Episode 107: Nicole O’Brien on Growing Your Sales Enablement Career

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi, and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I am Shawnna Sumaoang. 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 that they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today, I’m excited to have Nicole join us. Nicole, I’d love for you to introduce yourself, your role, and your organization to our audience.

Nicole O’Brien: Hi, my name is Nicole O’Brien. I am the head of marketing at a services firm in the legal space called Tycko & Zavareei. And we’ve got offices in DC and Silicon Valley, and I handle all of their sales enablement areas and I’ve set up all of demand generation for the firm and all of the digital marketing and everything from soup to nuts for them.

SS: Fantastic. Well, we’re excited to have you, Nicole. You have an extensive background in the sales enablement industry and in marketing. So how has your background in marketing contributed to your success in sales enablement?

NO: The marketing background, really for me, the pieces that have been the most in my success has been the ability to create content, the ability to write and be able to look at customer personas, you know, the buyer’s journey and identifying which messages would resonate and really developing those pieces of content. Now over the years, content is becoming much more important. The creation of content and the identification of messages were going to be so important. And now it’s really moving more in what you can deliver and how you deliver it, to the client across the journey. So that within sales enablement has become really, really critical.

SS: Absolutely. What advice do you have for people looking to transition from other fields such as marketing to the sales enablement profession?

NO: I know from marketing the skills that you really need if you’re going to transition to a purely sales enablement role is to understand that the sales enablement piece of this is what is the glue that connects marketing and sales. So the sales enablement that is like the necessary, important connection that makes that whole stream flow from marketing leads and marketing messages and all of that straight into sales, giving all that to sales, making sure that those touchpoints are made and that they are equipped to go to the next step with their customer. So, the skills there, you know, they’re varied for marketing, you need to really know the content creation piece of it. And hopefully, if you were successful in a marketing role you would have that skill already in place.

Also, the technology around it. A lot of marketing people don’t pay too much attention, or the traditional marketing people don’t pay too much to the digital piece of this, as far as sales operations and marketing operations. Usually, those are sort of two distinct areas and you really need to know the technology that connects so that you can use that technology to work in that whole department. It’s very technology-centric. You need to know how training works. You need to know how upskilling works and you need to know how to create these pieces. But there’s a lot of overlap so it really isn’t a big lift. If you’re coming from nowhere that has anything to do with marketing or sales, it’s a bigger lift. You just need to go in and get some training and make sure that you are up to date on what’s going on in the enablement space and get those skills in order to get in the door. And then once you’re in the door, you need to focus on developing even further.

SS: Absolutely. Absolutely. And now on that very point, from your perspective, what skills and expertise are needed to excel in sales enablement roles?

NO: I think you need to have a lot of patience. I think that’s the number one thing. But I think you know, patience and perseverance, tenacity, of course. But you need to really understand the content piece of it, the creation of it, the strategy around, delivery of equipping the salesperson with the right tools at the right time at the correct point of the customer’s journey. Every message is going to be different depending on how they go through that flow. And, you really need to be technology savvy or be interested in really learning. And you need to be forward-looking and anticipate a lot of change that’s going to happen. And a lot of it’s really moving fast.

So, I think you really need to have those skills, know the salesperson needs, know how the selling is done. Every organization is different. Every sales team is different. They do have similarities, but depending on the environment that you walk into, you’re going to need a different skill set, but the basic ones are really knowing the sales chain, knowing how marketing interfaces with sales, knowing what those touchpoints are, finding out within your organization what has friction and what doesn’t and focusing on the pieces to make that frictionless, focusing on making sure that all of the flow between marketing and sales is completely smooth. Those are, I think, the key areas.

SS: Absolutely. Now, what advice do you have for how sales enablement practitioners can develop some of these critical skills or knowledge?

NO: There are a ton of training opportunities out there. I know there’s a lot of training within an organization once you arrive. You should really be skilled in knowing what training platforms are out there, how sales training works within your organization, what the technology is, what the automation looks like between how the sale moves through the CRM system, you really need to know all of that.

SS: Absolutely. And did you ever have a mentor in sales enablement or somebody that you felt you could go to for advice?

NO: Yeah, I’ve always had mentor. I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve had several throughout my career. But I have a mentor now, so, I think that’s really important if you can get that relationship and have that person give you advice and be able to walk through problems with you or challenges that you might be having, learning how to navigate different areas. I’ve had several different mentors so if there’s a mentorship program somewhere that you can get involved with you definitely should. You should also not expect a whole lot from your mentor. I know there’s a lot of people that just go up and ask somebody to be their mentor, that’s probably not the way you do it.

But, there are tons of programs out there that you can hook up with for mentorship. There’s also a lot of training programs that you can have for sales enablement, and some of them come from the actual sales CRM areas. And also, I want to mention even universities now have sales enablement training. Some of them are continuing education and some of them are part of an undergraduate degree related to sales. So, there’s a lot of new things out there and a lot more opportunity to really get plugged in.

SS: That’s fantastic. Now on that pivot, I’d love to hear from you how you’ve seen the sales enablement profession evolve over the years. How do you think it will continue to evolve in the years to come?

