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>


Mike Kunkle

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