Five Imperatives for Sales Enablement in 2020

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As sales enablement leaders reflect on 2019 and dive into 2020, most will find themselves in an interesting spot. While only a small minority (2.6%, according to CSO Insights’ 5th Annual Sales Enablement Study) were wildly successful at exceeding their objectives over the past year, the majority (72.5%) acknowledge that there’s significant room to improve. In our report, we call this “reaching an enablement plateau.” Combined with possible softening in the global economy, it should drive enablement leaders to be aggressively introspective.

Has sales enablement, rounding its fifth-plus year in many organizations, lived up to the hype?

The promise of enablement is that it can fill gaps to connect content, training, coaching, and tools. It should orchestrate the activities of marketing, learning, operations, and product but not duplicate them. It is uniquely positioned to advocate for sellers just as it advocates for customers and the organization. Enablement can be the unifying point of the sales organization, the embodiment of the adage “1 plus 1 makes 3.” But unfortunately, that is still aspirational for many organizations. Since enablement did not exist just a few short years ago, it’s not uncommon for it to have morphed from something else… a content marketing team or a sales training team. For many, enablement has not strayed much from those roots. Enablement leaders should look to occupy a unique space in the organization:

  • Is your content a library of product sheets, or is it a curated body of assets tailored to sales process phases and built from a value messaging framework?
  • Is coaching formalized in your sales organization, and does it integrate with training? Do you have a full coaching practice, including process, tech tools, and data as well as skills?
  • Has training evolved beyond product knowledge and onboarding to an individual focus, encompassing project initiatives (new product launches) and capability-building (improving perspective selling)?

Consider the services you provide, and ask yourself if they are integrated enough, if they are expansive enough and if they accomplish something that could not have been done as just sales training or content marketing. As sales enablement leaders charge into 2020, they should consider where they can move beyond the enablement plateau:

1. Expand beyond sales

Years ago, when CSO Insights took its first stab at formally defining sales enablement, we were careful to clarify the audience for enablement as “customer-facing personnel” vs. just salespeople. That’s because the ultimate goal of enablement is to drive success through improved customer interactions. Sales is responsible for a large chunk of those interactions, but certainly not all of them. As such, enablement is increasingly being asked to support customer service, customer success, product engineers, marketing and other customer-oriented functions.

Naturally, this is a challenge with limited resources. Most sales enablement leaders would agree that they are understaffed and underbudgeted to properly service their selling audiences, much less taking on new (and often larger) audiences. While it may not be practical to fully enable these connected audiences, there are ways that enablement functions can start the process of integration, such as working together on a value messaging framework, combining data sources or creating cross-functional teams to manage large accounts.

2. Detangle your tech stack

Do a quick web search on the sales technology landscape, and the visuals you find will be intimidating. There are hundreds of options available to sales organizations. Such tools promise better effectiveness (e.g., using predictive data to make recommendations on next steps or prioritization). And they drive efficiencies (e.g., reducing the time spent searching for or creating sales content). And while most sales organizations are attempting to reap the benefits of such tools, few (28.4%, according to our 2nd Annual Sales Operations and Technology Study) have knitted them together, and even fewer (27.3%) have embedded them into the seller’s workflow.

Enablement can play a critical role here by representing and advocating for the seller. Which tools align with enablement goals? Where should the source data come from to prevent duplicate data entry requirements? When should the seller interact with the tool in the course of their work? And how will they interact with it (through CRM or directly into the tool itself)? Answering these questions (preferably prior to implementation) can support greater adoption and more impact.

3. Get more involved with the talent strategy

Sales organizations, on average, are increasing in size 9% (CSO Insights’ Sales Talent Study). In addition, attrition is at a recent high of 18%. That means there is a ton of hiring going on in sales organizations. The problem is that 84% of leaders still do not believe they have the talent they need to succeed in the future. Despite the increased volume, hiring has not helped close the gap between selling capability and buyers’ expectations.

Rather than wait until onboarding to influence your influx of talent (as is the case in many sales organizations), enablement can get more actively involved in the hiring process. For example, you can partner with HR to select an assessment tool that maps candidates to successful seller profiles. You can participate in the interviewing process, help calibrate the assessment tool and write more accurate and compelling job descriptions. And you can tailor your enablement services specifically to the inbound profile and assessment results of individual new hires.

4. Take on the coaching problem

No, really. It’s time. In our enablement study, we noted some progress here vs. past years, yet 62.9% of sales organizations either still use an informal coaching process or leave it up to managers. In addition to the intuitive rationale (we all know we need to do this, right?), the numbers are telling. Organizations that do this well have higher win rates (+19%) and quota attainment (+21.3%) than their peers. In fact, of all the things we measure, this has one of the strongest correlations to results. So why are we still having this conversation in 2020?

Sadly, lack of a formal coaching process is a problem that sales organizations have gotten used to and have learned to live with. Almost half of sales leaders (45.2%) were hired from within the organization (CSO Insights’ 2019 Sales Management Study), and if they haven’t experienced coaching in their seller role, they aren’t likely to model it well as a leader—and the problem self-perpetuates. Enablement can turn the tide by putting the elements of a coaching practice in place: process (definition of types of coaching, metrics, and cadence), skills, data, and tools.

5. Push hard on metrics

Most sales enablement organizations track metrics. That’s good because those metrics can fuel coaching practices, inform enablement priorities and connect the enablement function to what matters to the organization. The challenge is that few sales organizations (25.7%) declare functional goals within these metrics and hold themselves accountable for results. This is particularly worrisome in 2020 because, while economic pundits have varying takes on the future, most agree that recent global economic growth is not sustainable. Those who were in sales leadership positions in 2008 will recall that sales training and other sales support budgets were decimated with the slowdown.

Now is the time to build tighter business cases. While you will get pressure to hold yourselves accountable for revenue (or premiums or bookings, etc.), look to leading indicators that can be monetized, such as win rates (loss rates), funnel velocity and selling time.

Sales enablement leaders should take stock of their own situations to determine if they, too, are stuck on a plateau and what they might need to add to their disciplines to climb to the next peak. Effectively pursuing all the imperatives on this list in just one calendar year may be a stretch (even in a leap year!), but 2020 may well be a critical time to make serious progress on them.


Seleste Lunsford is Chief Research Officer of CSO Insights, now part of Korn Ferry. CSO Insights is a sales research organization dedicated to improving the performance and productivity of complex B2B sales. CSO Insights’ annual sales effectiveness studies, along with its benchmarking capabilities, are industry standards for sales leaders seeking operational and behavioral insights into how to improve their performance and to gain holistic assessments of their selling and sales management efficacy.

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