Why salespeople make great business analysts

In the last few months, I’ve come across an overwhelming number of questions on LinkedIn, Quora, etc. from people in sales who are looking to transition into business analysis. I love the work that I do as a BA. So I wrote about it. I originally posted the following in response to a Quora question. I have since updated the answer to make the writing a bit tighter.

P.S. This is a long post. Almost 2000 words. You’ve been warned! 🙂

TL;DR. Salespeople have the soft skills to make great business analysts.


Doing a career change can be tricky at any point in time. But as they say: it’s never too late. Having said that, sales and business analysis are quite different. Yet, luckily, business analysis is an area where business experience and people skills matter more than any specific experience or education credential(s).

In fact, as a salesperson, you already have the background to be a solid Business Analyst (BA). You just have to package your skills and experiences and present it as such.

Broadly speaking, there are three career paths that can lead someone to a BA role:

  1. Someone with extensive industry knowledge. An example would be someone who has worked for different companies in different capacities within the same industry.
  2. Someone with deep business expertise. An example would be someone who has worked for the same company for years and can be considered a subject matter expert.
  3. Someone with a technology background. An example would be a developer, a quality analyst or a technology manager who has always had a keen interest in the business side of things.

I think a salesperson can easily tailor their experiences to fit profile #1.

To illustrate how one can do this, I’ll take a few sample sales skills from this article, and show you how each skill can be re-purposed for a career transition into business analysis.

But before we go any further, I have a disclaimer. My sales to BA skills mapping is for illustrative purposes only. I’m trying to find examples of common ground between the skills you likely already have as a result of your sales career and the skills expected from a Business Analyst. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and my attempt at mapping is approximate (to the best of my abilities but probably debatable).

#1) Product / Industry Knowledge = Domain Knowledge

A sales rep who doesn’t perfectly understand the product they’re selling is a completely ineffective rep.

If you’re a salesperson hoping to become a business analyst, this will be your biggest advantage.

In the business analysis field, this is called domain knowledge. A BA who doesn’t understand the business or industry and its policies, procedures, processes, acronyms and trends cannot be an effective BA. BAs are agents of change in an organization, and their main role is to enable change initiatives related to people, process and/or technology.

But how can they manage such a project without understanding the context, that is, the domain in which the change must occur?

Great BAs have years and years of domain knowledge.

#2) Strategic Prospecting Skills = Stakeholder Analysis Skills

This means searching for referrals through existing connections to new prospects that fit the target buyer or ideal customer profile.

The first step in any business analysis initiative is to identify the stakeholders, that is, the people who will be directly or indirectly involved or affected by the change. This includes the project sponsor(s), executives, management, subject matter experts, business managers, support staff, end users, etc. The list can be quite extensive.

The goal here is to identify the right stakeholders and build as comprehensive a list as you can so you can.

BAs use “strategic prospecting” to figure out who fits where in the project puzzle. They assess and analyze the power, role, knowledge and expertise of the stakeholders to determine how they can best contribute to the success of a project.

#3) Rapport Building on the Call = Stakeholder Interviews

Some sales reps already have a natural ability to create an instant rapport with a prospect, and only have to finesse it. Other reps can learn to research prospects in advance and find common ground to empathize with the person on the other end of the line.

Usually, the next step in a business analysis initiative is to speak to the stakeholders one-on-one or in a facilitated group setting depending on the project need.

As I said before, BAs are change agents. And change is hard.

BAs as “agents of change” often find themselves in disengaged (at best) or hostile (at worst) work environments where they must leverage their rapport building skills during stakeholder interviews to build trust and confidence.

#4) Buyer-Seller Agreement = Change Management

It allows the prospect to feel comfortable and understand what is coming next, so no one feels ambushed by the next step. It also allows the sales rep to open up a two-way street in the selling process so that both parties get to a win-win conclusion.

