It’s difficult to pin down one definitive explanation of sales enablement, as there are so many interpretations that differ between organizations, vendors and practitioners.

Here’s how we see it: it’s a strategy that encompasses the

  • Processes
  • Activities
  • Training
  • Content
  • Information; and
  • Technology

… to enable a business to move sales opportunities forward through knowledge-based interactions with clients and prospects. It could also be thought of as an organizational culture where sales success is not solely owned by one department or specific function, such as training, marketing, or sales operations.

But Director of Marketing for Growth, Bibi Brown, has a more concise definition:

“Sales enablement has the ability to align the sales and marketing orgs, boost company-wide alignment, and ultimately improve the way everyone does their job.”

Assisting the customer’s journey

But, seen from another perspective, sales enablement: “...while often geared towards the sales force, sales enablement is seen by many to be truly focused on the customer’s journey, irrespective of the involvement of a particular salesperson”.

According to an article in The Journal of Selling (Sales Enablement: Definition, Domain, and Future Considerations, by Robert M. Peterson and Howard F. Dover):

“This subtle, yet pivotal, difference in the parameters of sales enablement means that for some, sales enablement concentrates on what the customer needs to do, read, hear, and see, and that journey is not uniquely based on a salesperson interaction.”

88% of people say they carry out research online before making a purchase either online or in person. That means your customers have completed a huge chunk of their journey before they even speak to a salesperson. So you need to walk in their shoes.

Looked at from the point of view of ‘the empowered customer’, the need to create a well-thought out, coherent experience on the path to purchase makes the case for sales enablement even more strongly.

Inbound marketing revolution

Remember the Aesop’s fable where the sun and the wind competed to see which one of them could make a man take his coat off? The wind tried to blow it off by force, but this only succeeded in making the man pull it more tightly around himself. The sun’s technique was more subtle: he shone down as brightly as possible until eventually the man took off his coat of his own accord so that he could enjoy the warmth of the sunshine.

Effective modern marketing is just like the sunshine: he won the man around by providing him with something of value; he used persuasion rather than force.

This is the lesson sales professionals have been learning ever since the internet enabled the customer to do research and educate themselves about whatever you sell (products and services), including comparing prices and features, and checking out customer reviews.

Enter the concept of inbound marketing, which is about swapping pushy outbound marketing tactics for customer-centric strategies that encourage our prospects to approach us. People will no longer stand for being ‘sold to’ or adhering to a salesperson’s agenda: they can spot it a mile off. They’re more savvy and have more choices.

As you will know from your personal experience as a buyer, customers expect you to engage them with useful, high-quality content that respects these choices, is personalized to their needs, and fits into their lifestyles.

Content is at the heart of inbound marketing - and therefore sales enablement. As HubSpot’s Kyle Jepson puts it:

“... it’s all about creating marketing and sales that people love by providing helpful content and resources that attract people to you. These days, regardless of what industry you’re in, attracting people to you is far more effective than chasing down prospects and trying to convince them to buy from you.”

According to HubSpot, 74% of businesses globally say they operate inbound marketing techniques, with North America leading the way:

  • North America: 79%.
  • Latin America: 75%.
  • Europe, Middle East and Africa: 75%.
  • Australia and New Zealand: 76%.
  • Southeast Asia: 64%.
  • Global: 74%.

Why is it such a globally popular method? Because it works. But only if you do it right.

Why can’t we be friends?

Sales and marketing should be able to get along, right? It just rolls off the tongue: “sales-and-marketing”. And, after all, both teams are all about bringing in new customers? But it doesn’t always work out this way.

Marketing people are strategic; they’re researchers, planners and analyzers. Salespeople are more opportunistic, ready to adapt for what each situation demands, and users of short-term tactics. Both are focused on getting results, but more often than not, they have very different skillsets and contradictory approaches. They live on opposite ends of the sales journey.

Having been part of the marketing team in a number of organizations, I know the middle ground where the two functions cross over isn’t always a happy place. There’s often criticism of one another’s processes, completely different team cultures and a reluctance to share information - heaven forbid, to actually align. I worked for one company where the sales team were so frustrated by marketing’s more methodical approach, they called us the ‘sales prevention team’.

Where they do agree though: both think it’s their team who should take credit for bringing in new business.

That’s where sales enablement comes in

We mentioned earlier that most buyers do their research before deciding to make the sale: advertising website copy, content assets, social media: these are all usually the remit of marketing. But the effectiveness of these assets is determined by their interaction with sales - their first human-to-human touchpoint. When you look at it like this, it seems obvious that each teams’ approach needs to be consistent, the transition seamless. To the customer, any friction between the teams or internal politics is irrelevant.

And this is the basic principle of sales enablement: strengthening the alliance between sales and marketing so they can work together to each achieve their objectives - not just that of business growth, but also personal career goals.

Putting together a sales enablement strategy

To maximize profit and drive real value rather than confusion, these are the three aspects that need to be unified:

Goal

A shared revenue goal is the pivotal point around which your sales enablement strategy needs to operate (why revenue? It’s the easiest metric to quantify). Behind this sit the processes, content, and technology that will help you achieve it.

Customer awareness

Sales and marketing are never going to be pulling in the same direction if they don’t share an understanding of the people most likely to buy your product; made tangible through the creation and usage of buyer personas, or ‘the ideal customer’. To get to this point, and maintain that equilibrium, sales and marketing need a robust system for regularly and consistently sharing knowledge about the customer, their needs and challenges, and the evolving buyer journey.

