Book Club: Pam Didner on the Evolution of Sales Enablement

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Olivia Fuller: Hi and welcome to Book Club, a Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I’m Olivia Fuller. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so they can be more effective in their jobs.

While enablement has recently emerged as a formal business function over the last several years, the idea of enabling sellers to succeed has existed in businesses for a long time. As the function of enablement has become more solidified in recent years, selling as a profession has also undergone a lot of change. Inevitably this means that enablement will continue to evolve alongside those changes. Pam Didner, the author of Effective Sales Enablement is here to talk to us a little bit about some of those core concepts from her book about where enablement has historically been and how organizations can lean on enablement to overcome some of those challenges that they may face in the future. So with that, Pam, I’d love to hear a little bit about yourself and tell us a little bit more about your book.

Pam Didner: Excellent. Thank you so much for having me. It’s wonderful to be part of your podcast. My name is Pam Didner and I am a B2B marketer, writer, and podcaster. I love anything and everything related to B2B marketing. I worked in the corporate setting for almost 20 years doing many things actually from finance, accounting, product management, even operations, and content marketing all the way down to global marketing where I created a strategy for a lot of geographies for the content marketing teams. I worked on the global strategy so they can create their go-to-market plan. I wrote a book about effective sales enablement and it’s really about what a B2B marketer should do to better support their sales team.

OF: Fantastic. Well, Pam, thanks so much for being here. What I really loved about your book is you spent some time walking through the history of sales enablement and you talk in the book about how acts of enabling sellers, whether or not that’s been called sales enablement, have actually existed for a long before the term was actually coined and the formal discipline was formed. I’d love to hear your perspective on what some of those ways were that enablement initiatives have historically existed in organizations.

PD: Yeah, I’d love to share that. I wrote a whole chapter about that. For a long time selling goods and services was not complicated because our lives were not complicated. You know, we buy food, we farm and we go to sleep. It’s not complicated, but then things changed dramatically after the Industrial Revolution, especially the invention of the steam engine. That literally changed everything because now we can use steam engines to power almost everything. People started building complicated machines using steam engines to automate things and make our lives a whole lot more efficient. For example, we started using steam engines to build trains, right? Think about it. Steam engines are pretty complicated machines then trains are also pretty complicated, so we are building a complicated device on top of a complicated device. Now all of a sudden you have to explain those complicated devices in a way that the buyers can understand.

For the longest time, we used horses to transport us. Then the train was invented, but nobody has ever seen a train before. You have to explain what the train will do. Then all of a sudden the people who are selling the train need to be educated in terms of what the train will do and then be able to explain how the train will function. That by itself or in essence, it’s a sales enablement, even though the term was not created or coined back in the 1900s. So really, if you think about it, for the longest time ever since the early 1900s, we were building more and more complicated devices on top of complicated devices. Now, the salespeople’s job is actually trying to sell those complicated devices. They need to be educated. They need to be trained. They need to know their products well.

Things changed dramatically in the 1980s. The reason is we invented the computer. Computers actually existed way before that, but the personal computer started to become very popular. Way back then it was like ‘what is a computer, what can a computer do?’ The computer was at that time really doing a very complex calculation on behalf of humans. We never ever imagine that the computer can do whatever they are doing now almost like 30 years later. We cannot imagine that, so way back then when people invented computers, especially IBM, they were like okay what does a computer do? I mean it’s literally the machine that is being enclosed inside and then people walk around and see what these things do? The IBM sales professional needed to actually understand what the computer will do and then educate the buyers about its benefit and its features of it. They coined the term sales enablement according to Wikipedia, and I’m not surprised they actually coined that term.

It’s really about training sales so they can understand the complicated products they are selling and how to explain that in a way the buyers can understand. So initially sales enablement was really about sales training and sales onboarding. I think the term has been expanded. It’s almost like everything that sales are doing and that needs to be supported can be cold sales enablement.

OF: I think that’s very true and just how much enablement has expanded in its definition and organizations over the last few years. I love what you also talked about around the innovation and the business landscape and even all the way back to the industrial revolution, but really how these sales trends have been impacting selling as a profession over even just the last few decades. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. What are some of the ways that sales organizations have evolved in recent years?

PD: Great question. Remember I mentioned earlier that salespeople need to be trained when they sell complicated products? In a way, the evolution of sales has a lot to do with technological evolutions and also technological advancement. The complexity of a product actually does have a huge impact in terms of the evolution of sales and also how people conduct the selling process and engagement, but there’s another important element which is the buyer’s purchasing behavior. How buyers purchase any products, especially B2B products, will impact how salespeople sell. For example, the internet, digital media, and even the pandemic have impacted how buyers purchase or behave, therefore massively impacting how salespeople or sales organizations evolve.

For example, for the longest time, salespeople have visited their clients several times to close the deals and they had to be present. With the virtual meetings and the pandemic in the past couple of years, sales engagement with clients has evolved even sales hiring. Do we need to hire people on the ground that should be near our client base? I don’t know, maybe that has changed. From my perspective, as I said, the complexity of a product can impact the evolution of sales and the other one is the buyer’s behavior. Another important factor I mentioned in my book is millennials they are joining the sales force and are digital natives. The way they need to be supported, trained, and communicate with will be very, very different from the previous generation of a sales force. If you are supporting both generations, how should you support them? The evolution of a sales engagement will be dramatically different depending on the age of the sales team as well.

