What is sales enablement?
Sales Enablement Defined
Sales enablement is the process of making customer-facing teams able to efficiently move buyers through the sales process to the point where they can make the best buying decision.
The best sales enablement strategy involves not only sales and marketing, but all customer-facing roles. This includes customer support, field services, and in a less direct way, the human resources and IT teams that implement the training programs and technology needed to drive initiatives forward.
At its core, sales enablement equips those in customer-facing roles with the necessary tools and materials to effectively engage with clients and prospects.
Sales enablement has evolved from a focus on sales content management to a comprehensive, go-to-market approach with solutions developing in tandem to meet changing needs. Complete sales enablement platforms and strategies now include sales coaching and training, conversation intelligence, document automation, AI recommendations, communications, and in some cases, extended reality technology.
The core principles of sales enablement
Sales enablement is an ever-evolving industry, but through it all, the core principles have held:
- Focus on the business needs and align your activities to achieve those goals.
- Buy-in from the top is critical to the success of your program.
- Enablement is a form of change management, and you must apply change management principles to be successful.
- Collaboration and alignment across sales, marketing, and product teams will always lead to more considerable, more strategic outcomes.
- Qualitative and quantitative data provide guidance on where to focus and the effectiveness of your efforts.
These principles have always been core to successfully delivering on strategic goals and projects, and are likely to always be true.
While these core principles have not changed, the tactics have changed in many cases. The shift to remote work, the emphasis on demonstrated business outcomes and value, and the more in-depth focus on existing customers have all led to tactical and strategic changes impacting today’s Enablement teams.
A strategic, cross-functional discipline designed to increase sales results and productivity by providing integrated content, training, and coaching services for salespeople and frontline sales managers along the entire customer’s journey powered by technology.
At SiriusDecisions, we define sales enablement in terms of the end result. The end goal is to make sure sales reps have the right knowledge, skills, and process expertise with access to the best assets to maximize ever buyer interaction.
Sales Enablement makes sure buyers are engaged at the right time and place, and with the right assets by well-trained client-facing staff to provide a world-class experience along the customer’s journey… Sales Enablement optimizes the selling motion in order to increase pipeline, move opportunities forward and win bigger deals more efficiently to drive profitable growth.
A brief history of sales enablement
Sales enablement didn’t suddenly show up on our doorstep. It’s been around for 20+ years, evolving alongside technology. We can trace its origins back to 1999.
That’s when John Aiello, a former brand manager at Miller Brewing Company, and Drew Larsen, a telecommunications consultant, joined forces around a 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:
- Inconsistent messaging across sales and marketing functions
- 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 best practices, software vendors began developing technology to make sense of the large 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 | SiriusDecisions, Gartner, IDC and Aragon Research. In 2013, the Sales Enablement Society was born, officially establishing sales enablement as a profession.
A recent survey conducted by Forrester and the Sales Enablement Society found 75% of B2B sales organizations have a dedicated sales enablement function, which will continue to grow. The market has seen rapid expansion since 2005, with a massive increase in investment and development occurring in the past five years alone. With interest in sales enablement on a steady upward trend, the market is estimated to hit the $30 billion mark by 2026.
What’s new in 2022
The shift to remote work caused by the pandemic changed the sales enablement landscape, with a flurry of consolidations and innovations taking place over a brief period of time. As we transition to a post-pandemic environment, there are three prevailing trends influencing the sales enablement market in 2022:
- Laying the groundwork for permanent remote selling
- Reducing employee attrition with better onboarding and everboarding practices
- The unified sales enablement platform approach
Let’s examine a few of the changes.
Remote training, coaching, and selling is the new norm
Since 2020, enablement teams have had to determine how to provide all of their services remotely, from onboarding to training to content delivery and more. In 2022, it has become clear that remote sales training and remote selling are here to stay with most workplaces maintaining remote or hybrid models going forward.
Here is a quick look at these key areas that have been impacted by the shift to remote and an overview of how tactics have changed. Throughout this guide, we will go into more detail on these topics.
Remote sales coaching has taken over
No longer a “nice to have” or side feature of enablement platforms, Aragon Research has declared sales coaching and learning (SCL) a market unto itself in their 2021 Globe for Sales Coaching and Learning.
Aragon cites the new work environment as the cause for the increased demand for “more investment in daily learning and coaching,” saying, “Enterprises that do not have an SCL offering are often at a disadvantage because it forces sales managers to play the role of both coach, manager, and trainer—often all at the same time.”
