Director, Sales Enablement Practice
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When IDC first described sales enablement 16 years ago, it was a new and largely unknown term. Since then, sales enablement has grown into a vital component of how vendors empower their sales organizations, an essential component of sales/marketing alignment, and an entire industry in its own right. While that original definition has gained widespread acceptance and holds up very well, the scope of its implications has expanded greatly in this digital era. Proper enablement now goes well beyond managing and delivering inward-focused information (e.g., product and solutions information) and must encompass a deep understanding of buyers and their purchase decision journey.
Speed and efficiency of information delivery has always been a goal of sales enablement professionals, and great strides have been made in this area through the application of sound information management principles and an array of automation solutions. Now, however, the challenge of relevance — the “right information” part of the sales enablement puzzle — is greater than ever before. Buyers are no longer a homogeneous group of IT professionals; they now reflect the heterogeneity of the markets into which technology products and services are sold. With this diversity comes the difficult sales task of being able to speak to a wide variety of perspectives.
As such, it is not surprising that marketing leaders now define sales and partner enablement as number two of their top five priorities for 2016 (right behind content marketing). Because successful buyer engagement requires as much buyer knowledge as possible, this challenge represents an outstanding opportunity for sales and marketing to collaborate. To better speak to specific buyer needs and interests, marketers use content marketing and lead nurturing to increasingly tune the digital dialog they have with prospects. The knowledge of buyers and their journeys that underlies this tuning can also inform how and precisely where sales should pick up the interpersonal dialog in which they engage these same prospects. The smoother this introduction and collaboration is, with as much continuity between digital and interpersonal dialogs as possible, the better will be the buyer’s experience and impression of the vendor. In a crowded and highly competitive vendor landscape, this is a critical path to favorable purchase decisions.
With buyers now giving sellers a smaller window of opportunity to influence their purchase decision, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Using Web-based information delivery, automated marketing outreach, and social media, technology vendors have enjoyed tremendous success at educating buyers. So much so that sellers now operate at a disadvantage: Buyers know much more about the vendors they are considering than sellers know about buyers. This knowledge gap has reduced the perceived value of sales; IDC’s annual IT Buyer Experience Survey indicates that buyers most often reach out to salespeople for reasons that are largely tactical. To overcome this intelligence shortfall and restore the strategic value that good selling can bring to buyers’ journeys, today’s sales professionals need to be empowered with industry, company, and persona insights that can be used to drive relevant and compelling conversations. Achieving this is a core challenge of modern sales enablement.
The very best sales professionals have always made it their business to be market-savvy. They look beyond the walls of their own company and seek to understand the broader landscape that defines the buyer’s reality. In this way, they can bring insight-level intelligence to their sales conversations and quickly earn buyer trust. Sales enablement organizations can expand the application of this best practice by sourcing the quality market and buyer knowledge necessary to provide these insights. Knowledge gained by marketing during the early stages of the customer creation process can provide some of the information salespeople need, but it’s not enough to produce the level of expertise we’re talking about here. Instead, we need to facilitate a deeper understanding of how current trends and industry- or role-specific decision drivers shape the buyer’s mindset. Just as marketing organizations turn to outside players to bolster their content marketing efforts, sales enablement groups would be well advised to seek market-based education and training content from people that research and understand today’s buyer perspectives. This knowledge, delivered as part of a sales enablement framework that uses analytics enablement to inform sellers when and where to use it, can really help to remove the blinders that many sales reps wear. Instead of leading with a product pitch today’s buyer’s don’t need or want, reps can use these insights to engage prospects in conversations that demonstrate the expertise and empathy that earns their trust—and their dollars.
- The thought leadership and other content marketing that is being projected into the market is the beginning of the conversation between the buyer and the seller. If it successfully pulls in prospects, this digital dialog must at some point be converted into the interpersonal dialog of sales. Marketers should ask themselves this question: “Is sales ready to pick up this conversation?” Sales can only be expected to do so if it has been educated with an understanding of the goals and substance of marketing’s content and buyer engagement strategy.
- Marketers need to consider the prospect information that is being given to sales during lead introduction. Is it merely contact info along with some raw data on which pages were accessed during online discovery? Or, does it include information about the industry within which the prospect operates, the purchase decision drivers typical for that persona, and insight-level data about what has been learned about the buyer’s interests (i.e., what it means that the buyer accessed particular pages and/or downloaded certain documents)?
- Sales educators and trainers need to move well beyond the task of teaching about sales methodology and product readiness. Education as it supports sales enablement should now include training on industry/market background and technology trends; key functional personas (e.g., CMO, CSO) and not just the generic buyer personas of the past (e.g., influencer, budget holder, etc.); and how to speak to line-of-business buyers, including the business value drivers for that person’s industry and/or job function. Remember that learning is a process, not an event. Any major sales education initiative should include resources (e.g., industry overviews, buyer conversation guides) that bridge the gap between training and application of skills.
- First-line sales managers are the critical inflection point that turns corporate selling strategy into customer-facing reality. Involve them early and often in the development and implementation of your sales enablement strategy so that they have a thorough understanding of the education, analytics, and assets that can help their teams be successful. Their ability to incorporate this knowledge into how they coach their teams will affect program and asset adoption rates more than just about anything else you can do.
I’ll close this post by underscoring the importance of enrolling customer-facing sales management when designing your sales enablement process and information flow. First-line sales managers are in the best position to provide feedback on what the sales organization needs to successfully meet buyer expectations and how best to deliver the required information in a timely manner. Be aware and humble about what you don’t know. Ask salespeople about the knowledge they need to sell. If you’re lacking the ability to provide industry and/or persona training that’s relevant and appropriate for sales using in-house resources, bring in outside help that has the market expertise and sales know-how to complement and support what you bring to the table.
In offering this perspective on What is Sales Enablement? I’ve drawn upon not just my own experience as a sales enablement professional, but on close collaboration with marketing professionals and the many analysts at IDC who cover the IT industry. Just as the challenges facing salespeople are constantly changing, so too is our understanding of what it means to properly enable them. With that in mind, I welcome reader feedback and ongoing discussion through my profile on LinkedIn.