This way, your sales reps can maximize the amount of time they spend talking - and listening - to qualified leads, while marketing focuses on creating the content and campaigns that support them to do it. Which brings us back to…

Content… again

Yes, this again. It’s what it all comes back to.

Isn’t content creation just a marketing thing? They handle all the newsletters and social media and stuff. Nothing to do with us. That’s how sales professionals often view it.

Take content for sales seriously. "Content isn't just for marketing these days”, says VanillaSoft’s Darryl Praill:  

“Your sales engagement and sales enablement strategies rely, to a large degree, on the availability of well-written content for sales reps to use with potential customers."

But your content strategy can’t just be something marketing does on their own, without any help or input from other departments.  Your customer-facing teams know the questions that customers ask, and the objections they have to handle. Marketing are equipped to produce the content that answers or pre-empts these questions and pushbacks, and to position your business as a thought leader and go-to source of information, as well as providing sales with high-quality, relevant content to use as tools to engage with today’s self-educated buyers.

Momentum and maintenance

Aligning sales and marketing is your first step in creating a sales enablement culture and process. But, and this is a big but, this can be a massive step-change for many organizations and individuals.

Sponsorship & buy-in

To establish credibility or stand any chance of adoption, you need support right from the top.

How do you persuade the powers that be - the C-Suite - that a sales enablement strategy is worth investing time and money?

Yes, there’s an irony in having to ‘sell’ sales enablement. Proceed much as you would an external sale (or would advise a rep to). Research and gather evidence for the need. Speak to those who will be involved in putting together and executing the sales enablement strategy. Explain what you’re trying to achieve and how it will benefit the business’ profitability to get them onboard.

Give examples of when ‘sales enablement-y’ elements have already brought about results within the organization, eg, a motivation technique that saw sales reps smash targets. A piece of content created by sales and marketing collaboration that brought on a big client. This will help back up the idea that the business would benefit financially from a formal, ongoing sales enablement program.

As sales enablement encompasses the need for training and development, a central part of your EVP (employment value proposition), HR needs to be on-side too.

Onboarding

Engaging sellers is a prerequisite to being able to successfully enable and equip them for success: only then will they be able to drive sales.

What’s your company’s mission, how can they play a part in it, and how will it benefit them? These aspects need to be clearly communicated and reinforced.

As the Product Marketing Alliance's Lawrence Chapman says:

“Sales reps and their managers also need to buy into your pretty plan, and to get them on-side, you need to understand their requirements and let them know what they’ll gain from buying into your proposal.”

Let’s be clear: we’re talking about engaging not just sales reps, but sales management too: after all, they’re the ones responsible for day-to-day reinforcement and demonstration of the behaviors you want to encourage.

According to Senior Manager, Sales Enablement, Nick Salas:

"Sales reps don't like to be told what to do outside of their leadership. If we were to come to them and enforce these things upon them, it's just gonna fall upon deaf ears. It needs to come from leadership.”

Ongoing training and coaching

It’s the responsibility of sales enablers to help, support and inspire rather than dictate. It’s about growing and nurturing your sales talent, and listening to what they need from you to achieve success.

Jenn Haskell, Senior Director, Global Sales Enablement, gave some tips on this at San Francisco’s 2019 Sales Enablement Summit:

  • Focus on behaviors, rather than results. Sales behavior drives sales success.
  • Make sure you’re clear what ‘good behaviors look like’, and matches what your sales managers, and HR think.
  • Work on KPIs and work backwards so you know how to measure success.
  • Actively listen to your reps, or how will they learn to actively listen to customers?
  • Treat them like they should be treating the customers.
  • Provide in-context coaching.

The right tools

You need digital platforms (such as a CRM, outreach tool, or marketing automation tool) to support all the above (an area which is becoming messy as so many vendors use the term 'sales enablement', tweaking its meaning to the specifics of their offering).

The technical revolution we’ve already talked about doesn’t just benefit the buyer. As marketers, salespeople and sales enablers, we’ve now got access to more information than businesses could have dreamt of just a few decades ago.

Think how closely we can track how visitors behave on our websites, how much information people give away on social media, or how messaging has opened up such rich dialogues between buyers and customer service reps across a range of devices.

For time immemorial, successful sales has relied on gathering as much market and customer data as possible to allow us to identify gaps in the market, develop and market products to fill them and to position our offering and messaging in a way that’s appealing to potential buyers.

This underlines the need to identify and adopt the appropriate tools and systems for capturing and sharing data that help identify prospects, nurture leads and close sales. Having different spreadsheets flying about or sitting unused on a sales rep’s desktop, or scribbled post-it notes stuck to monitors, no longer cuts it (aside from the fact that this is a data protection nightmare).

For Olivier Riviere, Partner at sales management consultancy, Powering:

“The initial definition of sales enablement is to provide tools and services to help sales reps drive a high-quality dialogue with their prospective customers at each stage of the buyer's journey/sales process."

Most importantly, the tools you choose need to be genuinely helpful and intuitive for those who need to use them.

"But we do this anyway”

This is the reaction of many businesses - and it’s often true. But sales enablement is about formalizing the process through:

  • Assessing your current approach to revenue generation, addressing any current barriers to efficiency (internal and external).
  • Developing a common understanding of - and documenting - the objectives, benefits, roles, accountabilities with the sales process.
  • Establishing and co-ordinating activities that enable revenue development, such as marketing content, learning and development, operations, metrics, coaching, onboarding, and technology.
  • Building the buy-in and credibility to encourage adoption.

Sales enablement is a relatively new concept - and we’d love to hear your take on what it means for your business - comment in the SEC Slack community.