While there have been several changes to the execution of coaching during the past couple of years, the growing importance of three technologies must be discussed. These solutions enable the delivery of structured coaching at scale across the Enterprise.
Live Meeting software like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Engagement Hub provide coaches and managers a way to replicate the unstructured sales coaching that is often the norm.
Video-based sales coaching with AI and peer feedback
Video-based sales coaching software that combines peer and AI feedback provides structured learning capabilities in an asynchronous manner. These tools are especially critical in the remote world driven by the pandemic, but will only grow in importance as the mix of in-office, remote, and road warrior working styles get fully engaged back in the economy.
Conversational intelligence tools such as Gong, Chorus, and Voice Vibes provide the ability to turn every customer-facing conversation into a coachable moment. This is a must-have for today’s enablement organizations.
Higher emphasis on remote sales onboarding and training
One of the primary roles performed by enablement teams is the training of new hires and existing staff. For many companies, these training and onboarding activities have long included remote aspects, but a relatively small percentage of companies were delivering these services entirely remotely.
The most considerable challenges that teams have had to overcome include:
- Delivering effective onboarding and everboarding that sets team members up for success and helps reduce employee churn amidst the Great Resignation or Reshuffle
- Delivering training in smaller chunks that are easier to digest and easier to use for reinforcement of specific skills and knowledge
Microlearning courses and adaptive learning paths are growing in popularity and are important for enablement organizations to leverage in order to meet individual needs.
The unified sales enablement platform
Sales and other customer-facing roles require an increasing number of software applications to perform their tasks — especially when working remotely. With “app fatigue” on the rise, there is a growing requirement for complete sales enablement platforms with diverse offerings that cover the full spectrum of functionalities, including:
- Content management
- Onboarding, training, and coaching
- Conversation intelligence
- Communication tools
- Meeting and engagement tools
- Analytics and reporting
- Integration with CRM and existing systems
- New and emerging technologies like AR and VR
The ability for team members to access their entire toolbox from one convenient, native location ensures high adoption rates of sales enablement tools. Many enablement software providers have risen to the task, expanding their offerings from specialty content or coaching solutions to comprehensive platforms that include all of the core capabilities plus experimental and emerging features.
Components of sales enablement
Benefits of sales enablement
Today, implementing sales enablement gives organizations a flexible framework for keeping up with consumer expectations. Buyers want commercial interactions to mirror their daily experiences with consumer brands and digital media.
Sales enablement best practices center on a new buyer-seller relationship
Buyers are now in control of the buyer’s journey and spend a considerable amount of time researching every nuance of a product or service online before reaching out to a salesperson.
As a result, buyers may end up more informed than the seller themselves, particularly in niche markets with complex solutions like B2B technology, medical equipment, or IT solutions. This means that salespeople must deliver something that buyers can’t easily find themselves through a quick Google search.
Another major shift in the buyer-seller relationship is the number of stakeholders involved in every purchasing decision. In B2B, it’s unheard of for a single person to handle a big-ticket purchase themselves. Something like a new payroll platform or finding a managed IT service provider typically involves everyone from managers and finance to technical experts and execs. 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 the right strategy and the sales enablement metrics that allow teams to measure success, developing a repeatable, scalable process is challenging. Still, implementing a sales enablement strategy is essential for any organization that expects to compete in the current selling landscape. Buyers expect their commercial interactions to mirror their day-to-day digital experiences — which means even B2Bs need to provide easy-to-use, personalized, mobile-friendly solutions to attract and retain customers.
Sales enablement best practices also set the stage for marketing and sales alignment
Despite best efforts to improve, Sales and Marketing still tend to work in silos, with no sales enablement metrics in place or even a good answer to the question, “What is sales enablement?”
Sales manages all sales operations, including prospecting, presenting, pitching, and closing. Across the aisle, Marketing works on attracting potential buyers by running campaigns, creating collateral, developing go-to-market strategies, planning and executing product launches — often without including sales teams in the process.
Marketing traditionally has owned the top of the funnel (TOFU), the earliest stages in the buyer/seller relationship, which focuses on generating awareness of the company’s product category and passing marketing qualified leads (MQLs) to Sales.
At the bottom of the funnel (BOFU) sales runs the show. Traditionally, sellers relied on using a predefined set of criteria — budget, decision-making authority, and severity of need — to target qualified leads and turn them into customers. To help push prospects over the finish line, sales teams would provide product-focused content to those who showed the most interest, either by email following a meeting or sales call, or using the company’s marketing automation system to follow up after a triggering event like an e-book download or estimate request.
