What is Sales Enablement?

Sales Enablement Defined

Sales enablement isn’t the latest tech cure for inefficient sales operations and marketing management. And even though its guiding principle is a laser-sharp focus on the customer, sales enablement encompasses much more than useful “buyer-first” sales methodologies like CustomerCentric Selling.

Instead, sales enablement is a strategic approach, involving not just Sales and Marketing but also people from other functional areas like Customer support and Field Services. When implemented effectively, sales enablement equips an organization’s sellers with the necessary tools and resources, especially informative and educational content, to engage buyers. The payoff? An interactive, dare we say, enjoyable experience for buyers that also helps sellers shorten the long sales cycles typical of purchases in B2B and in high-end consumer goods, resulting in increased revenue.

mobile sales enablement

Analyst definitions of sales enablement


A Brief History of Sales Enablement

History of sales enablementSales enablement didn’t suddenly wash up like a life raft on our shores. We’re still waiting for the definitive history on sales enablement, but we can trace its origins to 1999. That’s when John Aiello, a former brand manager at Miller Brewing Company, and Drew Larsen, a telecommunications consultant, began touting a new strategic approach to sales operations and sales management.

Aiello and Larsen’s goal was to clean up long-standing problems that have plagued sellers for decades, such as:

  • Incomplete and inconsistent messages across functional areas, especially Sales and Marketing
  • Unrepeatable sales processes
  • Lack of accurate and easy-to-access sales tools, including product information
  • Poor insight into customers and their behavior

Sales enablement consultants and sales trainers made gradual inroads with early adopters, but it wasn’t until the 2010s that interest in the concept really took off. As more organizations became eager to implement sales enablement, software vendors developed technology to corral the volumes of data buyers and sellers generated. Analysts used reporting tools to make sense of that data to provide sellers with insights that help improve their interactions with leads and prospects.

Word spread as sales analysts were joined by tech analysts at firms like Forrester, Gartner, IDC and SiriusDecisions. In 2013, the Sales Enablement Society was born, anointing sales enablement as a profession.

In a recent study, CSO Insights showed that 60% of sales organizations “have a dedicated person, program or function for sales enablement.” From 2005 to 2015, the number of vendors offering sales enablement solutions doubled, creating a $700 million market that’s predicted to hit $5 billion by 2021.

Why Do Companies Implement Sales Enablement?

Today, implementing sales enablement is indispensable because buyers expect their commercial interactions to mirror their day-to-day, personal experiences in today’s digital and mobile.


The Buyer Seller Relationship

The proliferation of digital — and in particular, mobile devices — has turned the buyer/seller relationship inside out. Cisco estimates that the number of connected devices worldwide will reach 50 billion by 2020 — amazing when you consider that earth is home to 7.4 billion people. That’s about 6.7 devices per person!

Buyers have hijacked the sales process by researching every nuance of a product or service online before talking with a salesperson. In many cases, especially when a buyer has investigated a niche product by a company that offers a wealth of options, the buyer may be more informed than the seller. Clearly, the times they are changing.

Learn more about the how sales enablement effects the buyer journey

In B2B, it’s unheard of for a single person to handle a big-ticket purchase like a new payroll platform. Although an executive usually approves purchases, everyone from managers and users to technical experts and finance people may be involved. According to IDC, today’s average sale relies on more than eight decision makers.

Understanding buyer behavior has always been tough, but in the absence of sales enablement strategy, it’s wildly unpredictable. Today, implementing sales enablement is indispensable because buyers expect their commercial interactions to mirror their day-to-day, personal experiences in today’s digital and mobile universe.

Buyer Seller Timeline

Aligning Sales and Marketing

Historically, Sales and Marketing worked in silos. Sales managed all sales operations, including prospecting, presenting, pitching and closing. Across the aisle, Marketing worked on attracting potential buyers from the total addressable market. Typical activities included creating collateral, developing go-to-market strategies, planning and executing product launches and campaigns, and presenting at trade shows.

Marketing traditionally has owned the top of the funnel (TOFU), the earliest stages in the buyer/seller relationship, which focus on generating awareness of the company’s product category. Using a marketing automation system like Marketo, Oracle Marketing Cloud (formerly Eloqua) or HubSpot, marketers tracked online shoppers’ activities, especially patterns of content consumption, and nurtured relationships with those who responded to subsequent content offerings. From this pool, Marketing identified marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and passed these MQLs to Sales.

The bottom of the funnel (BOFU) was (and still is) the sales operation’s domain. Sales reps used criteria, such as budget, decision-making authority and severity of need, to identify promising leads and upgraded them to prospects. To move prospects closer to purchase, Sales provided more product-focused content to those who showed the most interest, either by sending the content directly to buyers via email or via the company’s marketing automation system when triggered by an event (e.g., a buyer downloading a particular piece of content or signing up for a newsletter).

Sales funnel graphic

From there, sales reps contacted the best opportunities from this more exclusive pool for live demos or question-and-answer sessions, and depending on the product, offered free trials or discounts. And, of course, Sales brought home the bacon by converting some of these opportunities into paying customers.

