Archives for May 2014

The Four Pillars of Sales Value Creation

Four Pillars of Sales Value Creation

The concept of sales value creation has been getting a lot of attention again lately, in the sales blogosphere. It should. I don’t believe in metaphorical “silver bullets,” but the ability to create value when selling is as close as we may come to a silver bullet for our profession.

We tend to forget that this isn’t something new.  Mack Hanan first published his landmark work, Consultative Selling, in 1970.  Jack Malcolm summed up the book nicely in a review on his blog, with these points:

Salespeople should talk about what a product does for the customer rather than what it is
The essence of selling is not pushing products but transferring value to customers
You improve your own profits through improving your customers’ profits
It all begins with understanding your customers’ business
The critical importance of creating long term partnerships at high levels

There is a lot of detail and value beyond those sentences in Mack’s book, and if you haven’t read it, and work in the sales profession, you should. But that is a good summary of its core essence.

I mention that, because here we are, forty years later, and sales research (from SiriusDecisions, Forrester and others) shows that the inability to communicate value is one of the greatest inhibitors to sales growth. From my seat on the bus, I worry that the inability to communicate value isn’t the root issue. I believe a deeper challenge is the inability to create value.

What the Top 4% of Sales Producers Do Differently

22nd Century Selling Skills Diagram

In May 2014, I spoke at ASTD’s International Conference and Exhibition (now the Association for Talent Development) about what the top 4% of sales producers do differently than others. I called this 22nd Century Selling Skills and detailed seven areas of differentiation. One of the clearest distinctions and most critical skill sets of the seven is Value Creation.

22nd Century Selling Skills Bullets

22nd Century Selling Skills

You can see a blog post I wrote for ASTD on the topic here and see the slide deck on SlideShare.  In this post, I’ll detail what I call…


The Four Pillars of Sales Value Creation

The four pillars of value creation are:

  • Financial Acumen
  • Operational Acumen
  • Customer Acumen
  • Solution Acumen

Four Pillars of Sales Value Creation

Financial Acumen

I most often see this referred to “business acumen,” but for sales, I prefer an expanded definition of that term to include the other acumens described here.  To me, financial acumen is a combination of understanding of financial concepts and business models, or more specifically, how companies provide value in the marketplace and generate revenue, make money (profit), reduce costs, manage risk, and generally achieve their objectives, mission and vision (with a nod toward my friend and leadership expert, Dr. Andy Neillie, for reminding me about the mission/vision piece).

There are a lot of great resources around for developing financial acumen from an accounting and conceptual perspective.  What often seems to be lacking is an ability to translate that knowledge into value, or communicate how a solution to a specific business issue will impact the KPIs and metrics that matter to senior decision makers, as they move toward delivering on their mission and vision promises. While they are not intended to be inclusive, I’ll offer a few resources in each section now and will expand the resources over time.

Financial Acumen Resources:


Operational Acumen

Operational acumen is simply how things get done. This starts as high as strategic thinking and planning, runs through the tactical and action planning stages, and ends with the ability to execute and make things happen. It also includes the white space in the organization charts (with a nod toward Geary Rummler, Alan Brache, and Peter Block), so it’s not only which roles do what, but the players, their influence, politics, culture, and how things “really get done around here.”

  • Strategic thinking and planning
  • Tactical and action planning
  • Who does what
  • How things get done in organizations (yours and your clients’)
    • Players and their influence, emotional intelligence and interpersonal dynamics, organizational politics, and cultural considerations
  • Great execution principles and how to “make things happen”

Operational Acumen Resources:


The Interplay of Customer Acumen and Solution Acumen

Customer Acumen is a critical piece that sales research often indicates is missing…a deep understanding of the customer, their business, their issues, KPIs, risks, goals and more. Some marketing departments and reps do a great job with market conditions and customer issues, and most reps are very good at “uncovering needs” that they can solve, but the issues often aren’t segmented by personas, and the real implications are often skipped or assumed. Needs are also usually narrowly stated and focused on only what the sales rep can address. All of this makes it difficult to tie to financial acumen, and understand and articulate the true risks or opportunities that the customer is facing.

Customer Acumen

  • Market Conditions / Buyer Issues (by Buyer Persona)
  • Implications
    • Negative Consequences of Inaction
    • Positive Outcomes of Action
    • How This Ties to Organization Performance and Metrics
  • Need Statement (completely from the buyer perspective, with no hint of the seller or a specific solution)

Most sales reps are well grounded in their own solutions, or at least the features and benefits of them.  Research does show gaps, though, not just in their understanding of their solutions, but especially how they specifically address customer issues. (It stands to reason that the less well-defined the issues are, the weaker the connection to the solution.)  Unfortunately, the nuance of messaging by Buyer Personas is often missing, as is the ability to communicate capabilities and true differentiators (as opposed to just features/benefits). As with the Implications, the Outcomes are frequently less well-defined, which again lessens the ability to tie to KPIs, financial metrics. risks, or opportunities.