Because marketing automation systems captured the digital fingerprints left as a result of buyers consuming content, marketers suddenly gained way more insights into buyer behavior and actions, and by the early 2010s, a new era of data-driven marketing was in full swing.
Despite the rise of inbound marketing and big data, marketing and sales were far from being in alignment and had yet to learn the meaning of sales enablement and its potential to transform sales and marketing into an efficient, revenue-generating machine. In today’s digital and mobile world, content, which usually is produced by Marketing, is the new currency. It’s no surprise that some of the biggest issues Sales has with Marketing center on content creation, access, and distribution.
This sales-to-marketing flow we’ve just described is a familiar one we still use today. However, without a process in place that defines sales enablement, marketing teams and reps struggle with the same old problems.
Reps spend too much time searching for content and often end up creating their own assets and tailoring them to their targets’ needs. Not only does this mean that sellers often provide prospects with off-message content, but it also takes them away from their actual job — connecting with buyers. It also means existing marketing content goes untouched, essentially wasting countless hours on content creation.
Let intelligent onboarding, learning, and coaching define the sales enablement strategy
Sales enablement’s dynamic approach to content marketing is also revolutionizing training. No sales rep can possibly memorize every detail of their 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 up with industry developments. Salespeople who constantly reinforce their general knowledge and can summon the right information with a couple of clicks or swipes will be well-prepared to answer their buyers’ questions.
One of the main things that defines sales enablement is a process for turning reps into revenue-generating superheroes. You’ll need to supplement their formal classroom learning with adaptive, intelligent training delivered dynamically, based on the context of each stage of the buyer’s journey. Done right, salespeople are well-prepared to educate buyers and prepare customized presentations that connect with a unique set of goals and pain points.
Since the 1990s, organizations have relied on a class of technology known as learning management systems (LMS) to train their workforce. The problem with many LMS programs is, while they support online, self-guided learning, they lack the immediacy and portability you’d find with consumer-grade apps, making it hard to stick to the sales enablement best practices that lead to optimal performance.
Many sales enablement platforms also offer informal training delivery capabilities, much like the traditional LMS, which is dedicated to creating, hosting, and delivering training materials. The difference between these two solutions is today’s sales enablement tools are designed for anywhere mobile access and support content on par with the apps we use every day.
Because many sales enablement metrics focus on learning success, it only makes sense to bring the LMS and sales enablement platform together. Here are some of the benefits you’ll see when these two processes join forces.
- Microlearning: Sales reps are road warriors, which means downtime isn’t a thing. Sellers are expected to be always in front of buyers or getting ready for the next big meeting. By breaking longer classes into bite-sized modules, sales enablement platforms allow reps to learn any time there’s a spare moment. Whether they’re on a flight, waiting in line, or in between meetings, mobile microlearning sessions allow them to make the most out of those minutes-long moments.
- Just-in-time (JIT) training: In sales, as in life, the only constant is change. New product launches, updates, promotional campaigns, bug fixes, as well as compliance requirements and an evolving regulatory environment complicate the sales game. Did the CTO you’re meeting in an hour request technical specs on a product he’s never mentioned before? No problem. Sales enablement software allows training teams to prepare reps for anything. In this case, the rep can search for a training module for that product from any device and deliver the information needed without missing a beat.
- Push publication with AI: Powered by adaptive intelligence, sales enablement platforms identify which training materials are most likely to help you level up your product knowledge, industry insights, or selling skills. Machine-learning technology gets to know users over time and can deliver content that builds on previously completed lessons. It can also make guided selling recommendations based on past successes with similar prospects, pulled from lessons covering tech specs or presentations known to do well with this customer segment.
- Coaching and collaboration reinforce sales enablement best practices: New reps frequently shadow top-performers who can show them the ropes. These relationships often continue after the initial onboarding, but after a certain point, the new rep leaves the nest for good. Sales enablement platforms allow senior reps to mentor newer reps using video or audio recordings as they learn the meaning of sales enablement in the context of daily activities.Reps can sharpen their skills by uploading video pitches or other sales strategies, while mentors can offer feedback to help them fine-tune their skills. Additionally, many platforms support video coaching with full workflow for input from trainers, managers, and peers, creating a collaborative learning environment. This team coaching approach is especially useful for deals where multiple reps work together to land a large deal or to reactivate buyers who have delayed their decisions.
- Training formats galore: Millennials are the fastest-growing demographic in today’s workforce, with Gen Z entering right behind them. Sales enablement automation platforms let training developers create modules and entire courses in formats that give workers who grew up online materials that cater to how they consume content in their everyday lives like video, audio, and HTML5 apps.
