Sales Enablement – really?!

Sales Enablement … or is it Disablement?

Sales Enablement (SE) has emerged as a business role or function over recent years and it has its origins in some work started by Forrester in 2008.  Since then SE has grown into an industry in its own right consisting of technology, training and consulting businesses that exist to support the creation and operation of SE functions in their customers.  But what is SE?  There are many, many answers to this question so for simplicity I will use the most basic definition that I could find; “The processes, practices, technologies and tools that improve the performance and productivity of the sales organisation”.  This must seem like a good thing to most readers but as someone who has worked in the field of sales performance improvement for many years I can see how SE can damage the productivity of sales organisations and, in particular, individual sales people.  To understand why I raise the original question it is important to appreciate some key points in the recent history of the evolution of sales and selling in B2B businesses.

  1. Until the mid-1990s in-company sales training schools operated by companies such as IBM, Rank Xerox, Mars and, my former employer, British Olivetti, provided the primary mechanism for the training and development of raw recruits into skilled professional sales people.  Very few such schools still exist which is why recruiting skilled sales people is now such a difficult task; there aren’t enough of them out there.
  2. Until 10 – 15 years ago, the most common model would involve a sales person; generating their own appointments, conducting the complete new business sales cycle and then going on to manage the relationship with the customer growing and expanding the amount of business being done.  Some companies still work this way but in many cases; lead generation, new business hunting and account farming have been split into separate roles.
  3. Nowadays, although the primary role of the sales leader has always been to help their individual sales people, and the team as a whole, to be more successful by using their most powerful weapon – one-on-one coaching –  it is not uncommon to find sales leaders who NEVER accompany their people on sales calls and apart from a monthly sales meeting that focuses mainly on talking about past and future numbers little time is spent with the team as a whole.
  4. It is now common that SE (incorporating what may once have been called sales support) is removing further aspects of the selling role from the sales people.

In my view there is a clear case of cause and effect at play here. Companies stopped training sales people and managers stopped coaching leading to a reduction in general skill levels, this led to the fragmentation of the selling role in the hope that a more limited scope would mitigate the lack of a complete skill set. In most cases this didn’t really work so the next move was to implement tools (CRM being still the most common example) in the hope this would make the sales people more successful.  Tools didn’t really solve the problem and in many cases made it worse as sales leaders withdrew further away from the selling front line, where they should be, in the belief that tools would replace the need for coaching whilst also increasing their oversight of selling activities.  All that happened in most cases was an increase in the administration workload for sales people.  So, we arrive at SE, the latest attempt to make the sales and selling functions more effective but this just adds to the fragmentation of the selling role and it further de-skills the sales people who are the ones in the front line actually meeting prospects and customers.

Do you honestly want inadequately trained and skilled people doing the most important job in the company?

So, my answer to my own question is; I do believe that Sales Enablement is part of a continuing process of disabling the individual sales person that commenced when companies stopped investing in the development of individual sales professionals leading to the fragmentation of the role.

This is not to say that sales and selling “processes, practices, technologies and tools” are unimportant, far from it, but these things need to be fully embedded in the day-to-day operation of the activities of sales and selling not contained in a separate function.  Close inspection will find such arrangements to be neither efficient nor effective.

Does this matter?

If your business lends itself to a go-to-market model involving sales people who are the main interface with your prospects and customers then it matters a lot.  Surely, you need those sales people to be as well-equipped as they can be as they not only represent your products and services they also represent your brand.

While taking up references on someone we recently recruited for one of our customers I was told “X made the difference; she lost very few of her customers and even some who did leave came back citing X as the reason.

I do believe that in some markets and businesses, splitting the role of new business hunting and account farming makes eminent sense and using dedicated appointment makers can also be a good solution in many cases.  However, if the journey to splitting the selling role is about addressing unsuccessful attempts to make an integrated model work then there is a clear danger that you will just make matters worse if you continue on that journey.  My observations of many actual businesses suggest the creation of SE functions is often a reaction to earlier failed attempts to improve sales performance and productivity and hence SE is just a continuation of the journey away from where the real solution can be found.Before continuing the process of de-skilling and fragmentation we recommend that our customers first undertake a root cause analysis to understand the origins of the problems they are having.

So, I am clearly very anti Sales Enablement? Wrong!

If you consider some of the most common components that go into a SE function I do think it is crucial that a company provides such support to its sales people. Examples of things I have in mind include:

  • Collateral; not just product specifications but real meaningful material that supports each sales case by describing clearly the benefits and value that can be delivered; the focus must be customer centric; what they will gain not what the supplier can provide. This is about making sure it is selling collateral not marketing collateral.
  • Bid support;  a dedicated function that pulls together all the threads of the bid and crafts the proposal is especially valuable in the case of complex deals for large corporations or government departments.  Just ensure it really is a sales proposal that matches the customer’s stated needs and do not cut the sales person out of presenting the proposal. The key word in bid support is support!
  • Developing the skills of the sales people.  Training is important to provide a foundation but the real development work is done in one-to-one coaching by the sales leader.  The primary task of sales leaders should be the development of their people, not attending internal meetings or poring over spreadsheets and other historical data.

While I think all of the above will to varying degrees improve the performance and productivity of sales operations and individual sales people it is key to recognise these things must be structured to support the front line not replace it.

Reality Check: Sales Is Like an Orchestra, Sales Enablement Is the Maestro
Spotted recently on a LinkedIn discussion

This did make me laugh! 😂

So, where next for Sales Enablement?

believe there is an important role for SE especially in B2B companies and even more so those with complex propositions.  However; there is a real and present danger that companies will look to SE as the sole means of solving sales performance issues and if nothing else is done e.g. better processes, better recruitment, training and coaching of the sales people, then SE won’t deliver the required improvements.  There is in fact a danger that over focus on SE will exacerbate the problems leading to good sales people leaving the organisation – I know of a recent example.

I think SE is at a crucial fork in the road and the chosen direction will be very important as it will impact on the effectiveness and productivity of B2B sales and selling for many years to come. Strictly SE should be unnecessary as its purpose has been dictated by key mistakes made over the past two decades:

  • The lack of investment in people leading to the progressive de-skilling of the selling role thus falsely increasing the need for support.
  • The deskilling or misdirection of the sales leader role away from people development towards spread-sheet management.
  • The over complication of the selling role caused by, for example, a misguided belief that the “empowered” buyer is now in the driving seat so selling has become subordinate and reactive.

Companies, who decide to fix these problems at their root will probably find they still have a need for SE but it will clearly be as a support function not as a substitute for an effective professional sales force. 

Meanwhile for those who do not tackle the root causes today, preferring to add more tools whilst further fragmenting the selling role. They may see SE as the solution but in many cases it will be little more than a sticking plaster and they will eventually have to address the root cause so – why not do it now?