Untangling Sales Enablement

Untangling Sales Enablement

I spent many years in key account management for the UK’s biggest consumer goods companies.

The first time I was asked to present recommendations for a major retailer’s range review I was completely stumped. How were you supposed to approach that?

Asking my colleagues, I was advised to simply present each of my brands in turn, starting with the biggest, and offering a keen price.

I vividly remember the buyer’s exaggerated yawns as I ploughed through 90 minutes of PowerPoint charts. Even now it makes me cringe to think how irrelevant it was!

The history of sales enablement

It wasn’t long after that when the concept of category management emerged.

Up to that point companies had brands. And the job of sales was to push those brands to customers, just as I’d been advised.

Brand positioning and brand plans were run by the Marketing department.

Customer relationships and promotions were managed by Sales.

In between the two was a niche skillset, often called trade marketing. This team took the creative thrust of the brand plans and converted it into sales materials. Usually in the form of presentations, display units, product samples and so on.

That crossover point between marketing and sales still exists today. It’s been through many iterations and titles but it’s still all the stuff that happens between your brand plan and your customer business plan.

The impact of data on sales enablement

While the principles of converting marketing goals into sales plans remain very similar today, the availability of data (and systems to process it) fundamentally changed the way it was done.

Firstly, data made it possible to be far more precise in customer targeting. With larger customers it became more prevalent to prioritise based on customer profitability or margin.

With small customers, sales teams often shrank in size as the economics of servicing low revenue clients became more evident.

The second impact was in the emergence of category management. Better data meant buyers and sellers could work more closely together to provide better service to the end customer.

Initially the concept took off in retail. Manufacturers and retailers worked together to deliver more tailored offers to people visiting stores.

It shows up in everything from the way flowers are displayed at the front of store; through big brands being at eye level on shelf; through to the targeted messages you receive on your loyalty apps.

Successful results from “putting the customer at the heart of everything you do” means companies in all sorts of sectors now build these core principles into their commercial plans.

Of course, customer insight has kicked onto another level with personalised data and way more powerful tools to apply it.

Jumping up to date that’s why all business owners now talk about CRM systems, email marketing campaigns and social media as part of the day job.

It’s still the stuff that sits between brand marketing and a customer decision.

Managing it effectively and simply is sales enablement.

Is sales enablement part of marketing or sales?

This question has been posed with every iteration of sales and marketing thinking in the last 2-3 decades.

It’s often a question about reporting structures and organisation design.

Our take is that it doesn’t matter.

The team working on sales enablement will report either to sales or marketing. Whichever side they sit on, the critical success factor is that they have exceptional matrix management skills.

Your company creates brands. Your customer wants to buy solutions. Sales enablement is the translator between these two languages.

The activities that sit in sales enablement need to make it as simple and smooth as possible for customers to interpret and be excited by your brand messages.

What is sales enablement?

Sales enablement is the toolkit that makes it as simple as possible for your sales team to win deals.

It takes that fundamental business question: What am I selling and to whom?

And it adds another crucial level: How?

To take one example:

You might want to reach out to potential clients on LinkedIn. Without sales enablement your sales team will spend fruitless hours trying to connect with random connections, creating personal messages and hoping someone will “bite”

Sales enablement can help:

  • Prioritise which LinkedIn profiles you’re reaching out to
  • Automate initial contact messages to save sales teams’ time
  • Create standardised message templates so your sales team are working consistently
  • Set up email campaigns so “warm” contacts are encouraged to engage
  • Maintain a library of client case studies so contacts receive professionally crafted messaging
  • Monitor results and improve your sales process through large-scale data analysis

Is sales enablement all about automation?

This is an interesting question. If you run a tiny business with half a dozen clients it’s likely you’ll apply lots of sales enablement principles without heavyweight automation.

You probably prioritise where you spend your precious time, and you likely tailor your messaging to each one, tweaking each time to generate better results.

But today’s sales enablement industry is based on doing this faster, quicker and at scale. And that implicitly means automation.

It’s for that reason that a substantial global industry has grown up around the software and processing tools that deliver sales enablement.

Again, a SME might achieve the basic principles with a simple CRM system and a Mailchimp account. But the bulk of the industry is in larger organisations delivering finely-tuned campaigns to clients.

That’s really where tools like Hubspot, Salesforce, Zoho or Seismic come into their own.

So the principles of sales enablement can be thought about manually, but you’re most likely to see it applied (and to gain most benefit) when it’s automated at scale.

Is sales enablement the same as sales training?

People have different views on this. For sure, you’ll need to train sales people if you want them to be effective in using the enablement tools available to them.

The range of skills needed is such that this might start as early as their induction and onboarding. Getting sales people up to speed as quickly as possible is good for morale and cost-effective.

So sales training is an important part of an effective enablement strategy, but just one part of it.

Often this is another question that’s secretly about budgets. Many companies have ring-fenced funds for sales training, knowing it usually delivers a strong ROI.

That’s an incentive for the current budget holder to keep their hands on it, whether it sits with HR or sales.

Once again, the most important thing here is ensuring that there’s effective cross-team delivery of sales training needs.

It doesn’t really matter where the budget sits. But if your sales team need to boost their skills in say, time management, lead conversion and negotiation, then those three training goals need to be built into one coordinated learning programme, not delivered as haphazard interventions. Read more about whether your business needs sales training.

What’s the future of sales enablement?

It’s quite fun to speculate what might happen here.

Marketing and sales alignment is always going to be a critical touchpoint in commercial success.

An organisation must focus on what it’s brilliant at, whether that’s brand, service or product.

Customers want to buy solutions (or in some cases, dreams).

And aligning marketing and sales to deliver this customer journey smoothly will determine the success or failure of most organisations.

It’s always been critical and always will be.

If you’re interested in finding out more about sales enablement then the big global tech providers have detailed resources on their websites. Our favourites are Hubspot and Highspot.

These big global corporations are invested in the future of sales enablement as an industry.

But it’s our bet that in a decade from now it’ll have been reinvented with a new name!

What do you think?