The ROI of content
Did you know that, on average, more than 60% of all content you develop for sales goes unused? That’s right, you are wasting thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars creating content that no one ever uses.
And now, your boss, the CFO, and the CEO are starting to ask why and what the ROI of your work is. If they are not asking you, they are at least thinking about why you need the budget you have and considering how they reduce it.
Enablement teams, armed with great technology, have the opportunity to identify how to better utilize that budget towards creating content that the customer-facing team is using, of course, but also content that has an impact in the field, leading to sales, reduction of risk, and lowering the churn of customers.
Document automation, once a tool only PhDs with massive amounts of computing power could leverage, is now able to be effectively used by customer-facing teams in minutes while sitting with a customer in person or remotely.
Furthermore, it can be used to automate the creation of complex reports in industries like Financial Services, where content creation has always been expensive and slow due to data complexity, compliance challenges, and more.
Beyond simply measuring the ROI of the content being created, sales enablement teams need to identify what content is needed, and the impact on available selling time based upon teams wasting time hunting for content and/or creating personalized/customized decks.
Industry averages show sellers spend only about 33% of their time selling, the rest is wasted on areas such as the above and on various other administrative tasks.
In one situation, we spoke with an organization whose teams were only spending about 27% of their time selling, and, through Enablement focused on this challenge, raised the selling time far higher than industry averages, nearing 60%.
Sales enablement stakeholders
Sales enablement best practices
Create a sales enablement charter
The percentage of salespeople achieving quota at organizations with a formal sales enablement charter stands at 73.6%. The average quota attainment across the study was 57.7% and this represents 27.6% improvement.
Start by assessing the current state of your marketing efforts and sales operations. You’ll want to then come up with a list of what you hope to gain by implementing a sales enablement strategy. In the charter, outline your revenue goals and sales objectives, and define sales enablement KPIs that represent success in your organization.
- 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 sales enablement metrics: What services do Sales and Marketing provide to each other, and how will you measure them?
We also 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. Though content creation is traditionally a marketer’s skill, it’s important to come up with a plan for involving sales reps. After all, they talk to buyers every day and can offer specific examples from real customers that bring more value to your content.
Clearly define sales enablement tasks that give reps a framework for participating in the content creation process. These tasks might include the following:
- 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 to ensure efforts are tracked with key sales enablement metrics. 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. What is a sales enablement manager? This role is all about managing and supporting the sales enablement best practices defined in your charter. Ideally, the sales enablement manager comes from a marketing AND sales background, bringing with them an understanding of both perspectives. This shouldn’t be the project sponsor or champion, because this person already oversees an important functional area.
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 as a joint effort between marketing and sales
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.
To these profiles, they add a picture (often a stock photo) and come up with a name, job description, goals, challenges, and pain points to breathe life into their characters. The objective is to paint portraits of your buyers that you’ll think of as actual people instead of generic buyers. If it helps, think of them as your new imaginary friends. The exercise of developing personas allows you to walk a mile in your buyers’ shoes and from there define a sales enablement strategy that speaks to their personal experience.
The best way to gain a deeper understanding of buyers’ motivations is to talk with buyers — not your paying customers. Look at 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 during alignment of 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.
Here’s the thing: Buyer personas are not exactly fictional characters. They draw on marketing insights such as audience analytics pulled from social media channels, as well as on-site behavioral patterns, engagement with past campaigns, and so on. Adding sales’ anecdotal data to the big picture data from marketing allows teams to build better personas that represent their actual buyers.
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.
Sales enablement best practices for putting content into context
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. Gather input from sales reps on buyers — especially from reps working in the field — and pull 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.
What is a sales enablement platform?
Sales enablement platforms (SEPs) help companies implement, scale, and execute their sales enablement strategies. In keeping with the true meaning of sales enablement, these platforms aim to help sellers move prospects through each stage of the buyer’s journey more efficiently.
They enable content management, including tasks such as the creation, updating, and customization of content and the automation of its delivery. Increasingly, SEPs leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to recommend the most relevant content to salespeople and potential buyers based on the stage of the buyer’s journey.
In addition to sales and marketing collateral, these platforms automate or streamline training, coaching, collaboration, communication and onboarding.
Some organizations are even replacing their existing LMS with more modern, comprehensive sales enablement platforms, many of which can import LMS coursework or content from other third-party training creation programs. Here’s a look at some of the key capabilities that should be included in a SEP: