Don’t Run into the Fire – Know the Industry First

Here’s what happened when I tried to do the job without the right tools.

Every day, sellers, consultants, auditors and other professionals run into the fire without a hose. They are determined to do a good job but are ill-equipped to put out the fire. This analogy is a little dramatic, but it happened to me early in my career.

Lot’s of Enthusiasm, Little Understanding

I started my career at a large accounting firm right out of college. My first audit was at a financial institution, and my audit team was understaffed. That meant I was involved in work that was way over my head as a recent college grad.

My understanding of the financial services industry was limited to my checking account with $185 in it. Yet, there I was auditing the mortgage banking business, a technical area of the bank that bought and sold mortgage loans in the capital markets, converted loans into securities, serviced loan portfolios and more. Not exactly the issues most 21-year olds discuss every day.

My supervisor asked me to meet with our client’s CFO (Dave), get answers to a list of questions and document those answers for the audit. I was ready to go and bolted out of our office to meet Dave, not realizing I was heading into a fire without a hose.

Burning Fire, No Hose

During the meeting, I asked all my questions but had no idea what Dave’s answers meant due to all the jargon he used and the complexity of the industry. I remember words mentioned like “mark-to-market,” “wholesale loans” and “securitization” – all waaay over my head. I took excellent notes (lol), but Dave could tell I had no idea what he was talking about. When I left the office, Dave knew I would have to return to ask the same questions again. Dave did not look very pleased! I essentially ran into the fire without a hose, and by hose, I mean knowing my client’s business, lingo and industry.

When I look back, it wasn’t a good impression of my company or me. Luckily, Dave was patient, took an interest in me and explained how the industry worked (multiple times). I did not like looking bad in front of the client, which motivated me to learn all I could about their business and financial services, but it wasn’t easy. There weren’t a lot of good, reputable resources that I could use.

Different Industry, Same Problem

You can replace mortgage banking with any industry. Imagine if I was trying to sell Dave a technology solution or consulting services, or if I worked for the same bank and was trying to evidence my value? In most cases, the executive would have laughed me out of the office for wasting his time, and that would have been the end of our relationship.

This situation happens every day. We run into the fire enthusiastically, but are ill-equipped. We know our job, the benefits of what we are selling and more, but it’s not enough. The common denominator is that to be effective, you need to understand the industry you serve, including the industry jargon, drivers and KPIs. Just a hint…these things are very different from the case study companies we learned about in college. [I still don’t know what a widget is.]

What Can You Do With a Hose?

How do we become better equipped to add value and become trusted partners and advisors?

If we want organizations to invest in us, we need to invest in them and ourselves. We need to understand the business and the industry.

For example:

  • Sales or Consulting: Knowing your client’s business inside and out will enable you to connect the dots, understand their industry challenges and how your solution impacts their business.
  • Auditors or Accountants: An in-depth understanding of your client’s business will allow you to identify risks and make sure their financial statements are accurate, complete and timely.
  • In-Industry Professionals: Gaining a better understanding of the industry you work in will give you the foundation to understand your organization’s strategy and figure out how your expertise can help your company achieve strategic goals.

Where Do You Find the Hose?

So how do you learn more about an industry? Here are some tips:

  • Complete industry training if it is available through your organization or take the initiative and find reputable training on the market
  • Read industry blogs and trade publications – make it part of your daily routine
  • Review your client’s (or organization’s) press releases and website
  • Learn to read your client’s (or organization’s) financial statements and learn how they make money
  • Attend virtual industry conferences and trade shows
  • Listen to and read about leaders in the industry discussing current challenges and where they see the industry moving into the future
  • If you subscribe to a business or industry publication, set-it-up to automatically notify you of articles on the industry or about specific companies in the industry you wish to follow
  • Talk to people in the industry – there is no better way to learn!
  • Prepare to Seize the Opportunities

In my career, it has been incredibly rewarding and fun learning about a specialized industry. These industries are constantly changing based on the environment, economy and advances in technology. For instance, digitization is changing every single industry today, and the pandemic has accelerated technologies being utilized.

I’m not a firefighter, but I like being prepared. So learn from my mistake and don’t run into the fire without a hose. If you want to be successful, make sure you learn about the industry you serve.

I would love to hear from other professionals. Do you have a similar story? What did you do about it?

About the Author

Chris Lawton, a founding partner at Performance Solutions International (PSI) has been providing training and consulting services to various industries and clients for the last 29 years (after a career in public accounting).

Performance Solutions International (PSI)

PSI is the leading provider of industry-focused training, custom learning solutions and learning consulting services to empower your professionals with the knowledge, skills and tools they need to succeed in today’s highly competitive environment.