Episode 85: Helen Cummins on Setting Companies Up for Success During and After Crises

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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 they can be more effective in their jobs.

I’m excited to have Helen Cummins join us again as a returning guest to our podcast. Helen, I would love for you to just briefly introduce yourself, your role, and your organization to our audience before we dive in.

Helen Cummins: Sure. Thanks, Shawnna. My name is Helen Cummins and for the past 10 years, I’ve been leading global sales enablement teams within the tech industry. I also have an extensive background in product marketing, as well as many years of experience as a major accounts manager selling into financial services companies. Currently, I’m based in the SF Bay Area.

SS: Again, Helen, I’m super excited to have you back on our podcast today. I know that you have been doing a lot of research around the current situation with COVID and the economic activity and how companies have had to kind of rapidly alter the way that they are conducting business. In your opinion, how has the COVID-19 crisis disrupted the way that we sell today?

HC: Even before the pandemic, companies were already under pressure to change their sales strategies and processes to better align with evolving customer expectations. We all knew that sales was getting more difficult. In fact, it’s been widely reported that even before the pandemic, only about 54% of sellers had been making their quotas, and that’s down from 63% in 2012. From what I’ve seen, some companies have taken steps to transform and, in the process, advanced their digital evolutions. For them, the current climate should be easier to navigate, even if they have to make some adjustments. For others, who were still operating within traditional selling models, the crisis has drawn senior leaders into urgent tactical details. These companies have had to make rapid changes to function under the quarantine caused by this pandemic.

For instance, we’ve had to replace customer face-to-face meetings with video or phone calls, requiring some companies to quickly invest in the appropriate tools to collaborate with customers and employees. I’ve also spoken with companies that had previously bought leading-edge AI and automation tools. They were put aside when their fields failed to adopt them. Now they have an opportunity to reintroduce these tools and potentially get a return on those investments.

Training may have been neglected and silos, particularly between sales and marketing, may persist. Since they’re often both engaged in the selling process, the risk of an inconsistent customer experience is real.

And finally, in a recent discussion that I had with some colleagues, we brought up the fact that pressure to improve company websites had increased. Customers complained that websites were difficult to navigate or lacked the ability to order online. When considering reports that 61% of customers prefer to research solutions online in lieu of calling a sales rep, you can see how this could be problematic. Customer experience matters more than ever.

The bottom line is that the COVID-19 crisis is forcing companies to reconsider sales in the short and long term. While the situation is difficult, there is an opportunity to emerge stronger for the future. I recommend that we protect learning budgets or pay the price later. And second, act quickly to build up critical workforce capabilities. You don’t want to wait. This is where we shift to Sales Enablement 2.0.

SS: That’s extremely insightful, Helen. I think for our audience, I’d love to understand what sales enablement can do to help the field be more productive during and after the pandemic.

HC: Sure. Let’s begin with discussing short term actions, specifically while we’re going through this crisis. It starts with recognizing that while enablement has a job to do, these are difficult times for everyone – both personally and professionally. I’ve been finding that this is a great time to connect with reps and sales leaders, at different levels of performance, to understand their challenges and how I can help.

The next steps are then to get the field what they need. This could be improving their ability to operate in a digital environment, which would be in addition to your standard sales and solutions training. Keep in mind that sales enablement doesn’t have to do it all. There’s lots of free training out there to leverage. Additionally, I have found that inside sales, who are already comfortable with virtual selling, can share excellent best practices.

Communication is key. Keeping the field informed about the latest programs, assets, and training. We have to pay close attention to whether communications are relevant to their targeted audiences, that they are clear and to the point, and that they are timely.

There’s also the opportunity to provide deal support. Currently, deals are under the spotlight. A rep told me that enablement could really help by directing them to the right content and tools or by informing marketing about any gaps. We already do this but right now, this support is really needed.

One effective option that I’ve successfully exercised in the past has been engaging solution experts on my team to provide technical expertise needed to help close competitive deals. It’s all hands on deck but strengthening trust and relationships today will last long after.

