Episode 32: Imogen McCourt on Improving Sales Rep Productivity

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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 are here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so they can be more effective in their jobs.

I would love for you to introduce yourself, your role, your company, and your background.

Imogen McCourt: Yeah. So, my name is Imogen McCourt. I am the global head of sales enablement ops and training at Argus Media. Argus Media is a price reporting agency, so we supply the markets with data and insights to support trading and traders.

SS: What are some of the ways that sales enablement can impact sales rep productivity?

IM: Yes. It’s a good question and it’s important. It’s well understood. It’s a little bit like selling time. You know, are we making our reps as productive as possible? Are they doing the best things with their time when they have time in front of the client? I talked earlier about this route to rep concept, this idea of simplifying for our partners the way that they’re getting the right ideas, or the messages, or their tools to the rep, and I think that’s incredibly important because it stops them from being distracted by noise or pieces of content that aren’t really going to help them be super productive.

I think you can look at it through the blunt instrument of how many reps, what’s the overall number they are closing? I think you can look at the next level down from that, which goes back to improved win rates, faster sales cycles, and really important for me is conversion rates from stage to stage through the sales process. Are they qualifying the bad deals out early? I just don’t want the sales organization to be focused on things that aren’t going to close. I want them to be thinking about the ones that really are showing true buyer signals and really going to go somewhere for us.

I have another element to introduce to this as well. I sort of feel like I think about this both in a quantitative manner and a qualitative manner in all things. Very broadly, there’s this common perception that sales reps think about how they can earn their money. They’re money motivated. And I certainly wouldn’t disagree with that at all. But I think if you are really trying to drive world-class sales organizations and world-class sales rep productivity, you need to think very seriously about how your teams are motivated and how you can create a constantly curious approach to their attitude. That is for me is how you get to real productivity.

So, engage with them, find their motivators, understand what underpins them, what strengthens their resilience, what gives them grit at the end of the quarter or the end of the year. And then provide them with what they need to be really, truly productive by hitting those motivators, by helping them be strong even when they’re tired at end of quarter, as I said.

There is some context to this. Many years ago, I worked on a consulting project which was about benchmarking process costs. One of the things we looked at, and we looked at absolutely everything we could think of, was employee seconds. How productive per second can we get an employee to be who was running a process? And I still remember to this day that if you work a 40-hour week, then you have 7.5 million employee seconds per year per person. That’s a crazy number to remember but it will stick with me forever.

So, honestly doing this project, we thought about hungover mornings, we thought about structured bathroom breaks, we thought about timed tea breaks, but it’s not about that. That is upside down or inside out. It’s about helping people know exactly what the next best thing to do is and where that information is, how to find it, and how to know whether it’s working. We can look at productivity ratios in dollars or pounds or per head, and it’s a strong steer, but if you’re really motivating people and you can see what’s working, you can also see what’s not working and you can back that out and you can try and fix it.

SS: I love that. I love that. Have you found any consistencies on what are the components that do motivate most reps?

IM: Well, yes. Interestingly, we have. Now, this isn’t rocket science. It is about helping the very executive leadership in an organization and even the most senior people in a selling organization realize that your commission structure takes you so far with your reps, but actually they all want to be developed and invested in and see what their future looks like. They want to know that they are loved and cared for in a place that’s going to actually drive some success for them.

So, what we have done most recently is a huge piece of work to roll out competencies and to roll out objectives for our organization. Now, it was a hard piece of work to do. It took a long time and a lot of resources. We wanted to complement competencies with clarity on behaviors and skills, and we did this top to bottom. CSO to entry-level, we mapped out and we looked at with working groups and with external best practices what would make a fantastically successful Argus sales rep anywhere in the world, anywhere in their career. So, we rolled out objectives and competencies, as I said.

