Director, Sales Enablement Practice
When Lee Levitt and I wrote IDC’s definition of sales enablement in 2009, it was a new term that would have yielded a lean set of results in response to a web query. Today, sales enablement has become a critical cornerstone of sales productivity (see Figure 1) with web queries yielding pages upon pages of discussion on the topic. Given this growing importance and the investment companies large and small are making in this important function, I partnered with a current colleague, Rich Vancil, to revisit our definition and update is as necessary. Over the course of four posts, I will be sharing the output of that work.
IDC’s Five Key Competencies for the Modern Marketing Organization
IDC’s highest-level definition of sales enablement reads as follows:
“Sales Enablement is putting the right information into the hands of the right sales professional at the right time, in the right place, and in the right format to move a specific sales opportunity forward.”
The focus on “information” in our definition underscores the knowledge-intensive nature of sales for successful buyer engagement. The repeated use of the word “right” speaks to the goal of avoiding information overload by delivering not moreinformation, but less—and of a higher relevance. Finally, the reference to a “specific sales opportunity” notes that the outcome of effective sales enablement should be the improvement of sales conversations that have particular, opportunity-specific demands.
This definition has gained a great deal of traction in the marketplace and it’s not uncommon to find it cited, in whole or in part, on the Web sites of the many vendors now selling sales-enablement solutions. Other good and well-respected definitions exist, but I’m happy to stick with this one given its broad scope and focus on empowering effective sales conversations. That said, the changing nature of the IT buyer landscape necessitates a deeper dive into just how one goes about delivering the sales enablement today’s sales organizations need.
With this in mind, the macro definition cited above consists of three key, interrelated sales enablement activities:
- Education enablement
- Analytics enablement
- Asset enablement
In this post, I will be discussing Education enablement, with other posts addressing the other two components.
Education enablement (a.k.a., sales training) is the ongoing training and education necessary to keep the salesperson as smart as possible about all facets of the buying environment. The goal of this education is to prepare sales professionals to engage buyers in conversations that they will find relevant (i.e., tuned to their perspective and interests) and compelling (valuable and persuasive).
It’s worth noting that, once upon a time, professionals who did sales training were referred to and titled as such (i.e., “Sales Trainers”). Over the last few years, the once independent function of sales training has largely been folded into/renamed sales enablement. This makes perfect sense given the overarching objectives of most sales enablement organizations, but I call it out here because I believe a robust sales enablement function should do more than just sales training.
When people think of sales training, one of two things typically comes to mind: product training or sales methodology training. The former ensures that salespeople understand what they are selling sufficiently to communicate features, benefits, and relevance to buyer needs in a compelling manner. The latter allows salespeople to leverage the best practices that have evolved over time regarding how to positively influence a buyer’s purchase decision.
A variety of good sales methodologies exist and, while I have a few favorites, I remain agnostic as to which one a company should choose—as long as they choose one. A single, consistent selling methodology is vital to keep a selling organization on the same page regarding how messaging is delivered, calls are conducted, and accounts developed.
Product training and sales methodology training are well-developed activities that virtually all sales organizations have well in hand. The former because it’s central to their existence, the latter because it’s a well-established part of building a quality team. Over the last few years, a third leg to the sales education stool has emerged. Referred to at IDC as Market and Buyer Education, this type of sales training focuses on knowledge of the buyer and the market forces that shape a purchase journey. I’ll dedicate the balance of this post to exploring this type of sales training.
Given the realities of today’s sales environment, Market and Buyer Education needs to consist of two subcategories: re-education and pre-education.
Technology buyers of today are very different from what they were just a few years ago. They are now largely self-educating (something I’ll discuss in more detail below) and, more often than not, are from outside the IT department—i.e., a line-of-business buyer. Given this new type of buyer, salespeople usually need to be re-educated about how best to initiate and develop a positive connection with prospects.
This connection is accomplished by initially engaging the prospect in conversations that speak to what’s on their mind and what’s going on in their industry, preferably without any reference to what is being sold. Demonstrating knowledge of the environments into which selling happens, and what’s of value to the buyer, is critical for establishing credibility and building trust.
