As it turns out, "sales enablement" is a surprisingly difficult phrase to define.
If you ask someone what it is, chances are, they'll wave their hand at you dismissively, saying something like, "Oh, that's..."
And then they'll trail off, because they'll realize that having a vague idea of what sales enablement is, is very different than actually defining — and therefore, understanding — the vague concept.
So — as a marketer who's spent years both directly and indirectly involved in sales enablement projects and responsibilities, working with sales teams to produce both requested and suggested materials — let me take a stab at it.
First of all, I believe that — no matter how big or small the business, selling widgets to consumers or services to companies — every single business on the planet has some form of "sales enablement."
That's because, in my experience, sales enablement is the combination of the tools, tactics, and "treasure" — that is, the collateral, slide decks, and any other marketing materials — that a sales team uses and needs to close new accounts or upsell current clients.
Moreover, sales enablement is:
- Not one department making or pushing a product or process to sales;
- A collaborative, proactive effort between sales and their other colleagues; and
- Only as good as the individual pieces and implementation.
Let's get started with what sales enablement most definitely is not — starting with clip-art turkeys. (Really.)
The Parable of Clip-Art Turkeys — Or, What Sales Enablement Is Not
Early in my career, a mentor of mine shared one of the more spectacular misfires of the department. I had just joined in my first formal marketing role, and was eager to help.
And then, a draft dripping in errors crossed my desk.
"Go ahead and tweak this," my mentor said. "It'll go well in the newsletter."
I remember wondering who in the world would find any value in this half-legible mess, covered in industry jargon and incomplete sentences.
My expression must've showed my skepticism, because she then told me this story:
Rewind some years ago to a crisp, fall season in the United States. The holiday season quickly approached, with Thanksgiving the first one. The marketing team was putting together a cute Thanksgiving-themed edition of our regular newsletter.
Before they could send the newsletter, though, the department suddenly received a flurry of unsubscribes.
Quickly, my mentor and her boss were called to the carpet in front of the president and the head of the insurance sales department.
"How could you possibly let this leave our office?" they demanded, shoving a print-out of a recent email blasted to all current insurance leads.
The email was riddled with typos, direct-for-the-jugular sales pitches, and clip-art turkeys directly copied from Google Image search.
(And no, I do not have a screenshot of this atrocity. I can only describe my mentor's slightly nauseous expression as she told me this story, even years later.)
As it turns out, one of our insurance saleswomen didn't realize that marketing was sending out an email. So, she took it upon herself to do it, instead, since she knew capitalizing on the holiday season was an excellent excuse to get back in front of our clients.
It was only after this relatively minor slip-up that the marketing team realized that they needed to include their sales team on the various sales enablement initiatives — both to let them know what was coming down the pipeline, as well as to proactively ask what they most needed to help them close the deal.
After that, this proactive saleswoman actually wrote an insurance-themed article every month for the newsletters for the remainder of my time at this employer. She would submit a draft, we would spell-check and format, and she would then happily send the improved version to her clients.
And by god, if my mentor wasn't right, and I was completely wrong!
As the months went on, I watched as this dual-channel approach helped build up her consultative reputation, ultimately closing more deals as a result of the branded touch point.
Sales Enablement Is Cross-Department Solutions Toward Common Closing Problems
Despite the marketing team's best efforts in the sad-turkey story, the sales enablement projects it thought were "best" never actually enabled sales.
Before this incident, the sales team didn't use the marketing materials produced as part of the overall sales enablement strategy -- either because they didn't know about them, or because they weren't what the team needed.
The sales enablement process did not start rolling until both the sales teams and the marketing teams began to work together, each requesting information and deliverables from the other.
With this new process in place, they jointly shortened the overall cycle and raised the win rates of major new insurance accounts.
Expanding the moral of the story, we can safely say that sales enablement cannot — by definition — be the items and processes that a sales team has.
Instead, sales enablement is only the tactics, tools, and "treasure" (read: collateral) that the sales team really uses.
Pushing Sales Enablement Products Instead of Collaborating on Closing Solutions
Too often, well-meaning leaders from other areas of the business — be it marketing, IT, accounting, or some other siloed department — will look at a shiny new whatever and immediately push it toward their sales partners.
"Look at this thing we spent internal money on!" they'll crow. "Don't you think it's better than what you have now? Don't you think you should use it at your next meeting?"
The sales team, being wonderfully polite and tactful (as all good sales people should be!), will nod their heads sympathetically ... and continue to use the same process, material, or tools they've been using with some degree of success before the latest and greatest.
If the sales team is never consulted on the sales enablement solutions, then how can it truly "enable" the team to close more accounts? How do you know that the proposed solution really does help the sales team?
Instead, you can only assume — and you know what they say about assumptions.
However! That's not to say that sales enablement is a purely reactive process, where sales makes requests and their colleagues in other departments can only offer exactly what's wanted. That's too far in the other direction.
If other departments can never suggest iteration, improvement, or innovation, then sales reps will quickly fall behind the eight-ball and lose prospects to more nimble competitors.