At the end of one of the first working sessions we did when we were rolling this out to the sales teams, a salesperson came up to me and said, “Imogen, I finally understand not just what my company want me to do in terms of hitting target, but how they think I should be doing it, what will make me successful, and what I need to do to develop and advance my career at Argus. And I feel like I can own that success and I know where to go to develop myself, to get to the next stage.” So, that person is no longer sitting at their desk ticking the boxes and doing the administration and CRM to show that they are busy. They are now genuinely owning and thinking about what their next step could be and how to do something to make them productive and successful. That’s fantastic. If they feel empowered then we are a long way into making them really, truly productive as well.

SS: Absolutely. And you alluded to executives and sales leaders as well, and how is it that you think sales enablement needs to work with those sales executives and sales leaders to both get their buy-in as well as help move them forward as well and get them to see the value of sales enablement?

IM: Well, I sit at the table. I report to our chief sales officer and I meet weekly with our global COO, and I think that exposure is really important. I think making sure that you understand why your company is investing in sales enablement as a department and that your meeting or driving or steering those objectives and that you’re constantly revisiting them with your sponsors.

So, I talked about the purpose statement or the vision or the charter and making sure that you’ve got your executive sponsors involved in that. I think if they feel bought in from the beginning and influential from the beginning, that really helps. And if you can lay out for them what you’re going to be focused on, whether that is short-term payback, whether that is lots of iterative changes over several years, or whether that’s a long-term return of investment, then if they get twitchy, if they start to ask, “well, what are we doing this quarter, what are we rolling out this quarter?” It doesn’t matter because we can take them back another level and say, “look, we are continuing to hit our numbers, we are driving productivity, we’ve brought in a bedrock for change and guess what, 12 months ago when we sat down, these were the core areas that you asked me to focus on.” So, that’s one element to it.

We touched on the idea of making sure that you know your audience and you’re spinning your information – spinning seems a bit strong – but you are articulating and clearly talking about the metrics that matter to the audience members, depending on where they are in the organization. My CSO and my COO, they honestly don’t care how many people have been through training or how many hours or how many pieces of content we’ve developed for them. They do care that we have reps who are staying, that are onboarding quickly, and that know how to be successful fast, and they are the sorts of things I talk about with them.

We have a quarterly sales leadership meeting. I’m part of designing that and I’m obviously in that as well. So, we talk about initiatives and we get people re-engaged and thinking about what they will do when they go back to their desk, when they go back to their regions, and how they are part of driving that success forward. I never talk about sales enablement success. I always talk about their success, how we can get them closer to the number and how the metrics that perhaps trip off the tongue very easily to us about win rates and conversion rates, why that’s important to every single rep that they have in their teams.

SS: Excellent. It is important to have a seat at the table. You also alluded earlier that it’s important to make sure that that sales operations and training are components of enablement. Within a lot of organizations, there can often be a hierarchy struggle. Sometimes sales enablement reports into operations and sometimes vice versa, and it sounds like you’re making the recommendation for operations to fall under enablement.

IM: I’m not somebody who cares particularly about hierarchy and perhaps that does me a disservice, so I think the recommendation is that these teams are core partners with each other. I know that my sales enablement programs wouldn’t work without the insights and the skills that our sales operations team bring to that. Of course, I built a department where enablement and ops and training are seen as equals and work together as equals.

There’s been a lot of work to think about the value that we offer to each other and we think about something as end-to-end, and I had a blank sheet of paper basically so I could do that. I have a group of people, let’s call them sales operations, who bring deep analytical and strategic planning to the table and they’re very tactical, spotting snags in our process or managing or looking for leading and lagging indicators to opening up and viewing where the future opportunity might be. I add to them sales enablement people who tend to be more plugged into the day-to-day sort of selling environment. And we have the training, so we can bring this to life and execute on the things that sales ops might have spotted that need fixing. I think that end-to-end, we operate as one.

A rising tide raises all ships, right? But it is amazing to have a group of people who can do that analysis, who can have a look at the metrics. You know, we have reporting on tap and we have the complementary skills from the enablement and the training team. I think as long as everybody understands the aim and the purpose, the name or the business title of the people you are working with isn’t necessarily the most important thing.

