If you haven’t heard the term “Sales Enablement” more times than you can count recently, then you’re probably not paying much attention to sales strategies and trends. Sales enablement is a hot term today, with millions of dollars of investment in enablement tools and lots of conversation in executive board rooms all around the country (and across the world).
As the chart below shows, before about 2010 sales enablement didn’t even exist as far as Google search was concerned. Since that time, interest in the term has exploded. Yet despite the popularity of the term, it has yet to develop a clearly defined meaning. Ask 20 sales leaders what they think sales enablement is, and you will likely get (at least) 20 different responses.
At Imagine, we’ve spent much of the last year digging deeply into the issues addressed and the importance of sales enablement. Specifically, we wanted to determine what problems - if any - sales enablement addresses, and who is likely to have those problems. While I certainly don’t want to claim that we have finalized our research, we have reached the point where we are confident in putting forth a clear definition and to definitively answer the question, “Is this something I should be paying attention to?”
Let’s start by crystallizing the underlying purpose of sales enablement. It’s focus is on driving two key areas of demand generation and sales growth:
These are not “beginner” issues. If your major barriers to growth are poor messaging, lack of content, poor lead generation or inept sales efforts, then sales enablement should not be on your radar right now. Focus on the fundamentals of building a solid demand generation system first.
Efficiency and acceleration are both very important to companies desiring consistent growth (of top and bottom lines) and are very misunderstood. There are several reasons for this, chief among them are:
- Very few companies have the data or analytics in place to be able to assess either efficiencies or acceleration.
- Neither of these items actually shows up on an income statement or a balance sheet, and therefore are either missed entirely or considered “soft” and not worthy of investment.
This is unfortunate because I can say unequivocally that if you are not increasing your efficiency and acceleration, then you are losing ground. Consider the following trends in the overall market:
- Sales cycles are getting longer
- Sales costs are increasing
- Margins are compressing
- Quotas are falling (or failing to be met)
- Financial metrics (ROE, ROA, etc.) are declining
I could go on, but I think you get my point. A major challenge for small and mid-market companies is that the stakes are growing. For most of the last 50 years, being good was good enough to create real wealth and income; however today being good merely allows you to struggle and compete from one year to the next.
If you’re looking to truly create wealth in a business, or drive solid income growth in service of the business, then you simply must be great. Think about it this way, five years ago:
- If you created content, you were different. Today everyone is creating content.
- If you were implementing an inbound marketing program, you generated a ton of unique qualified leads. Today there are more good inbound marketing programs than there are qualified leads.
- If your salespeople showed up, asked good (not great) questions and “took care” of your prospects, you’d close sales. Today key decision-makers have less need than ever for your salespeople.
So increasingly there is this growing void between the strategy and intent of a growth organization and the actual results and return on their efforts. For the first time ever, I’m hearing smart, successful people questioning the real value of proven demand generation tactics. They say things like, “Sure, they’ve made things better and we even have more predictability, but is the energy and effort to execute these programs really worth it?”
If that’s where you find yourself. You’re doing things well. You’re creating good content. You’ve got good salespeople. You know you’ve got product/market fit...then sales enablement should not only be on your radar, it should be at the top of your radar.
There are five key areas that are the focus of an effective sales enablement effort:
1. Data and measure from the top through the bottom and back
Marketing automation mainstreamed the idea of closed loop reporting. While there are still a minority of companies that are actually taking advantage of this capability, most have improved greatly at being able to accurately assess what marketing and demand generation actions are more effective than others.
However, even companies that are closing the loop aren’t monitoring crucial data to determine what’s working and what’s not. Again, marketing automation has created much greater clarity and accountability through the lead generation and management phases, but for most companies, once the lead is turned over to a salesperson, the black box is back. There is virtually no data or metrics on things like:
- The types of emails salespeople send through the sales process
- The frequency or spacing of emails
- The messaging being used
- The presentation decks
- How the presentation decks are consumed
I could go on (and on and on). In this day, “big”, “little” and “rich” sales decisions are still dominated by gut instincts and opinions. Don’t believe me? Simply look at how much attention is still placed on “closing sales,” and the idea that you need to try to close often. This despite hard data (shared in the book SPIN Selling) that has been around for more than 30 years that completely disproves this belief.
