Commercial awareness skills

Commercial awareness could be summed up as an interest in business and an understanding of the wider environment in which an organisation operates: its customers, competitors and suppliers.

It might also encompass understanding of the economics of the business and understanding the business benefits and commercial realities from both the organisation's and the customer's perspectives. Generally it includes awareness of the need for efficiency, cost-effectiveness, customer care and a knowledge of the market place in which the company operates (current economic climate and major competitors, for example).

Why is it important?

  • It is a major criteria for selecting candidates. One major consultancy felt that a detailed understanding of the company, the issues facing the industry in which they operate, professional qualifications offered and job roles within the company was even more important at interview than answers to competency-based questions
  • It shows your commitment to the job you are applying for.
  • It gives you more to discuss in an interview
  • It improves your knowledge of a particular industry or company and may allow you to spot career opportunities you hadn't previously considered.
  • It helps you with career choice (PDF)

Is it only relevant to business careers?

It is relevant to EVERY career!

  • Teachers must be aware of the current trends in education.
  • Journalists must know of the move to multiformat and web journalism.
  • Social workers must be aware of the latest government initiatives.
  • Students applying to publishing must be aware of the profit orientation of the industry.
  • Hospital administrators need to know about the NHS Commercial Operating Model.

Interview Questions

Employers may look for evidence of commercial awareness in your answers to general questions:

  • Tell me about your vacation job last summer.
  • Tell me about a time when you worked in a team to solve a problem.
  • What is your greatest achievement?
  • Why are you applying for this position?
  • Which living person do you most admire? 

Or you may be asked more specific questions to demonstrate your commercial awareness:

  • What do you know about our organisation?
  • Why do you wish to enter the .... industry?
  • What are our main products/services?
  • What are the problems facing our industry at this time?
  • What changes have there been in our industry recently?
  • Who are our competitors? What are the differences between them and us?
  • Who are our clients?
  • What do you think the job you would be doing entails?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
  • What salary do you expect?
  • How do you keep up to date with what is going on in business?
  • What story in the business press has interested you most recently?
  • What is the current Bank of England base rate?
  • How many euros would you get today in exchange for £10?
  • What is the FTSE 100? Did the FTSE go up or down yesterday?
  • What was our share price this morning?

Questions about your work experience

  • What skills did you develop from your work experience? Any transferable skills?
  • What would you do differently if you worked there again?
  • What was your experience of working in a team?
  • What is the management structure of the company? How effective is this structure?
  • Can you describe any good leadership skills you witnessed?
  • What is their recruitment and retention like?
  • What would you do differently if you were in charge?
  • Have there been recent changes in the industry the company operates in?
  • What market share does the company they have?
  • Is it a Global Industry? If yes, what are the implications?
  • Have they been in the press?
  • What is the company's unique selling point?

How to gain commercial awareness:

  • It may seem obvious but check the employer's web site for background information - don't just look at the "careers" section but also at the sections for clients, potential clients.
  • Find out who the organisation's competitors are: you may well be asked this and which ones you have applied to! Also try to find out the size of the workforce, the turnover and profits of the company, its share price and key activities which interest you.
  • Read the business press - the business pages of the major broadsheet newspapers should cover most of the background that you need, but the FT and the Economist will be essential if you are applying for a research/analysis sort of post.
  • During your reading, look out for stories that will affect the organisation to which you are applying, or its clients, directly or indirectly. 
  • The professional press: Accountancy Age, The Lawyer, etc will keep you up-to-date with developments in the relevant sector. See our I want to work in ... section to find out information sources for a range of career areas. Graduate publications such as Real World magazine, TARGET magazine and sector-specific titles such as Lawyer 2B can also help - many of these are available free from the Careers and Employability Service.
  • Make a point of viewing/listening to business-related programmes on TV and radio such as Working Lunch, the Money Programme and World Business Review. Some, such as Dragons' Den and The Apprentice may be designed as entertainment but raise a number of business issues and can offer good material for discussion.
  • Do a SWOT analysis on a company or sector of interest to you. Analyse the market sector in which a specific company works – who are its competitors?
  • Relate your own experience to business. You may be doing casual bar or retail work purely to earn money but this can also be used to gain an insight into business. What are the good and bad points about your employer? Who is its target market? Who are its main competitors? How would you improve the company's image or profitability?
  • If all this sounds like a lot of work - these are competitive areas which need thorough preparation to have any chance of success - and your workload once you join any of these organisations will be even heavier!

Further information

  • TheJobCrowd overs 2,000 reviews of employers written by graduate employees at over 400 graduate employers 
  • All About Law Commercial Awareness page
  • Commercial Awareness for Students consists of a twitter page @ComAware_4S and a website The twitter page is designed to bring regular updates of the business headlines most pertinent for aspiring solicitors straight to our followers' twitter feeds. The website brings weekly summaries of the top stories from the past 7 days.

Develop your Commercial Awareness Skills with Study Plus

Study Plus provides free in person and online workshop sessions to University of Kent Students. Check out our bitesize video workshops to start developing your skillset today, including your commercial awareness skills. 

Last updated