Before we move on to the next question, I want to share something that I’ve learned from leading major change management initiatives. Unless you start now, calibrate on-the-go, and reiterate, you can’t significantly impact the results of the actions we’ve just covered.

SS: I couldn’t agree more. I want to come back to that change management topic because that is big with sales enablement professionals. But to go back to the second part of that question, what can sales enablement do to set companies up for success when the crisis subsides?

HC: We’ve got to start planning today. As economies reopen, there will be unmet demand, some folks will be doing their jobs differently and companies are going to start hiring again. New people will need to be quickly onboarded. We’ve got to make sure that we’re set up for success. Here are some ideas:

First, companies are going to be reviewing how their customers want to buy, what they value, and the experiences they expect. They may then recalibrate sales strategy and approach. Sales Enablement 2.0 needs to be tied into these decisions and prepared to align our plans and programs to any new business models. There could be new processes, sales tools, content, and personas that we may need to help moving forward.

There are many reports out there that state that telecommuting will persist to some degree post-pandemic. With this in mind, converting some of our onsite training content so that it can be administered virtually may be needed or employing modern sales enablement tools that deliver personalized learning experiences could be helpful. We have to keep in mind, however, that some sellers are complaining that with all the virtual meetings and training underway, they’re starting to find them numbing. I have found that in addition to keeping sessions brief, mixing things up by employing multiple and engaging speakers, doing short demos, games, and quizzes are helpful for keeping your audience from checking out.

It remains to be seen whether virtual training will completely replace onsite events. There’s still agreement that some training simply can’t be done well virtually, especially if it’s long or hands-on. Time will tell. There is agreement, however, that some training doesn’t have to come down to an event. The use of guides, cheat sheets, and VODs, for example, may be enough.

There’s the issue of field productivity. It’s been reported that on average, non-selling tasks take up about 2/3 of a rep’s time. Sellers have voiced concerns about time spent searching for content, modifying content or trying to figure out how to use tools meant to increase their productivity. This is where sales enablement can help. For instance, by building a single, well managed and easily navigated sales portal to host (and rank for usefulness) all the assets the field needs.

One additional point about tools is that while they may be managed by sales operations at some companies, perhaps we help collect field feedback or collaborate on training.

SS: I think those are great areas for sales enablement to focus. Now, could you help outline some of the skills though that we might need to help build?

HC: Sure. Once strategy for how to move forward has been defined, who to skill and what skills are needed can then be determined. I have found it really helpful to build learning maps for each role. This is not just for the field’s benefit, but also as a guide for where enablement needs to focus its investments. Here’s some skills that keep coming up during my discussions with sales leaders:

Digital Skills: Training on the use of collaboration and sales automation tools will be key. One leader that I spoke with emphasized that training should also cover call preparation, including researching prospects as well as virtually delivering positive customer experiences. As a consequence of this pandemic, expectations from B2C experiences are impacting expectations for B2B experiences at an accelerated rate.

Sales Methodologies: that bridge the gap between how customers are buying and how companies are selling to them. Approaches that engage sales earlier, especially given that customers are often already 2/3 along the way in researching their solutions before they even call a sales rep. During a conversation that I had with a few sellers, they underlined the fact that especially after what’s happened as a result of this pandemic, having relevant insights to share with customers are key to getting a meeting. Insights about what’s going on in the industry, best practices, new solutions and how other companies are using them.

Interpersonal skills: Advanced skills needed to ensure that reps can build relationships despite the distance. There’s also coping skills such as time management, adaptability, and mental stamina that can also be considered. One very successful and outgoing account executive that I spoke with mentioned that while she loved the time saved from not commuting or the fact that it was easier to bring in experts and connect with many more customers in a day, she sometimes felt overwhelmed because there’s now less downtime to collect her thoughts after each call. She would normally do this in her car.

Another sales rep mentioned that not all of his customers will turn on video, making it harder to pick up visual cues like facial expressions. Some of our inside sales reps may have some suggestions that could be captured and shared.