An effective sales enablement approach provides valuable, actionable data from the top of the funnel all the way through the bottom and back again. It enables the right information to be put in the right people’s hands at the right time so that you are able to constantly test and improve every facet of your approach.
2. Technology stack strategy and roadmap
If you’re not familiar with the terms “technology stack”, “sales stack” or “marketing stack” get familiar with them quickly. Technology is, and is increasingly crucial, to producing repeatable, sustainable results. For many sales and marketing leaders, this is a challenge because they didn’t become leaders in their disciplines because of a love for, or understanding of technology.
While technology will not (and I want to emphasize that it will not) produce success on its own, the lack of or ineffectiveness of technology will drag or destroy an otherwise solid growth program.
Today your technology strategy must be just as strong as your customer development and revenue generation strategy. This means that the vast majority of companies must start looking at their use of technology from a completely different mindset.
Most companies I’ve met make one of three mistakes with their approach to technology:
- They use technology in place of strategy (think of all the people that thought by buying a marketing automation product leads would start flowing without doing anything else).
- They just throw different technology solutions on to what they’re doing. While SaaS companies love these people, their sales and marketing teams are frustrated, confused and bottlenecked.
- They simply ignore it and hope that it will go away (or something equally inane).
A clear approach to technology is core to effective sales enablement.
3. Sales content tracking and message control
I worked with a company that had 15 people on their sales team. They conducted an audit of sales materials and learned there were more than 37 different versions of the same core sales deck. Every salesperson took the deck provided to them and created multiple versions for various scenarios.
While I certainly understand the desire, and in some cases need, to customize/personalize a presentation to your customer/audience, the problem is that there’s no control or discipline around what changes are made and why; and further, there’s no data to assess what worked and what didn’t to inform leadership so they can improve their overall process.
This lack of message control leads to inconsistency in sales and chaos on the service/delivery side as each customer is given a different promise. This complexity is one of the major causes of stalled growth for growing companies.
An additional challenge faced by companies that have been effectively doing content marketing for some time is that they have a mountain of good content that just sits there without ever being utilized on the sales side. Figuring out how to index, curate and drive effective content utilization through the sales team, and by extension the bottom of the funnel, is one of the top priorities of leading sales organizations.
4. List data management and enrichment
Good, clean data is (and has been for quite some time) the holy grail of demand generation. Research shows that a good list decays by 22 - 27% per year, and indications are that number will increase. It doesn’t matter how good your message is if you don’t know who to deliver it to.
As content, outreach and the democratization of information increases, what you need to know about your prospects before your first touch is expanding. The strength of your lists is becoming (if it hasn’t already become) the single most valuable asset of a sales organization.
Today only the best sales and marketing organizations pay significant attention to their lists, segmentation and enrichment. Within the next three years, average companies will be (or they won’t be growing).
5. Sales operations
Research from SiriusDecisions showed that salespeople waste more than 50% of their time on administrative tasks surrounding demand generation. A growing complaint of companies that are are utilizing sales development tactics is the amount of time sales development reps spend on tasks that don’t directly connect to lead generation or conversion.
Additionally, as you implement effective demand generation strategies, the velocity of activity is going to increase. As it does, the complexity you must manage will explode and if you don’t manage that effectively, chaos will dominate.
Enter sales operations. An increasingly important role responsible for managing the core processes and infrastructure surrounding everything that relates to managing an effective and efficient bottom of funnel.
An effective sales operations role requires more than “throwing” someone to manage the administrative tasks associating with your selling process. It means designing the processes and providing the authority to ensure that sales execution stays on the track created to achieve growth targets.
While it would be easy to write off Sales Enablement as today’s buzzword or a passing sales management fad, I’d caution you from taking such a view. Recent research from The Aberdeen Group highlights the emerging advantages strong sales organizations are enjoying.