It’s more about do we have the right team in place, bringing the right skills or competencies to what we’re trying to achieve, and can I get everything out of the way to make sure that they can deliver on it? Do I think enablement should report to ops or ops should report to enablement? I honestly don’t think it matters. I think what does matter is that you have a common understanding and it’s about mutual benefit, which is we’re all successful when our sellers are successful and when we’re growing as a company.

SS: I love that. That was the perfect answer.

IM: Well, it’s my perfect answer because that’s what I design. I’m sure there are companies that would need better, deeper process first, or operationalization first, but you can’t do one without the ability to bring that to life and the selling conversation is the design point here. Come together and think about how to make our sellers successful in front of our clients and differentiate in the client environment and we’re all successful ultimately.

SS: How would you for other practitioners who are just getting started, where would you recommend they spend their first hundred days?

IM: My god, learn from my mistakes I think is probably right, I would direct them. Everybody says when you join a company, spend a lot of time listening. I think sales enablement practitioners come from all sorts of backgrounds. Mine was clearly sort of process and engineering but also with a commercial background. You have people who come out of HR and training, people who come out of ops, people who come out of marketing. So, I would come up to speed on the areas that you’re less strong on first.

I would spend time with the sales leadership team and listen for themes or issues or problems. Money is being spent if you are building a sales enablement practice, so you go back to the “why”. Why is that, where did it originate from, is it internal or external? Ours was external. It was a private company who said you’ve got to think about how to do sales enablement. You should invest in that. So, I had more time to spend selling the power and the outcome and the impact of having a sales enablement department.

Then, if you possibly can and if it’s a new company to you, go out with your sellers. Use the newbie card, ask to go on the road with them, make sure there’s a good narrative for why you’re in a client meeting. Listen to calls if you can’t get out on the road but really understand how your clients engage. I actually own client success as well and so I spend a lot of time thinking about them, hearing what sort of questions we get through the client success team. That’s a great way to get to the reality of how your customers and your prospects are actually experiencing working with you as a company with your services, what sort of value they’re seeing because perception is truth there.

So, whatever you’re being told by marketing or the product teams or your selling team, what the client says is really the truth. So proactive listening to all of those different groups of people and then think about the processes that are in play, are they well embedded, are they well understood, do you hear the language of that process outside of the sellers’ organization or not? Think about your tech landscape. Is it designed for selling or is it designed for fulfillment or finance, and what do you need to sort of clean that up or invest in? How are relationships with marketing? It is one of those friction areas in all companies. What can you do there to try and get some quick wins?

And then, and only then, sit down and write your strategy paper and propose the charter. Honestly, genuinely, try and give yourself or buy yourself as much time as possible before committing to paper what you’re delivering over 12-18 months, two years. Align it to the go-to-market strategy, align it to the key company metrics and outcomes, and any advice you can get from anywhere, listen and take it. You know, I’ve been doing this for 12 years, longer probably for my sins. I will still come into a company humble and listen first and then believe that I have bought myself the right to speak aloud with my ideas and some of the things I think should be driving towards.

SS: I love that. On the note of the sales enablement charter or purpose, given that you’ve been in this space since the very beginning in 2007, how would you define its evolution over the years?

IM: Sales enablement generally. Gosh. So, I mean obviously people hadn’t even thought of enablement and there was definitely this, “well yes, I’ll give you some scraps from the table and let’s see what you can do.” But in my world, I had this gift of working with these great brains and these great leaders right from the beginning. I think that we are less apologetic and defensive. I hope people aren’t offended by me saying that.

You know, other sales enablement professionals might have felt they’ve never had to be defensive or proving themselves. But I think in terms of us as a community, I think that a) we have a voice now and I think that’s really, really fantastic. You know, I think some of the things like the Soirée, the Sales Enablement Society, Sales Enablement PRO, it’s a really, really lovely way to show we’re starting to show some real change and some real impact. I think that we seem to care about each other.