Because marketing automation systems captured the digital fingerprints left by buyers consuming all this content, the inbound model afforded previously unavailable visibility into buyer behaviors and actions. By the early 2010s, the new era of data-driven marketing was in full swing. Nevertheless, Sales and Marketing still lacked alignment, and glaring inefficiencies in the selling process remained.

In today’s digital and mobile world, content, which usually is produced by Marketing, is the new currency. As a result, it’s no surprise that some of the biggest issues Sales has with Marketing center on content creation, access and distribution.

Such problems mean sales reps waste too many cycles scouring their intranet for meaningful content assets or force them to create their own assets and tailor them to their targets’ needs. Not only does this result in some off-message content, it also takes sales reps away from what they do best: spending time in the company of buyers and selling.


Intelligent Onboarding, Learning And Coaching

Sales Enablement Onboarding, Learning, and TrainingSales enablement’s dynamic approach to content marketing is also revolutionizing training. No sales rep can possibly memorize every detail of his or her ever-evolving product line, a rapidly changing marketplace and continuously emerging regulations. For the same reason, physicians are required to take continuing education classes regularly to keep with the never-ending developments in science and medicine. Salespeople who constantly reinforce their general knowledge and can summon the right information with a couple clicks or swipes will be well-prepared to answer their buyers’ questions.

The key for salespeople to become revenue-generating superheroes is to supplement their formal classroom learning with adaptive, intelligent training. Such training is delivered dynamically and in the context of each stage of the buyer’s journey, enabling salespeople to educate buyers about what they need to know whenever and wherever they want.

The main class of technology that companies have used since the 1990s is the learning management system (LMS). Many sales enablement platforms also offer informal training delivery capabilities. The LMS is dedicated to creating, hosting and delivering training. Most manage structured training courses and some more dynamic, informal training. Because they’re web-based, remote salespeople can use LMS systems to take classes on a desktop or via a web browser.

The benefits of these platforms for salespeople are many and include:

  • Micro-learning: Because sales reps are road warriors, there’s no such thing as down time. They’re expected to be always in front of buyers or prepping for the next sales meeting. By breaking down longer classes into bite-sized modules, these platforms let reps learn whenever they can steal a free moment: on the plane, train or bus, during lunch, in between meetings, and for retail associates, any time they’re on the floor but not in the company of customers. It’s convenient, fast and efficient.
  • Just in Time (JIT) training: Change is the only thing in life you can count on: new product launches, product updates, promotional campaigns, bug fixes, new regulations, compliance changes, selling into a new market in a new language. Did the CTO you’re meeting with in an hour suddenly ask you for technical specs on a new product he never expressed interest in before? No problem. If your sales training team has developed a training module for that product, you’ll find it quickly on an app on your smartphone or tablet
  • Push publication with Adaptive Intelligence: Powered by AI, these platforms identify what training is most likely to help you improve your product and industry knowledge or selling skills. AI uses machine learning to constantly deepen its understanding of what you need to progress in your job or career. It also recommends in a moment’s notice what material you need to master to further the conversation with a buyer, such as an up-to-date mini-class on the tech specs and use cases for your company’s new circuit boards. Drawing from data such as your detailed profile, intel on the buyer you’re scheduled to meet with and the segment you sell to, the platform learns what you need and pushes it to the training app on your mobile device as a recommended module. Click the module and let the learning begin.
  • Coaching and collaboration: New reps often shadow a sales star to learn the ropes. These relationships often continue after this learning phase, but the new sales rep at some point leaves the nest for good. Most sales enablement automation platforms enable senior salespeople to continue mentoring newer reps by letting them record video or audio modules, which also can be used by other reps to sharpen their skills and boost their knowledge. Some of the more advanced platforms offer video coaching with full workflow for feedback from trainers, managers and other key members of the organization. This capability supports team selling. With this increasingly popular sales approach, multiple reps are involved to accelerate a large deal or to reactivate buyers who have delayed their decisions. In the near future, look for real-time chats and texts among members of selling teams as they partner to land highly sought after customers.
  • Training formats galore: Millennials are the fastest growing age group in the workforce. Sales enablement automation platforms let training developers create modules and entire courses in formats today’s workers consume in their everyday lives like video, audio and HTML5 apps.

Sales Enablement Best Practices

Create a Sales Enablement Charter

Sales enablement charter quote
Start by assessing the current state of your marketing efforts and sales operations and then create a vision for what they will look like after implementing sales enablement. In the charter, specify your revenue goal and sales objectives along with who is responsible for what.

  • Target groups: Who do your sales channels and partners sell to today?
  • Vision, mission and purpose: Define these three elements and jointly come up with an emotional tagline that captures the urgency and spirit of your efforts.
  • Objectives, strategies and roadmap: Map your current state of Sales and Marketing and what the future state will look like with sales enablement.
  • Services and metrics: What services do Sales and Marketing provide to each other, and how will you measure them?

