumen

Merriam-Webster defines acumen as, “keenness and depth of perception, discernment, or discrimination especially in practical matters.” Wikipedia expands upon that to define business acumen as“keenness and quickness in understanding and dealing with a ‘business situation’ (risks and opportunities) in a manner that is likely to lead to a good outcome.”

Solution selling was pivotal in the evolution of the selling process, earning billions of dollars and selling millions of computers, software packages, printers and copiers.  Solutions sales, as defined, remain in place as a stepping stone towards a higher plane of selling existence — business acumen selling. To quote Matt Dixon, author of “The Challenger Sale,” “Today’s buyer wants you to add value beyond the research they can conduct on their own.” And that’s where your business acumen will put you a step above the rest.

Developing business acumen

Springsteen said it best when he sang,”
“We learned more from a three-minute record baby, than we ever learned in school”.

Nobody is teaching business acumen sellingin a classroom, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t insights or advice on how to move to a higher level. According to Brian Hill, author of four business and finance books including, “The Pocket Small Business Owner’s Guide to Business Plans,” developing business acumen (BA) takes listening and observing. He says one way to develop business acumen“… is to increase (your) knowledge base about how the company operates. Learning how to be a better listener can make this process easier. Take the time to cultivate relationships with individuals in other departments and learn more about their challenges and concerns … try to learn everything about the company’s products and operations. This knowledge will help sharpen decision making when asked to contribute to discussions about which products or marketing strategies should be funded … .”  

Here is the key: You are learning everything about each prospective business to foster ALL YOUR FUTURE RELATIONSHIPS. You are not probing for opportunities, you are collecting knowledge.

I’ve observed successful engagements based on BA selling. Here are three (of many) ideas to help you step up your value:

  1. Open your mind.
  2. Talk with everyone.
  3. Record and document.

Open your mind. Certainly, for the first 12 months of your career you’ll head into meetings with an agenda intent on “closing deals.” It might take some practice, but slowing down your “push” mentality automatically opens your awareness to the world around you. When you’re not talking, you should be listening, and getting into this state of mind starts well before you’re in the lobby. A baseline inquiry I’ve heard that helps center the conversation is, “Tell me how you make money.” Ask, shut up and pay attention

Talk with everyone. For example, upon entering your prospect’s building, if anyone asks if you’d like a coffee or beverage, always say yes, and volunteer to accompany the person to the coffee machine. Chat with the person about their day and keep your eyes open for any scrap of business data you can collect. Additionally, you can learn more than volume levels and click-charges during the assessment.  Inquire about processes and learn how the business works.

Also — and this is the best idea, ever — talk with your order processing team. Your dealership sells, services and delivers stuff; find out how an order is processed to gain rudimentary knowledge that can be used whenever you meet a prospect who sells stuff.  Odds are they experience the same challenges and bottle necks you do — use that knowledge.

Remember, you are cold calling 100, contacting 255 and meeting with 20 prospects a week — you are the nexus of hundreds of conversations giving you unequaled insight. Tap into this extreme source!

Record and document. This is a no-brainer. In the beginning, take copious notes and draw pictures. Let me state that again: Draw pictures. Reviewing a hand-written diagram is easier than decoding your scribbles. I know it seems old school, but hand-written notes are easier to digest and less obtrusive than clicking away at a keyboard while having a conversation.

By the way, stop using your laptop to take notes in front of a prospect or customer. Even when you receive permission, it is rude and distracting. Get a pencil and paper out and use your brain. Digitizing your notes at day’s end is a great idea. I use Evernote and try to draw workflows on every subject covered, from the first meeting through assessment.

Finally

At the end of the day, B2B buyers are looking for a way to prove the value of a potential purchase, and to leverage a cogent business case and move forward with a purchase.  According to a 2012 Harvard Business Review article titled “The End of Solution Sales,” “94 percent of B2B decision makers are now seeking out sales teams that exhibit specific insights into their company’s problems.”  Considering the dismal 80/20 rule in sales, it looks like 94 percent of B2B prospects could be looking for less than 10 percent of selling professionals.

In our world, business acumen selling is the intimate knowledge of business — both strategic and tactical — and the universal impact decisions have upon the organization. The more you know about all facets of business, from accounts payable and accounts receivable to a prospect’s selling process, the more you enhance and grow your business acumen. Commodity sales has been completely automated. Solution selling is a mile-maker in the past. Business acumen selling is the future.

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Greg Walters

Greg Walters

is an entrepreneur and founder of the notorious destination site TheDeathOfTheCopier, where he comments on all things imaging, the rise of managed services and the advance of business technology. A prolific writer and frequent speaker, Greg shares his passionate, unique – and often provocative – view of technology and people, addressing the impact of digital on 21st century business. His 2014 book, Death Of The Copier, offers a controversial summary of the early days of Managed Print Services and the not-so-distant future of the hard copy industry. Reach out to Greg at greg@grwalters.com.