Therefore, a truly effective sales enablement process involves true cooperation and collaboration, with regular meetings to go through:
- What's currently working to interest or close new clients, as well as what may need refinement;
- Idle references or remarks prospects have made during meetings or through social listening; and
- Different approaches and materials everyone has seen other competitors or related industries use.
Sales enablement starts with learning what may enable and empower sales to close the deal. That knowledge begins by listening to a sales team's needs in real-time, as well as keeping an eye out for different techniques which address the root problems causing friction in the sales process.
So, maybe sales doesn't need a shiny new CRM. Instead, maybe they just need the fields trimmed back to what's important to save time — and ensure they really do fill out their notes!
In this situation, sales enablement becomes better data management and automation, not an entirely new platform. However, if you don't include the teams who can implement automation in the discussion, then the sales enablement team may try to smash the bad process with a hammer, rather than threading together a real solution with a (cheaper) needle.
What an Effective Sales Enablement Process Needs: Tools, Tactics, and Treasure
That's a lot of high-level ideas about what a sales enablement process overall is and isn't.
Now, let's dig into the three aspects that comprise all true sales enablement strategies:
- The tools that a sales team uses on a regular basis;
- The tactics they implement in their day-to-day responsibilities; and
- The "treasures" — the presentations, the one-pagers, the email templates, everything! — that they leverage to close the sale and win new business for the company.
Each of these merit their own article, honestly, but we can quickly go over possibilities to get your own sales enablement section up-and-running without too much trouble.
Sales Enablement: The Tool Features You Need
Instead of getting into the exact recommended platforms or subscriptions that a salesperson could use to help their sales, I'll get into the most common features that the successful salespeople I know need their tools to do.
Sales enablement tools must empower salespeople to:
- Identify and research prospects. On a basic level, this means sales people need access to relevant directories, membership lists, and internal research on the marketplace, the target lead, and the solution they're selling. You can even go so far as to argue that a secure, speedy Internet connection is one of the most powerful sales enablement tools available to the modern sales team! These tools must also have the ability to record and share notes with the entire team. Research and knowledge in a vacuum benefits no one -- not even the salesperson who creates it.
- Communicate and connect with prospects. Usually, people think of a specialized CRM (customer relationship manager) or email programs -- maybe even direct mail campaigns or auto-dialers. But, think sideways about this feature. Sales enablement "tools" can be as grand as association memberships and event speaking slots, or as simple as a subsidized phone line for crystal-clear connections. Marketing initiatives can also serve as sales enablement tools to communicate and resonate with prospective leads... but only if a sales team knows about them and is willing to use them. (Remember the turkeys.)
- Prove the product's value to close the sale. This aspect sneaks into our "treasures" portion, but creative ways and platforms to demonstrate a product or service's value and relevancy to a prospect which then lead to a new account should be part of the sales enablement process. Free trials, consultative how-to guides and webinars, explainer video subscriptions -- these platforms and others are all tools for sales enablement.
Sales Enablement: The Tactics You Implement
This portion of the sales enablement process can be difficult for outsiders to both grasp and assist with. It's a big reason why regular cross-department check-ins are so important!
Basically, the timing of a cold call, the template of a prospecting email, the questions used to qualify — even the very words a salesperson uses to trigger emotional responses in a prospect are all tactics that can be passed on to others to improve the overall department. (Training new salespeople falls into tactics!)
However, tactics can be difficult for others to suggest improvements. People are creatures of habit, after all, and sales people work hard to perfect their given approach.
However, that's where processes can really help reduce friction. Outside departments can eliminate the make-work or automate processes in the CRM, in billing, in delivery — so that sales can simply focus on building report and closing deals as part of the overall sales enablement process.
Sales Enablement: The "Treasures" You Use
Last but not least, we come to the "treasures" of a sales enablement process. Any extra bit of shiny polish or professional materials all contribute to how well a salesperson can do their job to close the account.
Some sales enablement materials I've helped create in the past include:
- Linear and dynamic presentations, to accommodate different sales styles between salespeople — Incidentally, I've won favors by ensuring that a salesperson could modify these without going hat-in-hand to a designer;
- Automatically triggered email drip campaigns and customizable email templates;
- Postcards, letters, brochures, catalogs, and mailers of all sizes and purposes;
- Case studies, one-pagers, and landing pages;
- Infographics and charts;
- Interviews and press releases;
- Value propositions and competitor weak points on quick-to-read, half-sheet references;
- Conference booth materials, handouts, and presentations;
- Webinars, workshops, and walkthroughs;
- Whitepapers and guides; and
- Articles and social media posts.
Some of these were originally "marketing" initiatives to attract leads, retrofit to accomodate a sales purpose.
Others were requested directly by sales, and tweaked to flow with overall brand approach for a consistency in story across the customer journey and lifecycle.
All were done in cooperation with my sales partners, and with the end goal of closing more deals to make the company money.
After all, in the end, that's all sales enablement is, right? Enabling the sales of your product or service.
Anything effective done in the name of that joint goal is worthy of time and resources — don't you think?