SS: I love that. Now you’ve talked about sales reps, but what about sales leader training–is that sometimes overlooked?

HC: That’s a good point, Shawnna. Sales enablement really needs to be supporting our front-line sales managers and executives. After all, sales enablement is an end-to-end function. These leaders are under tremendous pressure. They’re being pulled in by their teams, customers, and leaders. They may require training on how to effectively manage relationships or lead their teams virtually, without the benefit of lunches or corridor chats. Here are some ways that we can help, which is in addition to the training that their sellers are taking:

Best Practice Sharing: We can pull together sessions with sales leaders to facilitate this. We may discuss what’s not/working as well as practices that help employees build their self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-resiliency so they can use new experiences as a source of learning. We can then collect and package these insights so that they can be shared with everyone.

Coaching and Advanced Interpersonal Skills: We know that after we train the field, sales leaders are an invaluable source for reinforcing concepts and driving needed change. I’ve found it helpful to provide sessions strictly for sales managers on coaching their teams.

SS: I think that’s fantastic. What are some of the ways that you’re measuring the impact of these programs?

HC: It depends on the what you are measuring but nevertheless, metrics need to be defined early in the process. I like to measure:

Activity levels: Did they attend or did they do the work?
Quality: Did they like the training, for example.
Adoption: Are they using the new skills, assets, and tools?
Impact: Did the training change behavior? Did it increase sales productivity and effectiveness?

I like to collect both qualitative data (e.g. interviews) and quantitative data (e.g. number of clicks, attendance). You get a more complete picture this way. Keep in mind that measurements are just a snapshot of where you are at any given time. To really determine outcomes, you want to measure how the results are trending over time and then course correct as needed.

SS: Absolutely. Now, as I mentioned, I wanted to return to the topic of change management, because I think that that’s critical to sales enablement always, but especially now in today’s current climate. What are some best practices that you’ve seen around change management that can be applied to improve the success of sales enablement’s efforts?

HC: In my experience, if you want to improve the probability that people will stick to the new way of doing things, you must invest upfront in mindset. For people to succeed in unfamiliar territory, they need to clearly understand the new vision. Why the changes matter to the company and to them personally. What I have learned is that these messages have to be communicated more than once as well as one-to-one and one-to-many. Change isn’t easy. If people can’t share the same vision, then you’ll not be able to execute successfully. Very importantly, I’ve found that people need positive reinforcement when they are moving in the right direction. It really helps.

Shawnna, you and I recorded another podcast a few months ago. Specifically, Episode 61, which is posted on the Sales Enablement PRO Website. I emphasized the importance of mindset and change management if anyone wants more details.

SS: That’s fantastic. Well, I definitely encourage our audience to check that out. That was a fantastic podcast with you, by the way. Now we’re, we’re getting close to time. So, I just want to ask kind of one closing comment. From your perspective, how might sales enablement evolve after the pandemic?

HC: Many people predict that we will not go back entirely to what was in place before the pandemic and, instead, keep some of the lower cost models. Some leaders that I’ve spoken to noted that while we have to pay attention to costs, there are some experiences that can’t be replicated virtually. For example, getting to know your customer or colleague over a coffee or a meal. We need that human connection. This is especially true in B2B high-touch relationships. Every company, however, will ultimately align to a model that they think is right for their business.

While it’s early to predict exactly how sales enablement will evolve, I think that it will be key to continue capitalizing on building and strengthening skills moving forward. We’ll want to cultivate a culture of resilience and of lifetime learning. By capturing what works and what doesn’t work now, we put ourselves in a position to apply these lessons during disruptive events in the future. If there is anything that has been proven during this time, it’s the need to be flexible and to adapt quickly. To be ready for what we can’t see around the corner. This is where Sales Enablement 2.0 can help lead the way.

SS: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. I think adaptability is absolutely critical. So, thank you so much, Helen, for coming to join us again today and having this conversation with us about a really critical topic in today’s current economic climate.

HC: It’s my pleasure. Thanks, Shawnna.

SS: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, 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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