Solution Acumen

  • Sales Solution Architecture (with messaging by Buyer Persona)
    • Solutions / Action Recommendations
    • Capabilities / Differentiators
    • Products / Services
  • Outcomes
    • Negative Consequences Avoided
    • Positive Outcomes Gained
    • How This Ties to Organization Performance and Metrics

Most sales training focuses heavily on understanding and gaining alignment around the customer needs, and the how the seller’s products and services will meet those needs. Most sales people work hard to make these connections.

This is part of the story, but it’s also a big miss, too. The “magic” or dot-connections and real influence occurs with the explicit understanding of and connection between the Implications and the Outcomes, pre- and post-Solution.  Implications and Outcomes are really a mirror image of each other, and in each of these areas, is where the financial acumen comes into play, and demonstrates where the very real risks lie and the true value offered by the seller. Of course, the level of interest and motivation to act also depends on the “weight” of the issues uncovered. Just because there is an issue and you as a seller can solve it, doesn’t mean it’s motivational to the buyer. The implications need to be weighty enough and the outcomes compelling enough, to spur action.

Customer Acumen Resources:

Solution Acumen Resources:

I’ll stop here for today, but trust that I will be back to this topic, and connect you to other resources, from leading thinkers like Anthony Iannarino, Dave Brock and Dave Stein.

As always, thanks for reading, be safe out there, and by all means… let’s continue to elevate our sales profession.


Mike Kunkle
Transforming Sales Results with Clear Insight & Focused Execution

<mike at mikekunkle dotcom>


Sales Myth Buster: There ARE Limits to What You Can Achieve with Hard Work

believe in yourself

I’ve been seeing a lot of motivational and inspirational quotes roll by in my various social streams lately. I really enjoy a lot of them and I imagine they help people. In my typical style, I also disagree with a few and find them unrealistic.

I have always enjoyed and chuckled at Zig Ziglar’s well-known quote about motivation:

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

As my disclaimer for this post, I just want you to know that I do understand that. I’m not anti-motivation, even in the form of quotes. If they give you a little extra zing or zip… hey, that’s great. No problem here.

With that said, several quotes that I’ve seen a lot lately, include or end with…

“…with hard work, there are no limits to what you can achieve.”


What if I want to teleport?  Fly unaided?

Lest you think I’m just messing with physics, what if you want to be the first African-American President in the U.S.?  That one’s been done.  That’s a limit.

More to the point of reality, as it relates to sales: Have you ever seen the first few weeks of an American Idol season?

I’m sorry, but as an ex-pro musician, I’m here to tell you that no amount of passion and hard work is going to transform some of those failed contestants into the top X% of musicians that break into the professional recording scene.

Look, I get the positive and inspirational intent of these messages, but there are a certain amount of nature/nurture limits, and I think people have a chance to become even more successful when dealing with reality. When you combine passion, hard work, planning, execution, and optimism with the raw TALENT and POTENTIAL, the result can be absolutely amazing. But there ARE limits.  And while I think hard work is often the differentiator between people who do have equal talent, hard work will not overcome all limitations.  Sorry.

Let’s turn to sales.


The Skills of Top Sales Producers

Recently, I presented in Roxy TorresSales Enablement Track at the American Society for Training & Development’s annual conference (note: ASTD is becoming ATD – the Association for Talent Development).  The topic was 22nd Century Selling Skills (yes, I know what century we’re in), which was about the behaviors I’ve seen over the years of my sales research, that differentiate the top 4% producers from the rest of the pack. I also wrote a post for ATD, which you can see here.

For that presentation, to a community of learning and sales enablement practitioners, I tried to focus on what these top 4% do that is replicable and scalable across a sales force (or at least across the remainder of the top 20% and possibly the first half or more of the middle producers).  Not all of what I shared is EASILY reproducible or learnable, but it’s at least POSSIBLE (some is more akin to developing leadership skills than the typical sales skills we teach).

What I didn’t share, were the personality traits I’d seen emerge, many of which are inherent and very difficult to replicate.  With time, training, coaching, mentoring, and yes, hard work, it’s possible to see some improvement in these areas… but most of these are things that someone brings to the table.


The Traits of Top Sales Producers

These are not statistically validated, meant to be the right list for you to hire to in your business (context and nuance matter a great deal), or possibly even inclusive. They are the behaviors and inherent traits I’ve seen, though. (See the presentation for my disclaimers – I summarized the skills on slide 8; jump to slides 9-11 if you just want to see the disclaimers.)

  • Drive
  • Empathy
  • Focus
  • Responsibility
  • Optimism
  • Ethics
  • Bias for Action
  • Persistence
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Influence


This is the drive to succeed, to compete and to win. It’s the fuel for the engine, the spark that ignites them. And this is very difficult to replicate. You can create the right environment (read Drive by Dan Pink) and use rewards and incentive motivation, but the drive is there already, or maybe idling and waiting to be lit, or it isn’t.


In the sales context, this is the ability to “feel your customer’s pain,” relate to them, understand the personal impacts of business issues, and a desire to help people and improve their situation. If you sell life insurance, watching a few videos at might energize your empathy a bit, but only if it’s already there. If you’re Dexter, it isn’t happening.


