Business Acumen: A General Understanding of Business Principles

business acumen

Business acumen doesn’t follow closing, differentiation, or prospecting, even though it is fourth on the list.

Although there are salespeople who may be able to close and obtain commitments, most of the time the ability to have commitments is reinforced or enabled by the salesperson’s business acumen.

There are lots of ways to differentiate yourself and your company from competitors, and business acumen is undoubtedly one of the most important. These two attributes and skill sets enable and reinforce each other.

Prospecting is a skill that may precede the need for business acumen, but in most cases, it is made immensely more powerful by the addition of business acumen.

What Is Business Acumen?

Business acumen is a general understanding of business principles. It is the ability to make thoughtful business decisions. Mostly, business acumen relates to the ability to make decisions that lead to profit.

Business Acumen in Sales

It is only recently that business acumen became one of the primary drivers of success in sales. In the past, it was often enough to possess product knowledge, features and benefits knowledge, and a strong sales acumen (overcoming objections, rapport building, etc.).
As sales has evolved, the role of value creation has required a new set of skills.

Great salespeople understand how business works. They know their company’s go to market strategy, their company’s unique value proposition, how they compete and win in their market, and their financial metrics.

Great salespeople also understand generally how their clients compete in their market segments, their client’s unique value propositions, and their client’s financial metrics.

Great salespeople are now great business generalists.

Great salespeople are comfortable discussing profitability, metrics, throughput, and any number of financial metrics. They are as comfortable proving ROI using a spreadsheet as they are presenting ideas using PowerPoint.

Great salespeople are comfortable discussing execution with their client’s operations staff and discussing technical ideas and details with their client’s technical team. Great salespeople are comfortable are debating compliance and legal issues with their client’s procurement and risk management teams.

Great salespeople leverage their business acumen to identify areas where value can be created, to build the vision of how that value will solve problems or create a competitive advantage, and work with their clients to build solutions that deliver the promised outcomes.

When Business Acumen is Missing?

When business acumen is missing, the salesperson struggles to understand how their own company competes and wins in the marketplace, and they chase opportunities that don’t fit their company’s target or client models. They often try to sell price when their company doesn’t compete on price.

When business acumen is missing, the salesperson is unable to speak the language of business with their prospects. They lack the conceptual understanding to be able to discuss the business issues, challenges, and opportunities in a way that is meaningful and valuable to their prospects.

When business acumen is missing, the salesperson doesn’t understand the financial metrics that drive their prospect’s business, and they cannot develop solutions that improve those metrics. They are uncomfortable with numbers, spreadsheets, and proving ROI.

When business acumen is missing, the salesperson struggles to build consensus with their prospect’s buying teams. They cannot speak to operations about execution, they cannot speak to technical issues with the technical team, and they cannot speak to legal and compliance issues with the procurement.

When business acumen is missing, the salesperson cannot develop and create the vision of improved performance or the solutions that will deliver that value to their clients.

All of this can be lacking in a salesperson with very high sales acumen. They may have a natural ability to develop rapport and present ideas. They may have very high-level skills at prospecting and closing. Without business acumen, these are no longer enough to succeed in sales. Better the salesperson have the business acumen and the desire to sell.


In the past, success in sales depended very heavily on the salesperson’s sales acumen. While sales acumen is still necessary, business acumen is now equally as important as sales acumen (and in many cases, more!). The business of sales is now the business of business. Salespeople now need the business acumen of a great general manager.

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About the Author:

S. Anthony Iannarino is the President and Chief Sales Officer for SOLUTIONS Staffing, a best-in-class staffing firm, and the Director of B2B Sales Coach & Consultancy. You can find more of his insights at The Sales Blog.

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