Debunking common definitions of sales enablement

November 8, 2016 Scott Santucci

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Executive leadership teams across industries are increasingly surprised to see the performance of their sales teams decline, even as they try to invest in resources and programs meant to support them.

Here’s what’s happening: those investments are made across disparate groups within each company, making it hard to figure out the right game plan to bring those people together and properly support sales. Finding best practices, tools, or resources to help move the sales productivity meter on top of that is even harder. 

Attempts to find advice usually result in confusion rather than resolution. When you search the term on the internet, you get so-called definitive answers that all define it differently. Industry analyst firms like Sirius Decisions and Forrester Research disagree on what sales enablement’s scope should be and on where it should reside.

Some sources say sales enablement is a singular action taken by an employee, while others look at it as a function, role, or division within a company. Clearly, it’s hard to operationalize something with so many different definitions across a complex organization. If the responsibility for enabling sales is distributed across the organization (product marketing, solution marketing, training, sales operations, etc.), and each group is creating their own outputs based on their own perspectives about what sales needs, your sales force is more likely to be overloaded with disparate acts of support rather than truly helped.

We’d like to help you figure out what sales enablement should mean for your organization, and after you feel comfortable with that definition, help you get there.

Let’s start with basics. For a leadership team to feel confident investments in sales enablement are worthwhile, there needs to be:

  • A common understanding of what, exactly, you are enabling
  • A group (department, team, steering committee, etc.) must be clearly chartered and empowered with both the responsibility and accountability to drive specific business objectives
  • That group must have the right competencies, expertise, and skills to effectively execute that mission
  • The outputs they generate must demonstrably and specifically contribute to the productivity of the sales force
  • They must choose the right partners from a supplier ecosystem to effectively and efficiently deliver on their charter.

When put this way, it all seems so obvious and logical. Certainly this is what companies do when they establish sales enablement budgets and functions, right?

Not so much. The promise of sales enablement prompted many organizations to internally promote the term in pursuit of a quick, easy fix. If you want to put a Band-Aid on your sales productivity woes, this series isn’t for you.  

In working on this problem for the past seven years, I’ve seen one clear trend emerge. The businesses that actually take the time to properly charter and empower a group with organization responsibility, and then hold that group accountable for results, are – probably unsurprisingly – more effective than their “that sounds great, go do that” peers.  

Step one: Understand the different lenses of sales enablement

As I said earlier, if you do an internet search on sales enablement, you’ll find a lot of varied advice about it. The problem with most of the content you’ll read is that it’s heavy on opinion, light on the substance, overwhelmingly commercial (i.e. “vendor X” is the answer to sales enablement), or too abstract (overarching market explanations from research firms).  

From my perspective, there are five different lenses you need to look through to answer “what is sales enablement?” at your company: vision, function, profession, outputs, and market. Here’s an explanation of each (and note that we’ll be writing more in-depth explainers on these in a series of posts following this one):

  • Vision – You need to be able to clearly articulate the endgame for sales enablement. Then you need to figure out and document why that isn’t happening now. A simple vision can be something like “elevate the sales force.”  

  • Function – Once you determine what your vision for sales enablement should be, you will need to either modify the scope of an existing function to be responsible and accountable for that mission, or create a new one. In other words, you should decide where sales enablement resides. Does it report to sales, marketing – or is it its own separate function?

    Remember, to give this new organization a chance to be successful, it must have the right:
    • Mission
    • Executive sponsorship
    • Operating model
    • Budget and resources  
That may seem obvious, but don’t take it for granted. Most organizations don’t take the time to organize this. Part of the reason is that, like we said earlier, well-researched, proven, and practical information about operationalizing a sales enablement function is practically non-existent in the public domain. (Note: The Alexander Group will be focusing heavily on this lens in the coming months, so watch out for content from us on the subject.)
  • Profession – Not unlike other business disciplines, sales enablement professionals need to learn the best techniques to do their job, develop new skills, and network with peers. Today, the bulk of this information sharing is happening informally as sales enablement professionals meet at industry events.    

  • Outputs – When most people think about sales enablement, they frame it in terms of a project, i.e. training to help salespeople engage with more executive-level buyers, new onboarding programs, selling playbooks, and technological tools. The majority of information you’ll find on the web fits into this category.

  • Market – If you were helping your son build a birdhouse, would you buy the tools without first agreeing what kind of birdhouse you two would be making? Of course not. Still, many firms today are grasping at straws to boost productivity and allowing themselves to buy tools without knowing what they are trying to build in the first place.  
All too often, we see clients get excited by the a product demo or a catchy training angle and focus way too much energy implementing the software or rolling out the training, only to find poor adoption rates in the field. Tools are great, but you need to know what you’re building first.

Step two: Decide what’s right for your company

Because the discipline of sales enablement is emerging, we’ve created a method to help you think through the different variables and get the right operating model for your company’s needs, culture, and maturity.  

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This table is a simplified version of an approach we walk our clients through to define the scope of sales enablement function. It’s an inventory of common answers to the question “what is sales enablement?” You need to pick which of these best aligns with what your executive leadership wants to accomplish. Then, you go through the other components and make sure each fits logically with the next to ensure your continuity across all five.  

Step three: Develop a charter and begin establishing a function set up for success

When we work with clients, few feel like they can afford the time to think theoretically. What I mean is that they don’t feel they have the time to create a lofty strategic plan and foster organizational buy-in. So people tend to start from the bottom up – taking small, disparate, tactical steps without creating a real plan. While this approach might feel right and seem practical, clients struggle to meet the expectations of leadership because nobody has taken time to clarify a common definition of success.  

In contrast, our most successful clients take a more thorough and strategic approach to developing their charter for a sales enablement program. While fewer in number, these sales enablement leaders take the time to establish a function methodically, allowing them to gain executive level sponsorship, build the internal coalition of buy in and support, and have the tough budget and governance conversations from the get-go.

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We can help you get there. In a series of blogs on Showpad’s website, we’ll lead you through the steps to help you build a successful sales enablement function within your organization, delving deeper into what’s outlined above.

Or if you’d like to understand why your current sales enablement efforts are not producing the results you expect, you can contact the Alexander Group for a complimentary consultation. Make sure you sign up for our blog as well as Showpad’s, as we’ll be talking more about how to be a sales enabler throughout 2016.

Scott Santucci has been involved in sales enablement and productivity for 18 years in roles including practitioner,  VP of sales and marketing, and research director at Forrester Research in charge of a sales enablement agenda. Now he is building a consulting practice for sales enablement at Alexander Group. In February of 2016 he started a local group in DC to collaborate with other practitioners that quickly evolved in The Sales Enablement Society – a global organization dedicated to the elevation and advancement of the profession. He is widely considered one of the leading thought leaders in this emerging field, and if you’ve met him, you will know that he’s extremely passionate about the topic.

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