NO: Yeah. I was one of the five people that helped found the Sales Enablement Society. I should have mentioned that. I was in the marketing role. There’s a lot of people who were in the sales role or even the analyst role and there was no connection in our organizations between sales and marketing for me and those created the largest headaches. So, we used to joke about that we are in charge of all of the broken things in our organization. So, if it was broken, they would give it to us. That was how the Sales Enablement Society started. It started out as a meetup group in DC and we’ve grown now to 60 chapters in 30 countries and more than 8,000 members.

So back then, that was four years ago, it was a very primitive atmosphere. There was not a lot going on in sales enablement. I don’t even think that the term was readily used. It was born. And then now, it’s just growing and it’s growing rapidly. And I think it’s because the pace of change is so great. There are so many gains in technology and how that’s moved the sales enablement profession forward that it’s mind-boggling. So that’s how you grow from five to 8,000 members is having that much growth and that much speed happening in four years. It’s insane. So, there has been a huge awareness that has happened over the past four years.

And it will continue because it’s really a developing industry where marketing and sales are finally connected with something that we can name, and that thing is sales enablement. And that now is hopefully a department or a process or a very defined thing that happens in between one and the other and the whole of it all is completely a frictionless, wonderful microcosm of productivity and sales excellence. So, that’s what sales enablement does when it’s working well, it is the revenue driver of a company. And I think people are finally putting their finger on it, defining it, tweaking it, finding new ways to look for success, to develop success, to have all of that expand and be a revenue generator. We’ve managed to just as an industry, we’ve managed to uplift the sales enablement role, name it, make it a career, right? There’s VPs of sales enablement now, which was very few, four years ago. I don’t think I knew one four years ago.

All of that has completely grown and we’ve elevated the conversation to not a series of like sales training exercises or CRM movements, or persona-driven content. You know, those were activities before and now it’s a program. Now, there are best practices emerging. The technology is flexing in order to meet what we need, what we find out, what will make it more frictionless. All of that has culminated into just a huge growth and great opportunity career-wise, you know, everybody wants to be part of that growth engine in a corporation, so that we’re really moving that needle forward. We’re not quite there yet. It’s still developing, the technology is going to take it a lot farther. It probably won’t look the same in four years as it does now, which is the good news. I mean, we’ll have so many different things happening in probably the next five to 10 years.

SS: Oh, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Things are radically evolving in our space. Now as sales enablement continues to grow, I think you’re right, it started with people coming from definitely slightly different backgrounds or perspectives within the organization and it’s kind of, for a lot of organizations now, congealed around this notion of what sales enablement is, you’re right, it’s like a defined practice or department within an organization or even a discipline. Now as that happens though, I think that the next evolution is that there become more opportunities for, you know, practitioners to actually specialize in roles. So, what are some of the specializations in sales enablement that you’ve seen spin out over the last few years?

NO: There’s specializing in just training, in just content management and development. There are content management systems now, you know, that are just as sophisticated as the CRM systems, you know, that we manage. Very specific roles in managing sort of sales ops positions that have also broaden their scope into digital performance. Social media has really had a huge effect on the whole chain. The rise of social media and digital marketing has completely changed the landscape of what we do. There are no more advertising departments really in large companies anymore. There are digital, you know, online management that we do in house now rather than go out. So those specialties, it really depends on and it’s still at the point where it really, really depends on your organization and where you enter because not every organization, unfortunately, is the same.

There are some very developed sales enablement programs that are its own distinct department with its own sales enablement hierarchy of roles and responsibilities. And there are others that are sort of sales enablement positions that are within, you know, the sales or marketing area that might call it sales enablement, or it might be a department of like one or two or three people. It really depends. But the specific roles that have really emerged are sort of sales enablement training, and sales enablement content management and sort of persona development, but more than like persona delivery. Those are or emerging in anything that is a specialty in one particular sales enablement technology and is always a good place to be. So.

SS: Absolutely. Now, Nicole, I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. To close out for our audience, I’d love to hear from you what are some steps that you would recommend sales enablement practitioners take in order to advance their careers?

NO: I would recommend that you look into which part of sales enablement, get smart on the sales enablement profession. You know, feel out where you think you belong and get trained in that area. If you don’t have that training, leverage what you have already learned and apply it in that way and get trained if you need it, but get yourself into a position where you are either within the sales enablement department and you can grow that way, but make sure that you know the technology, where it’s going and need to be, you know, a couple of steps ahead. So, make sure to network and figure out ways to elevate your role and focus on revenue and ROI and making sure that everything that you do can be measured.

And that’s the advice that I have to somebody who is just coming in or even somebody who has been around or wants to move into an enablement role from a different area. There’s a lot of product managers now that are going into sales enablement and it’s very, similar but different. But there’s a lot of skills that cross, so it’s easy to, you know, to develop into a purely sales enablement role.

SS: Absolutely. Nicole, thank you again so much for joining us today I really enjoyed our conversation.

NO: Sure. Thank you, Shawnna. It was wonderful to be with you.

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

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