You’ve probably heard the term on numerous occasions when having conversations about applying for jobs or university courses: “you need to have commercial awareness…it’s so important nowadays”. But what is commercial awareness, and why do you need it?
Whilst it’s difficult to define commercial awareness given that it’s so specific for each industry and role, a general definition given by the Cambridge dictionary is: “knowledge of how businesses make money, what customers want, and what problems there are in particular areas of business”. Breaking the term up we can see that “commercial” refers to commerce, or the making of profit; and “awareness’ is synonymous with being well-informed.
Breaking this down further, we can think about specific areas that a business would want to see you were knowledgeable on. The following are not an exhaustive list but are some good examples:
- Company goals – what is the company trying to achieve in the next few months / years?
- Company ethos – how does the company market itself? Why should customers want to use their products or services? Why should employees want to work there?
- Current projects – what are some ongoing projects within the business? Are you able to contact someone within the business to discuss this?
- Current challenges – what are some of the issues the business may be facing? Could you relate these to the current market state?
- Customer base – who are the company targeting their products or services at? How could you show knowledge of what this particular group wants?
- Competitors – who are the company’s main competitors? What are their greatest strengths and weaknesses? What do the company you’re applying for do differently?
Overall, to be “commercially aware” involves not only knowledge, but application of knowledge: being able to think practically and appropriately for the setting or task. But why is it so important to show you are commercially aware?
For competitive entry level / graduate roles, it’s not enough to show you have the academics to prove your knowledge. The reality of the job market at the moment is that everyone applying to these roles is doing so with the correct letters next to their name.
Companies are looking for candidates who are well-rounded and have industry knowledge (or at least specific interest). This means being able to provide nuance in your answers to questions regarding the company, the industry, or the sector. This will be vital to set yourself apart from other applicants.
It is also key to show genuine interest and passion, so if you are applying for a role and hear the oh-so-common question: “why do you want this role?” or “why should we hire you?”, you are able to provide a strong answer. Discussing a specific area of the job role or company and analysing how it relates to your interests, or how it relates to the market that the company operates in is one great way of showing such interest.
But remember to be pragmatic and critical about what you choose to discuss, as every candidate will have done the same and gone on to the company’s website home page. You want to aim to do more of a deep-dive search and find some points that you think are interesting and are potentially unique to your application / interview.
So this all being said, how can you improve your commercial awareness?
It is only right to highlight that there are many factors, as shown above, that go into being commercially aware. It is more of a skill than a tick-box addition to an application, therefore it will take some time to develop.
The best way to start, if you feel you have no such knowledge, is with small, manageable chunks of information. Sources such as general news apps are a good start-point. You could tailor your homepage or notifications from these apps to focus on industry-specific news. This way, you can take 5 minutes each day to update yourself on current affairs in the industry, and maybe begin to track any patterns or developments.
For more detailed information, sources such as specialist publications in your chosen area are a good idea. As I work in law, the best examples I can give are of legal publications, such as The Lawyer and Legal Cheek.
Your focus when building commercial awareness will depend on a lot of factors to do with your chosen industry, a big one being whether you will be working for a client-centric company or not. If so, it is equally as important to have knowledge of the customers as it is to have knowledge of the industry. One way you could do this is to look at academic research regarding characteristics of the client-base that the company targets. You could then link any patterns or developments in the industry to the potential impact they could have on the client experience.
A final point to note is that any work experience you have already - whether that be part-time or full-time work; in retail, hospitality, or any other sector – will be extremely useful. If you can show how the skills you gained from these roles are beneficial to the role you’re applying for, you will be in a strong position with your application. Mentioning work experience demonstrates two main things: you have a strong work ethic; and you know how to utilise your transferable skills. For example, demonstrating how the skills you have developed - such as time management and teamwork skills - could be a benefit to the business is a great way to ‘sell yourself’ for the role. Going further and linking these skills to market changes by explaining how you could help the business progress or reach some of its goals will help even more with making your application stand out. This will show that you have used all of the avenues you have available to you to demonstrate your commercial awareness.
Hopefully now you feel you know a little bit more about what commercial awareness is and why you need it. Its importance is only increasing and as mentioned, it’s no longer enough to have just the grades or degree to show you are qualified for the role.
So, download a few news apps, find some industry publications, and have a think about what you already know that can help you succeed in your applications!