This is the ability to prioritize, plan, execute, judge progress, adjust course, and stay focused, to achieve.  You can teach time and task management, or you can take dextroamphetamine if you’re truly ADD or ADHD, but some people just have a naturally stronger ability to stay focused on what matters.


This is a sense of duty, commitment, a feeling of obligation to those they serve. You can motivate, you can create the right environment to pull it out of people, but they need to feel it.


Top sales people and many successful people in general, tend to look at the bright side of things, use humor as a self-management and stress-relief tool, and possess a sense of humor, fun, and general positivity. I have noticed, however, that top producers are not Pollyanna, or blinded to reality, either. They tend to focus on what they can control, stay on course with optimism about what they can achieve, and not let the rest drag them down.


Sad that needs to be said, but a strong ethical foundation and a moral compass is a powerful trait in top producers. They’re competitive (drive to win), but unlike the “whatever it takes” motivational posters (another disagreement), they won’t really do whatever it takes. They’ll do it ethically, legally, within policies and guidelines.

Bias for Action

Don’t confuse this with Ready, Fire, Aim. Top producers are often very intelligent and thoughtful, consider and weigh options, think strategically, and come in all shapes and sizes in regard to outward personalities and preferences. But they do also certainly have a penchant for acting and making things happens. This one is pretty difficult to replicate in others, in my experience, but you can set up systems and processes and coach.


While I disagree with some of this, too (so annoying, I know), I have always loved this quote from Calvin Coolidge:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

I still think you need talent, or to have seeds of potential, especially in some endeavors (like the Olympics, or Sales). I have, however, seen what I consider to be a far greater level of persistence and determination in top sales producers. Again, this one is hard to replicate.

Interpersonal Skills

Communication skills, interpersonal savvy, political skills, business etiquette, and related skills can be taught and learned, but top producers often have these in spades.  They listen well, they communicate well, they play well with others.


Influence and persuasion skills can certainly be taught and learned, as well.  Aristotle, Madison Avenue, entertainment media, and neuroscience have a lot offer, to help us understand the science and artful application of influence and persuasion. I’m not sure that most top sales producers have read or researched any of this, however. Most of them are hard-wired, were mentored, or have picked it up along life’s path through lessons learned.


The Right Blend is a Sliding Scale

Interesting note… too much of any of the great things above, can become a derailer. It seems that a balance is best, as in most things… extremes are not always advantageous.

This is why you need to dig into these traits, to learn what YOUR company’s top producer profile looks like, and try to find ways to source, recruit, select and hire more like them (and if possible, to a top-producer benchmark for your specific industry, if available).

Psychometric tools, bio-data, behavioral interviewing, Topgrading©, simulations, background screening, job trials, and other methods are all worth looking into.  Topic for another post, but you can see an old one here about psychometric tools.

Well, that’s it for this “Sales Myth Buster” post on hard work, and the traits of top sales producers. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts on these traits, and what you’ve seen or researched over the years. Since context and nuance matter so much, it’d be especially interesting to hear whether some things matter more or less in your specific world.

As always, thanks for reading, be safe out there, and by all means… let’s continue to elevate our sales profession.


Mike Kunkle
Transforming Sales Results with Clear Insight & Focused Execution

<mike at mikekunkle dotcom>


SEF Top Sales Education Programs for 2014

Sales Education Foundation

Elevate Our Sales Profession

If you read this blog, you’ve read the words…

“let’s continue to elevate our sales profession…”

at the end of almost every post.  I’ve been saying this for years, and believe it wholeheartedly.

When I first came across the Sales Education Foundation (SEF), I was pleased and not surprised to see that their motto (clearly displayed on their homepage, as of this writing) is “Elevating The Sales Profession.”

Programs listed in the Sales Education Foundation’s 2014 ANNUAL are recognized for developing and preparing students for careers in professional selling roles.

The ANNUAL provides contact information and important stats, such as program types and accreditations for each program, as well as some Q&A, articles and excellent resources.   You can find the document online at   If you navigate to Resources, you’ll see a lot of sample resources for your perusal.   To see the 2014 ANNUAL, simply register (it’s free) and login, so you can download it.

Support Sales Education

I typically only publicly ask for support of humanitarian or relief effort causes, but if you have the interest and the means, I hope you will support the Sales Education Foundation.

For clarity, SEF is a charitable corporation, a true 501c, a division of the Dayton Foundation.  Besides the Annual, programs, and curricula provided to schools, the SEF provides research grants of up to $15K over 3 years for sales research, funded by Neil Rackham.  And they provide $1,000 scholarships (funded by Chally).

With that said, one sure way to elevate our profession is through an investment in quality university programs that truly prepare our upcoming generations for a career in professional selling and sales management.  If you have the interest and resources to donate, you can explore options here.  Join people like Neil Rackham, Howard Stevens, Geoffrey James, Andy Zoltners, Jason Jordan, and hey – me – in supporting the Sales Education Foundation and the universities, students and businesses that they support.

Check ’em out.  They deserve it.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, be safe out there, and by all means… you know I’m going to say it… let’s continue to elevate our sales profession.


Mike Kunkle
Transforming Sales Results with Clear Insight & Focused Execution

<mike at mikekunkle dotcom>