Getting Serious About Sales Force Enablement

tsw-october-coverThis interview, conducted by Jonathan Farrington, CEO of Top Sales World with my colleague Jim Dickie and myself, was initially produced for the October issue of Top Sales Magazine.

Jonathan: Tamara, may I begin by asking you to share your definition of “Sales Enablement?”

Tamara: Yes, of course. At CSO Insights, we define sales force enablement as 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.”

Jonathan: Why is sales enablement such a growing discipline? Is enablement now growing up?

Tamara: B2B sales is in a period of transformation. How to sell becomes more important than what to sell. In the age of the customer, old product centered selling formulas don’t work anymore. Modern selling is about creating value at each stage of the customer’s journey for all stakeholders to influence their decisions along their customer’s journey. And successful salespeople involve more stakeholders (5.8 on average) at the customer and also internally than mediocre performers. Our data shows these transformational challenges. Quota attainment is decreasing since 2012, from 63.0% down to 55.8% in 2016. But trying harder doesn’t work anymore. Instead, sales forces need smarter support. And this is where sales force enablement comes into play, orchestrating all efforts across functions to equip salespeople and their managers with the necessary training, content and coaching services in an integrated and consistent way so that they can be more successful in an ever-changing world.

Jim: An interesting trend the CSO Insights 2016 Sales Enablement Optimization Study found was where sales enablement fits within the organization structure. In 52.5% of the cases, the discipline reports to executive sales management, another 25.3% of the time it reports to sales operations. So this is not being seen as a marketing, HR, or training responsibility; this is truly something linked directly to the sales organization. While we are clearly seeing growing interest in sales enablement, how companies implement this discipline varies. The study found that 12.1% of the participants surveyed said that their company viewed this as a series of one-off projects, 39.4% said they had an informal vision of what sales enablement could or should be, and the remaining 48.5% told us they had taken the time to define a formal vision for sales enablement’s role within their organization.

Jonathan: That’s interesting; the organizational aspect underlines enablement’s growing up. Now, what are the major goals they are focusing on achieving?

Jim: Study participants reported two top objectives for sales enablement programs: increase not just sales efficiency and but sales effectiveness as well. But how to do that comes in a lot of flavors. Key areas of focus the study surfaced were increasing new account penetration, increasing sales to existing accounts, optimizing cross and upsell, improving margins, minimizing customer churn, improve win rates of forecast deals. The key to success is what you do after you prioritize the specific challenges your sales enablement organizations needs to address. Work needs to be done to clearly define the causes of suboptimal performance so you can then craft a comprehensive sales transformation vision, which in turn can be broken into management steps so that we can engineer evolutionary change that doesn’t overwhelm the organization.

Tamara: All these various goals that enablement leaders are pursuing cannot be achieved all at once. Some of the goals depend on an organization’s current state of enablement maturity; others on an organization’s context and priorities. But wherever you are on your enablement journey, effective cross-functional collaboration is always an essential key to success. And it’s not just marketing you have to collaborate with. Instead, there are, for instance, sales management, sales ops, product management, HR, L&D, and also IT. According to our data, 66.8% of the participants collaborate in an ad hoc or informal manner. Only 21.7% have a formal collaboration approach. So, getting cross-functional collaboration right leverages a huge productivity potential. And that requires to defining collaboration goals with each other function. Setting up a collaborative production process and defining the relevant roles for each enablement service (e.g., content types and training services) is a prerequisite for productivity. With other functions such as sales management or IT, collaboration should be formalized to ensure executive buying, exchange, and structured decision making.

Jonathan: In the age of the customer, what’s the role of the customer’s journey in sales enablement?

Tamara: As buying decisions are still made by customers, the entire customer’s journey has to be the main design point for sales force enablement. Aligning the internal processes, namely the sales process, to the customer’s journey is still a challenge for many organizations. There is still a group of 9.4% that doesn’t consider the customer’s journey at all. Another 35.2% reported an informal alignment. This adds up to 44.6% who have not purposefully aligned their sales process to the customer’s journey. Then, 55.4% reported having either a formal (27.7%) or dynamic (27.7%) alignment. Our data shows that the better the customer’s journey alignment, the better the sales performance: win rates, for example, can be improved by 15%. With no alignment at all, the win rate went down to 40.5%, which is 14% worse than the study’s average of 46.2%. But with a formal or dynamic alignment, the win rate improved significantly—up to 53%, which is an improvement of 15%.

Jim: Many companies seem to struggle with mapping the customer’s journey. That doesn’t need to be the case because to really understand what that journey entails all we have to do is ask the customer. To do that, we have long been advocates of doing buy cycle reviews. This starts with taking a group of past opportunities – wins, losses, and no decisions – and interviewing the customer about what happened from their side. What issues caused them to consider doing something, who was assigned to the project team, what tactics did they go through to assess alternatives solutions, how did the cost justify the investment, etc. You also want to know what happened after they bought something and started using it. We have outlined in detail a process for how to accomplish this in our ebook, The CSO’s Guide to Transforming Sales, which anyone can download.