The most crucial task in any business analysis initiative is to ensure that your stakeholders “feel comfortable and understand what is coming next, so no one feels ambushed.” This is especially true for stakeholders who are most impacted by the proposed change, but have the least amount of power or say in the matter.

This is just one aspect of change management, a task that a BA must continually engage in until the end of the project.

In his book, Business Analysis: Best Practices for Success, Steven P. Blais defines the BA role as someone who is “explicitly or implicitly responsible for the successful adoption of changed processes, products, and technologies in the organization… as a Business Analyst, you have to understand the business community and its ability to absorb the change.”

Stakeholder interviews, facilitated workshops and other one-on-one or group interactions are crucial opportunities for the BA to not only gather project requirements but to raise awareness of the business needs and goals, set expectations, promote engagement and generally help everyone go through the process of transition (aka change).

#5) Active Listening during the Sales Cycle = Communication during the Project Cycle

Great listening skills can help reps empathize with prospects to learn more about their business and pain points. With that knowledge, they can then sell more effectively and offer a better solution.

On the phone, the tone of voice, volume and pace of a sales rep’s speech are surprisingly important sales skills. In sales, how you say things to a prospect matters more than what you say.

Communication is the currency that makes good analysts great. One of the key reasons for project (software or otherwise) failures are bad business requirements, which is a direct result of bad communication, both incoming and outgoing.

Active listening skills (incoming) help a BA really understand and internalize the business need to effectively come up with clear, prioritized, consumable and complete requirements that deliver value to the stakeholders. Great oral and written communication skills (outgoing) help a BA be understood clearly and concisely.

Imparting the right amount of information at the right time to the right people helps keep everyone on the same page while they work towards a common goal, and helps the BA effectively manage the change process.

#6) Qualification Questioning = Need Analysis

You need to delve deep to discover your prospect’s business pain and how your product can help them solve it by asking qualifying questions. These questions help you determine what you should share about the benefits and value in your product based on what is going to be most important for them.

Done right, a BA is a proactive and trusted advisor and leader.

Done badly, a BA gets reduced to a passive role of a note-taker or scribe.

Great BAs lead stakeholder discussions. They look for opportunities to innovate. They stop and ask “why.” Again and again and again until they’ve dug deep enough to uncover the underlying pain that’s driving the need for change. Because to be an effective analyst “you need to tap into people’s non-conscious to define their real requirements. People are conscious of the immediate problems and issues with their processes and so will seek to have these resolved. However, few are conscious of the strategic intent and rationale of their processes — what they are really trying to achieve and the reason (or lack of reason) for each step in the process. This knowledge is held in their non-conscious and has to be tapped into to identify what they really want the process to do, and why.”

#7) Time Management = Time Management

The key to being highly productive is using good time management skills.

This one is self-explanatory. Pretty much a great skills for any professional. As a BA, not only do you need to manage your own time well, you also have to accommodate others who may be relying on you for deliverables or information to continue their own work. Multi-tasking is, unfortunately, a necessary evil.

#8) Objection Prevention / Handling = Change Management

Great sales reps practice the art of proactive “Objection Prevention” and not merely “Objection Handling” and can thus reduce some of the most basic objections by way of how they approach a sale.

Even the best reps can’t prevent every objection, so it’s important to help your team prepare for objection handling when they do hear one.

This is yet another aspect of proactively managing change in an organization as a BA: “Whether it’s a meeting (big or small) or a training session, someone has to shape and guide the process of working together so that you meet your goals and accomplish what you’ve set out to do. While a group of people might set the agenda and figure out the goals, one person needs to concentrate on how you are going to move through your agenda and meet those goals effectively.

#9) Demo Skills = Presentation Skills

Sales reps need to not only understand the product, but must be able to show off it’s capabilities to a prospect effectively through a demo.

Similarly, BAs must not only analyze business need to come up with innovative solutions, they must also be able to communicate it to the executives and sponsors who have the final word on green-lighting a project for implementation.