The rise of the line-of-business (LOB) buyer is an excellent illustration of why this re-education is necessary. IDC finds that LOB buyers influence 80% of IT purchases and control 60% of the budgets (IDC’s 2015 line-of-business study). This new type of buyer offers a sharp contrast to the traditional IT professional, who views technology as a development platform upon which they can custom-build IT solutions.
Today’s LOB buyers view technology through the four pillars of the 3rd Platform: cloud, mobile, social media, and big data. These Web- and app-enabled buyers generally fall into one of two types:
The functional leader buyer. With cloud- and mobility-based solutions having a significant impact on how many corporate functions run their business, department heads are now at the table as key decision makers and budget holders. While much more technically savvy than in the past, these line-of-business functional leaders (e.g., CMOs, CFOs, chief security officers [CSOs]) are not concerned about technology per se, but are focused on how it can produce desired business outcomes for their departments. Understanding what outcomes are top of mind for them and the purchase decision drivers for their departments is a critical knowledge set for today’s sales professionals.
The vertical industry buyer. Frequently, technology is no longer generic across industries; today’s 3rd Platform solutions are often tailored to the needs of specific industries. Being able to demonstrate an understanding of these vertical markets, including the industry-specific personas that influence purchase decisions, the regulatory context within which decisions are made, and the trends affecting technology utilization, is a skill that allows sales professionals to bring value to the customer experience and create trusting relationships.
Connecting sellers to the modern buyer’s perspective requires education on market dynamics, technology trends, the competitive landscape, the psychology of the line-of-business buyer, and the unique perspectives of critical personas like the CMO or CSO.
Because of their capacity to self-educate, buyers are engaging with sellers significantly later in their journey. IDC’s annual IT Buyer Experience Survey finds that the average IT buyer first engages with sales somewhere between 40% and 50% through their decision journey — and a hefty percentage of buyers are much further along than that. Meanwhile, these buyers have been busy learning in the digital channels, engaging with peers, gaining insights from experts, and even using the seller’s marketing content as a source of education, quite possibly for months.
No longer can sellers expect to gain a deep understanding of their buyers through a long, Q&A-intensive selling process, as I did starting out in sales many years ago. By the time the buyer makes contact with sales, they are already well on their journey and don’t have the patience for further background. To deal with a smaller selling window, today’s salespeople need to arrive pre-educated about typical selling opportunities as much as possible.
This education must include market-specific knowledge (e.g., purchase decision drivers particular to an industry), company-specific information (e.g., budgeting process and buying team composition), and persona-specific information (e.g., mindset and perspective of key personas on the buying team). Because this information quickly becomes opportunity specific, the need for pre-education should also inform strategy in the other two areas of enablement that I’ll discuss in separate posts: analytics enablement and asset enablement.
A final note on education enablement. The knowledge transfer necessary to properly educate salespeople is a process, not an event. As such, it is important to reinforce and extend any training initiative (e.g., live training event or virtual training delivery) with materials that bridge the gap between the educational event and the application of desired skills in front of a customer. This includes general enablement assets like vertical industry overviews and more focused assets like persona-specific buyer conversation guides.
What Sales Enablement Is NOT
Finally, some thoughts on what I’m excluding from the scope of sales enablement as I’m describing it here.
To facilitate the development of best practices and efficient processes that support effective sales enablement, I consider it distinct from other types of sales education, analytics, and asset delivery. For example, sales training focused on the specific functional skills or the structure of the sales job is not considered sales enablement, nor is training conducted in association with a particular sales methodology. This type of training is important and should definitely inform one’s sales enablement strategy, but these types of education do not give salespeople the information needed to support specific selling opportunities.
Similarly, quantitative analysis that results in quota assignment and tracking or territory management, while important sales analytics, fall outside the realm of sales enablement as we discuss it at IDC. A convenient test we use for when to include a person, process, or thing in one’s sales enablement framework is the question, “Does this serve the goal of improving the quality of sales conversations?”
Though just part way into discussing IDC’s definition of sales enablement, I have little doubt that I’ve made points that illicit strong reactions, either positive or negative. If you’re interested in discussing any of these points, or learning more about IDC’s perspective on sales enablement, please reach out to me through LinkedIn. I’d be happy to hear your thoughts and get the conversation going.