The challenge of defining Sales Enablement

03 Aug

The challenge of defining Sales Enablement

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By Thomas Barrieau
Director, Sales Enablement Practice
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When I attended the first Boston chapter meeting of the Sales Enablement Society, we did the usual “go around the room and tell your sales enablement story” exercise. It was exciting to hear people’s stories and feel the kinship with fellow sales enablement professionals. One element of everybody’s story was how long they had been working in sales enablement. Many people had been at it for just a few years, but were excited about their new career path. Also in the group were the grizzled veterans who had been at it for many years. I counted myself among them, being an old hand of sixteen years, having gotten my start in 2001 when I developed a sales information management tool. I considered this the Paleolithic era of sales enablement when people like John Aiello (founder of the sales enablement platform company SAVO) were just getting started.

As such, I was momentarily confused when I heard people talking about having done sales enablement for the past 30 or 35 years. I glanced over at Lee Levitt, with whom I’d co-authored IDC’s definition of sales enablement back in 2008. He shared my look of puzzlement. After listening further, we both adopted a look of dawning awareness. These people had gotten their start in sales training; something that easily went back well before what we considered the early days. Back when Lee and I were hammering out some of the first thought leadership on sales enablement, sales training was a well-established and respected discipline in its own right. Today, it’s hard to find a sales training department or somebody who still carries a title with “sales training” in it. So thoroughly has sales training been integrated into sales enablement, that it’s no wonder people now talk about it as if the two functions were never distinct.

I point to this difference in viewpoint because I think it’s a very important one to recognize at a time when people in our profession are endeavoring to formally define sales enablement (membership in Sales Enablement Society required for access). Just as Lee and I viewed its history through one lens, while others in the group did so through another, we all have our perceptions of what sales enablement is, colored by our experience.

Long-time sales trainers rightly view their rich history helping salespeople acquire the knowledge necessary to do their jobs as central to the meaning of sales enablement. Similarly, those who got their start in this space tackling the Web-spawned problem of information overload, instead focusing on how to curate and manage the delivery of information salespeople need, see their work as something that is at the heart of sales enablement. As such, the debate over which of the existing definitions most closely hits the mark, or how we should come up with a new one, can easily be a passionate one.

A principal challenge for people wanting to define sales enablement, then, is to find a way of uniting diverse perspectives on the matter. An approach that enables dispassionate discussion by taking into account the many frames of reference people bring to this task will produce the richest possible result. With this in mind, I’d like to offer my thoughts on some of the important distinctions I think need to be recognized, the context within which these distinctions have meaning, and an approach to defining sales enablement that can produce the desired output. I do so with the humility of someone who sees that there are numerous smart people working on this, and the self-awareness that my perspective is but one among many who hope this work can advance the cause of our profession.

Different conceptions of sales enablement and why distinguishing them matters

One of the debates underlying the question “What is Sales Enablement?” has to do with something fundamental—the kind of thing it is. The three perspectives I most often see in this regard are:

  1. Sales Enablement is a function (a.k.a., process, activity)
  2. Sales Enablement is a department (a.k.a., group, center of excellence)
  3. Sales Enablement is a mindset (a.k.a., strategy, mission)

Sales Enablement as a function. According to this perspective, sales enablement is a set of activities that span multiple departments with the objective of supporting the sales organization’s mission to generate revenue by successfully engaging with prospects and customers. This perspective respects the fact that enabling a sales organization cannot be done by a single department, but must be managed across departments. Examples include…

  • Marketing plays a critical role in audience targeting, solution and message development, and communication during early stages of the customer creation process
  • Sales Operations plays an important role in managing the tools and technology that deliver sales enablement content used by salespeople and providing data and analytics that support the selling process
  • Human Resources is often involved in some aspects of sales training, particularly onboarding of new sales personnel, and typically manages much of the recruiting and hiring processes

A functional approach to defining and understanding sales enablement allows the flexibility necessary to engage whatever resources are necessary to help sales be successful.

Sales Enablement as a department. With companies increasingly seeing the value of sales enablement and increasing their investments in this area, we are now seeing entire departments dedicated to it. These organizations are a natural home for sales training given its important role in sales enablement. The appeal of this perspective is that it facilitates focus and accountability for producing measurable results, provides a clearer career path for people wishing to specialize in sales enablement, and prevents a dilution or weakening of its core mission.

Sales Enablement as a mindset. This viewpoint hews to the notion that no single set of processes or organizational structure can fully deliver on the potential of sales enablement. For sales organizations to be fully enabled requires a commitment to understanding and serving the needs of both salespeople and the customers with whom they must successfully engage. It’s not just about delivering excellent training or easy to access and use information resources; it’s about bringing about the behavior change necessary to provide the kind of engagement today’s buyers want.

So, which of these types of thing is sales enablement? To my mind, “All of the above!” which makes coming up with a concise, single definition of sales enablement difficult. I do believe, however, that it is important for each of these perspectives be taken into account when we seek to define and understand what sales enablement means. The reason is that different types of selling organizations at different sized companies, each being at a different level of maturity when it comes to sales enablement, will have diverse enablement needs and vastly different resources that can be brought to bear to address those needs. At large companies, distinct departments will be the focus of their sales enablement activities; at smaller companies, it may only exist as a point of intersection between marketing and sales. Whatever definition we settle on as a community, must be flexible enough to encompass this broad landscape and provide a clear vision.

These different perspectives are not mutually exclusive. Viewing sales enablement as a function that runs across the departments lets each of them contribute to the empowerment of a sales organization in their own unique way. This can best be done if a distinct sales enablement department owns, as part of its charter, the orchestration of that function. Viewing sales enablement as a mindset ensures both the function and department are constantly being tuned to meet evolving sales needs and fosters behavior that achieves the desired results.

Even with a very flexible definition of sales enablement, there will be tensions about what it is and what it is not. Does it include sales methodology training? (When I asserted not in a LinkedIn article, I got some strong push back!) What about CRM training and sales performance reporting? These things are important for managing and guiding salespeople, but do they live within the realm of sales enablement? In my next blog, I’ll explore how we can untangle these issues by looking at how we define sales enablement vs. the context within which we develop that definition.

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