#10) Gaining Commitment = Stakeholder Buy-In

The key is making sure the right people with the right approval power are bought in to the process as the sale progresses.

In business analysis, stakeholder buy-in is the process of involving right people in the decision-making process with the hope of reaching a consensus on the proposed change initiative.

#11) Closing = Sponsor Sign-Off

Reps have to establish a timeline, and push the prospect to sign using a compelling event.

When the project sponsor says “yes, let’s do this!” This is the green-light to go ahead with implementation. All the analysis work you’ve done so far has led to this moment. In big companies, this is as much a formal process as a client signing a contract.

#12) Post Sales Relationship Management = Change Management

Relationships really matter; it’s that simple.

Another aspect of change management, which continues into eternity.


Finally, just some general advice about making the transition from a sales to a business analysis role:

  • Does your current company have a BA practice? If so, making the switch within your own company might be easier.
  • Target companies with mature BA practice or BA centers of excellence.
  • Business certifications and other educational credentials can stack the deck in your favor.
  • You have people skills in spades. That’s your calling card. Use them wisely.

Learn this one skill to leapfrog your career

Am I good enough to do this?
What if I mess up?
What will they think of me?
Are they judging me?
Can I really do this?

Questions like these can shut your brain down the moment you are faced with the prospect of speaking in public.

Are you afraid?

You should be.

After all, statistics says that an average person fears public speaking even more so than death. This means, as Jerry Seinfeld was so kind to point out, “to the average person if you have to be at a funeral, you would rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

So it should come as no surprise that someone who can step outside of his or her comfort zone to speak in public is trusted and respected by those around him/her, and thus, gets more opportunities to grow and achieve success in life. Because, after all, they can do something the majority of us can’t.

Think about it: if we’d rather be dead than be up on a stage addressing a crowd, anyone brave enough to step up and speak will be seen as a hero, a leader. Someone who isn’t afraid of a challenge. Someone worthy of respect and admiration. Someone who is brave enough to do something we can’t.

So it behooves us to learn and cultivate this skill whether we work in public relations, marketing or data entry. And the good news is that it’s learnable. Because no one — and I mean no one — is born a good speaker. They become one through hard work, patience and practice.

Resources:

Your career, by design

The popularity of making new year resolutions ebbs and flows each year.

Just a few years ago, it was cool to make new year resolutions. Then it wasn’t. Now it’s back in vogue.

I say this without a hint of sarcasm. No jeers, laughter or eye-rolls here.

Resolutions make us feel good. Like we have control over our lives. And no matter what happened last year, this year will be different. Because we have the power to make it so.

This is the perfect opportunity to hit the reset button, clear out the mental cobwebs and really think about your personal and professional goals.

Here are some great decks to inspire and motivate you to roll up your sleeves and get down to the serious business of “designing” your career by removing the clutter, confusion and noise that has likely built over time.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Until a few years ago, this question used to give me an anxiety attack.

The problem wasn’t that I didn’t have any interests. It was and is quite the opposite: I have too many. There is just so much to try, do and learn. I enjoy juggling many hats. I thrive in an environment where no two days are the same.

I like to spend my time reading, writing, cooking, sketching, and solving puzzles. I love finding unusual and creative ideas from glossy home décor magazines just as much as I enjoy reading about the latest technology trends, history or politics. The list is actually quite long. I have a bit of a yin-yang thing going when it comes to my life’s work.

But now that I’m “set in my career” as a professional Business Analyst, people often ask me a variant of this question: where do you see yourself in 5/10/15 years from now?

In response, I talk about either my profession, industry or current favorite hobby; whichever I feel like talking about the most at the given moment. I love what I’m doing right now. But I have some growing up to do. I have more learning to do. So who knows what I’ll be doing next?

It’s true; you do have to make choices from time to time to move forward in life. But you never have to settle. Interests change. Circumstances change. People change.

CHANGE.

It’s a good thing.