To the above, we recommend including a shared process for determining which team members in Sales and Marketing are responsible for creating content. Ideally everyone in Sales and Marketing will have a hand in content development. Typically, content creation is a core skill in the toolkits of marketers. Today it’s imperative, though, to actively involve sales reps because every day they are talking to buyers and relying heavily on relevant content when selling to them.

Clearly define what sales reps’ role in the content creation will be, including:

  • Building and continually refining their content creation skills via training and workshops
  • Authoring their own content assets such as presentations, demo scripts and implementation roadmaps
  • Reviewing material produced by SMEs from other areas such as Software Development, Field Engineering and Customer Support
  • Committing to regular interviews with full-time creators to transfer information from the field
  • Forging an agreement that specifies how often creators may accompany reps on sales calls or meetings to harvest real-world intel

After completing the first version of your charter, publish it and promote it throughout the company, and ensure it’s always top of mind for everybody in Sales and Marketing. Hold a company-wide kickoff to inspire enthusiasm. You don’t have to print slick T-shirts for the masses, but make the charter easy for any employee to access online and create handouts people can tack to their walls or tape to their systems.

To sustain momentum, regular team meetings between Sales and Marketing are a must. Give this joint committee an easy-to-remember name such as the Sales and Marketing, or SAM, team. In the first few months following kickoff, commit to weekly SAM meetings. As the relationship progresses, settle on a less frequent cadence, maybe once or twice a month. (Warning: Meeting less than once per month puts your initiative at risk of failure.)


Choose a Sales Enablement Manager

If you haven’t done so already, pick someone to be the sales enablement manager or lead. This can’t be the project sponsor or champion, though, because that person already oversees an important functional area. Ideally the sales enablement manager will have experience working in both Sales and Marketing. In which department that person makes his or her home is less important than his or her background, skills and passion for the role.

Sales enablement manager

One of the greatest rewards of Sales and Marketing alignment is the joint production of engaging content. Informed by both departments, co-created content is a powerful tool in engaging buyers at every step of the sales process. Compelling, useful content forges a natural, powerful and beneficial connection among buyers, Sales and Marketing. Additionally, jointly developed content serves as the cornerstone of Account-Based Marketing (ABM). To further its ABM efforts, the SAM team shares customer data and intel to tailor hyper-personalized messages and campaigns to buyers in the highest value accounts within its
target market.


Develop Buyer Personas

Buyer personas are composites of actual buyers that bring the abstract nature of potential customers into sharper focus and serve as handy reference tools for marketers and sellers. Marketers usually begin developing personas by creating profiles that cover attributes like demographics, education, organizational role and job responsibilities.

Buyer Persona Example

To these profiles, they add a picture (often a stock photo) and invent a name, first and last, to breathe life into their characters. The objective is to paint portraits of your buyers that you’ll think of as real, flesh-and-blood people instead of generic buyers. If it helps, think of them as your new imaginary friends. The exercise of developing personas allows you to a walk a mile in your buyers’ shoes.

The best way to gain a deeper understanding of buyers’ motivations is to talk with buyers — not your paying customers. People who may be thinking about buying from you, those you think should be buying from you and those who bought from competitors. Some sales reps can be very protective of their contacts, so leverage the newfound cred you’ve gained by aligning Sales and Marketing. If you’re leading the persona charge, get together with your sales reps and agree on a process for interviewing buyers that won’t ruffle your reps’ feathers.

Download the full guide to find out what to ask during the interview and FAQs

Composing personas is a creative, collaborative endeavor. While fun, it also can be labor-intensive and frustrating for your SAM team until you’ve done it enough to come up with a repeatable process. The effort’s well worth it, though: persona development informs and fuels the personalized, one-to-one buyer/seller relationships today’s connected, empowered buyers expect.


Think Strategically: Content Without Context is Fluff

Devising a content marketing strategy requires thorough research and planning and thoughtful implementation. It can be daunting if you haven’t developed a strategy yet. Fortunately, there is a wealth of online sources, including free tutorials, booklets and templates, that can that can guide you through this process. We recommend several excellent ones in our resources section.

Below are a few guidelines to help you think more strategically about content marketing:

  • Know your buyer intimately: When creating new content or updating existing assets, draw heavily from your buyer personas, input from sale reps on buyers, especially those working in the field, and data from buyer activities captured via your marketing automation or CRM system. Use this information to help predict buyers’ wants, needs and pain points.
  • Document what buyers need during each step of the journey: Consider your buyers in the context of each stage in the buying process. Anticipate the most important questions they will ask and make that the basis for developing every piece of content. As a prospect moves further down the funnel, make content increasingly more personalized.
  • Pay close attention to buyers’ content consumption habits: Draw on your intel to ensure buyers can consume each content asset in the way they expect. If your reporting shows an upward trend in reading analyst reports on smartphones, make sure to optimize those reports for responsiveness on the widest range of mobile devices.
  • Set a clear goal for your content marketing strategy: Clearly define the value and utility you want to provide to leads, prospects and opportunities through your organization’s content program.