OF: Yeah, I think that’s such an important point around the generations in the workforce and how their expectations and how they are wired to interact with customers is different. I think that’s so important to take that into consideration.

PD: I totally agree. For example, a lot of millennials prefer texting, so the way they communicate with the buyers is actually through texting, but the older generation prefers email and they prefer talking to them, picking up the phone, and having a conversation. Because the communication mechanism is so different, the way that you need to train those people needs to be different as well.

OF: I couldn’t agree more on that point. Looking ahead to the next few years, what are some of your predictions for how selling will continue to evolve?

PD: You know, I hate making predictions. Selling, especially technology selling, is going to get even more complicated and that just affects. The biggest challenge from my perspective, moving forward is to find a way to explain complex ideas or the product in simple terms that your buyers will understand. That sounds like this age-old challenge, but I’m telling you many companies have not solved that. The messaging, such as what to say and how to say about your product, will continue to challenge the sales product and marketing team. I don’t think that will ever stop. The other one is that the buyer’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter. I am the guilty one as well. So we need to think about the types of content and outreach communication to get their heads turning. So what can we do so that it’s not creepy? The buyer knows that you are virtually stalking them, but how can you communicate and reach out to them? It’s not like you know that I’m following you every step. That, in terms of how to understand them and communicate with them yet not be creepy, will be also a knowledge challenge that from my perspective that those people will face in the next couple of years.

Another thing is technology will continue to play a critical role in helping sales and unraveling buyers’ intent. There are a lot of tools out there to actually help you understand if the buyer is ready to buy, what is their intention, and whether are they apprehensive to buy. Sales professionals, along with the marketing team will continue to evaluate different kinds of tools they need and incorporate that into their sales stages. The key thing is the more tools that you incorporate into the sales stages, the more tools that salespeople need to learn and they hate that. So how you get your sales team motivated to learn more about the new tools can also be challenging. Did I depress everybody now?

OF: No, those are very, very great points and they’re very real. I mean those are challenges that I absolutely think are prevalent today in a lot of organizations. I think it will continue to persist, especially as there’s so much change happening in the business landscape and economic uncertainty right now. I think every point that you just mentioned is absolutely spot on. With that in mind, one of the things that you do mention in the book is that one of the core purposes of enablement, from your perspective, is really to increase sales velocity. With all of this change that organizations and that sellers are experiencing right now, how can enablement really help organizations not only maintain but improve sales velocity?

PD: That’s a great question. The key thing is you need to set up sales enablement success metrics. Let’s assume increasing sales velocity is very important for the sales team. Then you need to define what sales velocity is and you need to incorporate that as a part of your success metrics. So that’s number one. Now, let’s assume that the sales velocity is an increased conversion rate, and let’s assume that’s your definition of yours. Now, you need to think through what the sales enablement team is doing as a part of your job to actually increase that conversion rate. Are you training your sales team faster when a new product is launched, literally two weeks before the product is launched, you have training ready and everybody is educated and onboarded. That can increase sales conversion through training and arming them with the data they need.

Maybe the other one is to give them enough content at different sales stages so they know what kind of content they should use at the different sales stages. That’s also another way to showcase that you are increasing sales conversion. You need to determine what you are doing as part of your success metrics and you need to define what sales velocity means to you and also to the sales team and then make a decision to quantify. A lot of things can be very abstract. It’s very hard to directly say that is the sales enablement contribution, but you can basically make a percentage and make sure that the salespeople agree with that or you can determine your deliverables in a way that the sales team agrees with that and use that to quantify your contribution to increase the sales velocity.

OF: Absolutely. I think defining what that means for your organization as the first step is a fantastic point. That was great advice. In thinking ahead as well, I know you said you don’t like to make predictions, but alongside some of those predictions that you did lay out with some of the challenges that sales organizations will continue to experience over the next couple of years, I’d love to hear your take on where you think enablement is going as a function. How do you think enablement will continue to mature and evolve alongside some of those larger-scale changes in the business landscape over the next few years?

PD: Let me answer that a little bit differently as well. I think the maturity of an organization in terms of setting up the sales enablement function is going to be different from company to company. I just want to make that very clear and there’s no best practice that will apply to all companies. I think it’s very, very important that each company looks inward to evaluate its own processes and tools. There are things that salespeople always complain about, especially when they are not getting the support they need. For example, the number one reason that salespeople complain the most that I’m aware of is, ‘I don’t know where the content is, I cannot find the content when I need it’. Okay, well can you at least make sure that all the sales-centric content and training information are properly tagged with the right keywords, detailed descriptions, product names, product family, content owners, even expiration dates, etcetera so salespeople can just find them when they need them. Do you see where I’m coming from? So the majority of your organization, in terms of what you need to do, is to address the salespeople’s most common challenges head-on. The maturity of a sales enablement function will come naturally when you start addressing salespeople’s challenges one by one. That’s how I see that you can evolve the maturity of a sales enablement function.

OF: Yeah, absolutely. especially alongside challenges, I think that’s fantastic. Well, Pam, thanks so much for joining the podcast today. I love this conversation and loved hearing more about your book. Thank you again.

PD: Thank you so much for having me, really appreciate it. Take care!

OF: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders visit salesenablement.pro and if there’s something you’d like to share or a topic that you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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