Businessperson's New Title: 'Expert'

To be successful, you have to know everything there is about what you're selling.
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If my business partner has said it once, he has said it at least five times a day: To succeed in a business that provides services to corporations, you have to be a "subject matter expert."

What is a subject matter expert and how do you become one?

A subject matter expert is someone who can tell you about everything in a certain field, industry or topic. For example, if you want to know about how to raise money from private investors, you would call the people at

Robinhood Ventures

, a top investor-angel network. The firm can tell you what private investors look for in companies in which to invest, what should be in a business plan and how to make a presentation.

There are five ways to build your knowledge so you become an expert:

  • Interview: Go out and interview people in the field. Don't just speak with the CEO -- talk with everyone from product development to sales to marketing to the guy actually delivering the product.
  • Survey: Develop a survey and either e-mail it out or call people to learn more. Try to limit your survey to 10 questions. The questions must be quantitative, which means the answers have to be "yes" or "no" so you can develop statistics to interpret the findings. If possible, partner with a trade association, which will have credibility in the field, or offer to conduct it for the trade association.
  • Conferences: Attend conferences and learn what other professionals have to say. Introduce yourself to the speakers of various sessions and pick their brains for information.
  • Competitive analysis: Develop a criteria based on what you have learned about a particular industry, its players and what is and isn't important to look at. Create a spreadsheet that compares the various players based on a set of criteria that players in the industry would agree on.
  • Write: Use what you have learned to share with others in the field. This can take the form of print and electronic articles and books. Nothing makes the point that you are an expert more than writing a book.

Few people become an expert in anything they haven't participated in. That doesn't mean you can't advise someone who owns a retail store without having run a retail store, but you can't consult unless you have learned how to be a consultant. A good consultant develops and possesses the following skills:

  • Questioning: The best consultants ask good open-ended questions. That means questions that can't be answered with a "yes" or "no." They're questions that require well-thought-out answers.
  • Listening: Listening skills are very important. Most people are thinking about what they want to ask next instead of listening to the answer to the question that was just asked. It's important to listen to the words and read the person's body language.
  • Watching: A good consultant watches how people do things. He takes notes. He watches the process. You can't learn enough from watching something once; you have to observe it numerous times. It's like viewing "The Godfather." Each time you see it, there's something new.
  • Communicating: The ability to communicate and interpret what you have learned in a clear, concise manner will provide invaluable information to your team and client.

Being a subject-matter expert can only improve your chances of success. What intelligent person takes advice from someone who doesn't have in-depth knowledge of the product or service being bought? When you go to the electronics store to purchase a laptop, don't you ask for someone who knows something about laptops?

Marc Kramer, a serial entrepreneur, is the author of five books and is an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton's Global Consulting Practicum, where he serves as Country Manager for Chile.