Jonathan: Enablement services: What’s the state of training and content services and how do they impact performance?

Tamara: Sales training is still the top enablement service for salespeople, followed by sales tools, process improvements, onboarding, and content services that are actually the foundation for almost every other enablement service. For sales managers, enablement analytics and coaching are most important. The quality of enablement services impacts sales performance. Content quality, for example, impacts quota attainment in two ways: Content that meets or exceeds expectations drives quota attainment up to 59.3%, which is an improvement of 6.3% compared to the study’s average of 55.8%. Content that requires major redesign or improvement impacts quota attainment negatively: 53.1%, which is a decline of 9.5%. The same patterns apply for training. Training services that meet or exceed expectations improve quota and revenue attainment and win rates in a remarkable way. But if these services lack quality, the consequence is a negative impact on performance. Examples for onboarding and social selling with exact data are included in our 2016 Sales Enablement Optimization Study.

Jim: W. Edward Deming’s observation that “You can expect what you inspect” has a lot of applicability to training and content management services. Providing training and content to sales teams needs follow-up with analyzing how they are leveraging those skills and sales tools when they are actively selling. Are salespeople really trying out new sales techniques with customers, or falling back to old habits? What content are they actively using when engaging clients, and what materials are effective and which are not? And also, what content have salespeople created themselves? How do we find those materials, synthesize them into best practices, and share them across the sales force? We need to put together the processes and technologies to get answers to these questions. If we do, we can significantly increase the impact that sales enablement has on performance, because we can ensure the services are really being used.

Jonathan: Enabling salespeople is not enough. What does sales manager enablement mean and what’s the role of coaching?

Jim: Too often when we have discussions around enablement, the focus is on what salespeople need to be doing differently. That is only half the equation. Sales management needs to evolve as well. If you have a Sales 2.0 sales force reporting to Sales 1.0 managers, you are setting the stage for conflict. We need to bring a whole new level of science to the art of sales management. The CSO Insights 2016 Sales Enablement Optimization Study found that the average win rate of forecast deals is only 46.2%. Think about that. The odds of winning on a “pass bet” at the craps tables in Las Vegas are 49.3%. The forecast is created by sales management, with input from their salespeople. Nothing gets into the forecast unless management puts it there, and we are wrong more than half the time! That is indicative of a broken, or at least suboptimal, coaching process. So optimizing sales management performance needs to be part of the sales enablement charter from day one.

Tamara: I always recommend that companies enable sales managers first, based on my own experience and our data. Investing in sales managers impacts, for instance, revenue attainment by 18.4%. And the specific impact of developing the managers’ coaching skills can improve, for instance, win rates by 27.9% and quota attainment by 10.2%, if the coaching approach is a dynamic one. Yes, the coaching approach itself makes a huge difference. It’s still the biggest challenge that 47.5% of the study participants reported that coaching is left up to each manager. Such a random approach is not scalable and has no positive impact on performance at all. The abovementioned results can only be achieved with a formal, or even better, a dynamic approach. That means the coaching areas and the coaching process have been defined and implemented, and the sales managers are up to speed and are required to use it. In a dynamic approach, the coaching framework is connected to the enablement framework to reinforce the initial enablement efforts and to drive adoption.

Jonathan: Now, let’s look forward: What are your top three recommendations?

Tamara: My first recommendation is to create an enablement charter. With buy-in from the senior executives, such a charter is a very powerful internal selling tool for enablement leaders. The charter has to be based on a clear vision, mission, and purpose statement. It defines the enablement target groups, goals, strategies and activities to get there. The provided enablement services and how to measure success also have to be defined.

Second, content and training services have to be aligned. It’s still a challenge, especially when sales training and sales content services are created from different departments. In that case, enablement should establish an alignment process to ensure that the messaging is consistent. No content without training. No training without content.

Third, social selling is an enablement issue. Marketing’s social strategy and the social selling strategy have to be aligned. And enablement services involve more than training on how to use LinkedIn. Instead, social selling methods have to be integrated into the sales process and powered by technology. And social selling requires shareable social content that salespeople can use to connect and engage with prospects and customers.

Jim: You need to establish a sales culture that embraces change. That means that the first sale you need to make with any sales enablement initiative is an internal sale. Everyone who is going to be impacted by the changes you are making to training, process, technology, coaching, etc., needs to understand what is happening and why.

Second, realize that that sales enablement is an investment, not an expense. If you take the time to figure out the cost-of-doing-nothing associated with sales ineffectiveness, in terms of low revenue attainment, poor margins, high customer churn, and so on, you will quickly find that the cost of fixing these problems is orders of magnitude less than letting them continue.

Finally, understand that sales enablement is an ongoing journey of continuous improvement, versus a single event. Adapting to changes in the marketplace will require unending changes in how you engage customers.

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