Sales Enablement Defined
“Sales enablement is the process of making sales teams able to efficiently move customers through the sales process to the point where the customer can make a buying decision.”
So, what is sales enablement, anyway? Sales enablement isn’t a high-tech cure for inefficient sales and marketing teams. And even though sales enablement is defined by a laser-sharp focus on the customer, it’s important to understand that the strategy is more than an embrace of “buyer-first” sales methodologies like customer-centric selling or buyer enablement.
Instead, the best way to think about Sales Enablement is as a strategy involving 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 buyers.
A Brief History of Sales Enablement
Sales enablement didn’t suddenly show up on our doorstep at some point within the past decade; it’s actually been around 20+ years, evolving alongside the technology used on the job. And while we’re still waiting on a definitive timeline, 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, 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 estimated to hit the $5 billion mark by 2021.
As we come forward to the modern day, it is worth noting that SiriusDecisions identified the future evolution of Sales Enablement as Revenue Enablement. Revenue Enablement amplifies and broadens the scope of Sales Enablement across all customer facing roles with a deeper focus on putting the customer, not the seller, at the center.
Sales Enablement Components
Organizations need to curate, create, and deliver content to their sales teams while also being able to measure the impact of content on the deal cycle.
Traditionally, marketing owned the early stages of the buyer’s journey — creating awareness, generating demand, and nurturing relationships with potential buyers before identifying marketing qualified leads (MQLs) and passing them on to sales.
Sales and marketing content began with printed pamphlets and hefty paper catalogs and then evolved to PowerPoint presentations, which once felt fresh and modern.
Today, many people expect interactive content delivered in the context of the buyer’s journey. Think videos, podcasts, social media, websites, games, and online demos and tutorials, all optimized to help buyers find answers to their business problems, available in real-time and on any device.
A tight alignment between marketing and sales is key to creating the right content that resonates with customers.
The results of an aligned approach? Marketing influences revenue growth like never before, sales operations become more efficient, and other departments help contribute to revenue.
Today, buyers have much higher expectations of salespeople due to the high degree of information available about products online. As a result, sellers don’t just have to be experts on their products, but also have to understand the customer’s industry and how their company operates.
Sellers can then uncover the customer’s pain points and craft a custom pitch on how they can address them.
Becoming a “trusted advisor” over a traditional seller leads to more won deals, but without proper training and coaching, sellers tend to fall short of that role.
Formal, structured sales training — courseware and classes — were once industry standards for bringing new reps up to speed and sharpening veteran sellers’ skills.
In some situations, this approach still works well. However, the majority of the time, something different is required. Why? One good reason is that 87% of training content is forgotten within 30 days.
Modern learning approaches and platforms build in active reinforcement, often at the time and place of need, and in short bursts, using content referred to as microlearning.
Along with these approaches, adaptive learning provides dynamically curated learning content based upon your current activities, entropic knowledge, and other AI-driven understanding. Not only does it help with reinforcement, but also with effectiveness as sellers receive the training in the moment of need.
However, training alone isn’t a complete solution. Sales coaching must also play a role in an effective sales development program. Programs and tools are needed to deliver individualized education to staff working in the office and remotely.
Video sales coaching, combined with deep AI and robust analytics to support managers and sellers alike, enhanced with gamification to bring out the competitiveness amongst sellers, is now table stakes.
What does all of this mean in practice?
Sellers can access information quickly and put it into practice, much like Googling a short tutorial for a recipe or quick home repair.
Ongoing, informal training that feels more like a YouTube video than a chapter from a textbook helps sellers develop the skills they need just-in-time to meet with prospects.
Most sellers, especially those who are on the road all day (and even those who are not), use mobile devices to discover, compare, and buy products online and check out deals on the floors of retail stores. They expect their learning to be available on whatever devices they are using.
Every organization follows some type of sales process that defines how they qualify leads, prepare for a meeting, pitch, demo, and seal the deal. For those organizations that follow sales enablement best practices, Sales and Marketing work together to refine their sales playbooks, methodologies, processes and procedures, while getting a big assist from their MarTech stack. The stack tags, categorizes, and publishes that information company-wide so everyone can work from the same script.
While the definition of sales enablement focuses primarily on sales, both Sales and Marketing teams are the key players, here. That doesn’t mean they’re the only stakeholders involved, though. Customer support, field services, and channel partners are all invested in the sales enablement function — a process that shifts the focus on the customer to drive more revenue. In a way, sales enablement turns everyone in your organization into part of the sales team.
Achieving buy-in for sales enablement at the highest levels and implementing it across the organization is essential for bringing people together at every functional level — and securing the go-ahead for the sales enablement technology that makes this whole process work.
A sales enablement strategy boosts communication and collaboration across the company by tying together content, training, technology, processes — and, most importantly, people.
When an organization marshals all these components to underpin an overarching sales and marketing program, sellers gain the ability to provide the engaging customer experiences today’s connected and empowered buyers expect and demand.
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
The rise of mobile devices and access to reliable WiFi 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!
As a result of this massive global shift, 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
Historically, Sales and Marketing worked in silos, with no sales enablement metrics in place or even a good answer to the question, “What is sales enablement?”
