I was at a sales conference a few months ago, and I turned to a reputable CRO and declared that "content has killed sales enablement." Before I could even explain, he replied, "You assume it was even alive to begin with."

That feels like a good jumping off point, huh? So let's start there: What does sales enablement even mean?

Conversations@2x

It seems like a straightforward enough question, but if you were to ask any three sales enablement experts what sales enablement actually is, you'll get three very different answers. If you google a definition, vendor SEO will inundate you with spin.

As someone who has spent years in enablement roles, I sat down a few months ago determined to get an understanding of where all this confusion is coming from. After talking extensively to sales enablement leaders and high-performing reps trying to get to the bottom of it all, here's what I've found:

Sales enablement, on the surface, is thriving

According to a 2017 survey of sales organizations conducted by CSO Insights, 59% of the respondents had a dedicated enablement function. That number is up from only 19% in 2013, indicating the function itself is taking off. To further indicate how "hot" sales enablement is right now, there are currently over 2,800 sales enablement job postings on Indeed.com, and overall investments in sales enablement technology and programs is skyrocketing.

To give you a sense of just how much it's skyrocketing, over $66B is spent annually on sales training and sales enablement technology in an attempt to support sales reps.

But there's a huge disconnect

With all the investment pouring into sales enablement, is it safe to assume that reps are, on the whole, performing at a higher rate? And if a sales reps' performance goal is ultimately to drive revenue, we should be seeing higher quota attainment, right?

Turns out the answer is definitively "no." And the data presents a pretty grim picture:

So what exactly is the disconnect here? Why can no one define sales enablement simply and consistently? Why are reps universally failing to meet quota and drive revenue?

It turns out the answers to those questions are actually way simpler than I was led to believe. Across the dozens of definitions I've found on sales enablement, Forrester's is perhaps the most interesting:

Sales enablement is a strategic, ongoing process that equips all client-facing employees with the ability to consistently and systematically have a valuable conversation.

What is particularly interesting about this definition is its emphasis on conversations. If the goal is to equip our reps with an ability to have valuable conversations, why do most "sales enablement" tools focus on marketing content?

Content management in an ever-changing world

Amidst all the sales enablement confusion has been a tremendous amount of M&A activity and consolidation. Clearslide, which was founded in 2009, was acquired by Coral (founded in 1985). Docurated, founded in 2012, was acquired by Quark (1981). Knowledge Tree (founded in 2006), was acquired by SAVO (1999), which was later acquired by Seismic (2010). As these companies struggle to maintain product-market fit, one has to ask just how much has changed in sales since these companies were founded. 

The answer is: A lot.

Today's B2B sales cycle is complex for both the buyer and the seller. With an average of 6 people involved in a standard buying committee, and more competition than ever, it's more important than ever to sustain engagement, increase the speed of sales cycles, and be consultative – adding value to your prospects and establishing credibility and trust.

In addition, there's been an explosion of live chat applications in the last several years. These tools, which include Intercom, Drift, Hubspot, Conversica, and more, are aimed at making it easy for people to talk to sales reps and buy software.

Our customers are coming to us with nuanced questions, expecting real-time answers. Gone are the static, reactive days of sales. Things are more dynamic and real-time than ever, and enablement simply hasn’t kept up.

“Sales is evolving, because the customer journey is an infinity loop. Customers today expect anyone they interact with during their customer journey, both pre- and post- sales be able to provide the same level of service and knowledge. They don’t really care what the person at your company’s title is or if they sit pre-sales or post-sales. They expect everyone to be able to give them what they need when they need it, with the same level of service and expertise.” - Roz Greenfield, Chief Enablement Officer at Level213 and formerly Head of Global Enablement at Optimizely

So what does this all boil down to? With engagement and attention the most precious resources for us as sellers, the conversations we have with our prospects are the moments that matter.

  • If a seller is asked about a competitor and they don’t have an answer, they risk letting that competitor dictate the narrative and win rates drop
  • If a seller is asked about a critical security requirement and they don’t have confidence that they know the answer, they frustrate buyers, stall conversations, and lengthen sales cycles
  • If a seller is asked about a particular use case and they don’t have a customer story on the tip of their tongue, they lose the ability to capture the buyer’s attention and solidify the value of the product, negatively influencing things like Average Selling Price (ASP)
  • If a seller is asked an unanticipated question about security and compliance and can't produce an answer in the midst of the conversation, they lose credibility, trust, and momentum and ultimately lose deals to competitors

When we think about enablement, we need to think in terms of outcomes. As revenue organizations, we care about win rates, ASP, and sales velocity. While external content like your case studies and white papers still have their place, enablement solutions that focus too heavily on those assets only solve marketing problems, not sales problems. They help answer questions like “Is the sales team using the content marketing creates?” and “Do prospects engage with the content marketing creates?”

Answers to these questions don’t help reps generate revenue. Period. Sales enablement is much more than just the sales assets you present and send to prospects. Those do nothing to help drive the real-time conversations that close business in today’s world.

“To me, sales enablement, it’s a marketing term. Marketing came up with it because when you’re enabling a salesperson, in my mind, you are giving them assets of information and intelligence that [they] can use on a phone call. It’s a marketing function for salespeople.” - Doug Landis, Growth Partner at Emergence Capital

Reps need to be empowered to handle objections live, have security expertise, and be able to move conversations forward by being consultative on products, markets, and buyers.

Could we send one-sheets or PDFs to a prospect before or after these conversations? Sure. But the future of sales enablement is empowering our sellers to have valuable, real-time conversations.

Empowering sellers to have better conversations

When client-facing teams are aligned and have access to ongoing knowledge and subject matter expertise, they are empowered to have valuable conversations that drive revenue. Let’s embrace the reality that sales is more conversation-driven than ever, and when we have our prospects engaged in real-time conversation, we need to ensure that we are driving those conversations forward and adding value every step of the way.

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