Everybody I’ve come across is very collaborative and there seems to be less focus on this idea of where do you report, or where do you come from. I touched on it. Did you come from HR, did you come from finance, did you come from ops? I think we’re starting to focus less on where we came from and more about what we are trying to achieve.

I also think in my experience, sales enablement is less – well perhaps this is not fair – but it is moving away from just being the VP of broken things. We’re starting to be more about the VP of “can we get some stuff fixed”, or get it done, and we’re starting to have the right to say no to people within an organization. We’re defined enough to say, “no, that is not our remit now.” This is what and how we are delivering value, and this is why I’m saying no to, for now anyway.

I think there are some really strong frameworks, there are fantastic proof points, and frankly, we’ve become a market. There is technology now designed to sell into us. That means that we have a budget in a way that we didn’t have before. As soon as you get interesting for vendors, you know that you’re an organization or a movement that is interesting beyond just what people are trying to do internally at their companies.

SS: There are a lot of practitioners in the space that see the future of sales enablement as becoming a growth function. I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

IM: Honestly, many of us are still trying to build a really slick present for sales enablement. But with that said, I do believe in the maturity curve. I do believe that we have become more than just a set of tactical executions, that there is discipline around sales enablement now, and I think we’re moving to it being considered more of a strategic approach.

So, Tamara Schenk talks about it in her CSO Insights work, and eloquently as well. These are her thoughts, but I know that I have said to my last two employers, if I do this well, you’re not going to notice. You’re not going to be distracted, you’ll find yourself doing a new business as usual, and it will be better and you’ll be more successful and it will be repeatable. And when you have that experience as a sales enablement professional or as an internal customer of sales enablement, that’s when we’ve really moved it towards a strategic approach, and I think that we’ll continue to move in that direction.

We won’t talk about big, flashy sales enablement rollouts or programs. We won’t find ourselves firefighting and tactically addressing things, or rather we will probably always be doing that. But this new normal. And don’t get me wrong, I’m thinking 10-15 years from now. It will be about programmatic output and it will be so well accepted across the company strategy and sales strategy that the frameworks and the approach will just be embedded in everything that we do.

I don’t think the department or the idea of sales enablement will go away but ultimately, it’s about all departments in a company thinking about go-to-market and moving as one to make that as easy as possible to sell to and to maximize how the clients and our prospects hear about all the great things we’re doing, and that it’s resonating with what they’re worried about and thinking about. So, I hope that makes sense. I’m basically saying we are maturing, and we will move away from a set of functional, practical, tactical programs and become just a strategic approach, just embedded in the way companies think about their selling organization.

SS: I think that’s a beautiful future for sales enablement.

IM: Well, it puts me out of a job, but yes, I genuinely hope that’s something we can move towards in the next 10-15 years.

If I may, I have one more thing to add. I think that one of the things that’s really powerful about what’s happening in sales enablement in the next stage in our maturity curve is the fact that there is technology that’s designed for us. We’re not having to accept tack-ons to CRM systems. We’re not having to think about vanilla content management platforms, that we’re genuinely empowering our selling organization and we can start to look at and track and manage and show them the leading indicators of using a particular piece of content or a particular approach. I think that’s a really lovely place to be. I can see huge acceleration in how we drive success going forward and I’m excited about that.

SS: On that note, if you had to give advice to some of the vendors in the space around how to make sure their platform is really truly built for sales enablement, what would that advice be?

IM: Well, we worry about making sure the client is truly represented and the clients can be so broad spectrum. I think that helping us keep the client first, helping us think about not who is our seller or how mature is our seller or how experienced is our seller, but actually who are our clients, what do they worry about, what are their buying roles, helping us get our content to our sellers based on that. That’s really powerful and that would be really, really helpful.

SS: Thanks for listening! For more insights, tips and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there is something you would like to share or a topic you want to know more about, let us know. We would love to hear from you.

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