Sales managed all sales operations, including prospecting, presenting, pitching, and closing. Across the aisle, Marketing worked on attracting potential buyers by running campaigns, creating collateral, developing go-to-market strategies, planning and executing product launches — 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 focus on generating awareness of the company’s product category.
Using a marketing automation system like Marketo, Oracle Marketing Cloud, 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.
At the bottom of the funnel (BOFU) sales runs the show. Traditionally, sellers relied on using a pre-defined 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.
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 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.
- Micro-learning: 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 Adaptive Intelligence: Powered by AI, 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.
Who’s Involved in Sales Enablement?
Sales Enablement Stakeholders
Sales enablement best practices every organization needs to know
Create a Sales Enablement Charter
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 brings 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 tracking 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 the persona 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 sale 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 Automation Platform?
Sales enablement automation platforms (SEAs) 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 SEA platforms are leveraging 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 content, these platforms automate or streamline training, coaching, collaboration, and onboarding.
Some organizations are even replacing their existing LMS platforms with more 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 an SEA:
The best SEAs enable content developers to easily upload and store content created in virtually any native format, by any third-party program. They also enable salespeople and marketers to edit assets in their native format directly from the sales enablement platform.
Formats include, but are not limited to: Audio, video, HTML pages and forms, HTML5 apps, PowerPoint-style presentations, documents such as Word and Google Docs, PDFs, spreadsheets, and animations.
When uploading content to the SEA, the user can organize content to ensure that the right content gets to the right user at the right time, making it easier on reps to follow sales enablement best practices while out in the field. Users can organize content and set permissions based on role, persona, stage of the customer’s journey, target device type, vertical (e.g., life sciences, banking, manufacturing, retail), regulations, compliance, location, or language. Advanced platforms may even use AI and machine learning to automate delivery and content recommendations.
Advanced SEAs leverage AI to recommend to salespeople and partners what content will be most relevant to them based on contextual variables like those described above as tagging attributes. Recommendations are a tremendous time-saver, freeing sales reps from endlessly searching for the most relevant content and enabling Marketing to push out the latest version of an asset to ensure its accuracy and applicability to the buyer or customer.
An SEA must include this powerful capability. Legacy solutions typically require reps to press a “sync” button or manually download content to their devices’ file systems. Leveraging AI, the SEA automatically pushes out the most relevant or recent version of an asset to sales reps and partners. Additionally, SEAs let marketers push out the most up-to-date assets manually.
SEAs enable content creators to control access down to the individual asset. Version control is one of the most important sales enablement best practices, as it allows organizations to ensure that messaging remains on-brand after marketing shares it with sales. Permissions are based on such variables as role, level in sales organization (e.g., junior, senior, manager, partner), regulation and compliance concerns, vertical, and target company.
Ideally, the SEA can push content to any device — including mobile devices, desktops, web browsers, and email — in real-time to support the rapidly changing needs of road warriors to keep them updated with the latest sales enablement best practices. Additionally, the SEA should provide both online and offline access to relevant content, as well as a seamless native experience on each device to that promotes SEA adoption by sales reps.
SEA apps must allow salespeople to modify content in its native format to respond immediately to change. For example, a rep may find out an hour before a presentation that a prospect’s director also will attend. The sales rep can quickly edit the presentation in PowerPoint or his or her chosen application to tailor it to the pain points of the additional attendee.
The SEA must recognize these events and log the content changes and new versions to the CMS via tagging powered by AI to prevent content duplication and confusion. Storing the data associated with this new version also allows AI to recommend and push that asset to other reps in similar selling situations.
Even with the AI recommendations and push publication, sales reps and partners still require fast and efficient browsing and search capabilities to achieve the best results from their sales enablement activities.
Sales enablement metrics like sales productivity and time spent selling measure the impact of automations and technology on selling success. While browsing and search may seem like small things, they make a big difference in making life easier on reps.
One of the most powerful content distribution methods combines AI recommendations and email templates. When a sales rep is interacting with a buyer, the SEA embeds recommended content in email messages to the buyer based on contextual variables.
Additionally, the SEA can provide recommendations to salespeople regarding what to embed in their messages based on variables such as the buyer’s last action taken, vertical, role, and stage in the journey.
SEAs must integrate seamlessly with the other technologies in the Martech stack for full picture reporting on your sales enablement metrics.
All buyer interactions with content must be logged to the CRM system to provide salespeople with a complete record of the buyer-seller relationship and journey. SEA platforms must integrate with marketing automations systems to trigger processes such as email nurturing campaigns or social media-based lead gen efforts. You’ll also want to connect your sales enablement platform with your CMS to ensure that content is delivered immediately and accurately across the content delivery network and internet.
Data is Sales and Marketing’s best friend. All of a buyer or customer’s interactions with content must be recorded and saved to paint the most detailed picture of buyers and their activities and behaviors. Analyzing and reporting on this data provides Sales and Marketing previously unmatched insights into buyers, customers, and accounts targeted via ABM programs.
Additionally, this data is used by AI to make recommendations based on contextual clues. Again, all this data must be logged to the CRM system to provide salespeople with a complete record of the buyer-seller relationship.