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Keynote: The State of Sales Enablement – Soirée, Europe

| 35 min read


James Smee: Thank you, no pressure at all on me after that kind of a write-up. So, I’ll kind of formally introduce myself in a few moments, but to start with, I want to reciprocate the thanks for inviting me to speak to you today. Sales enablement is an area that I’ve become increasingly involved in over the last kind of two or three years, so to have the opportunity to be part of the first soiree in the UK is definitely exciting and I think it’s a statement of intent for the industry that we’re kind of all involved with and work in.

You’ve got me for 45 minutes, and as the opening speaker, I feel that I have a duty of care to kind of create a bit of a canvas really from which the subsequent speakers and the panels that will follow can kind of throw some paint onto that canvas with a degree of context. So you’re going to have twenty odd minutes of scene setting and some background to sales enablement. As Rich touched on, the sales enablement industry at the moment is a bit of a cocktail, so the professional types that are attracted and gravitating around enablement are pretty varied. And as a result, their comprehension and understanding of enablement is again pretty varied. So I’m going to try and steer a fairly true line through what sales enablement is, forgive me if I lose some people along the way, I’m going to try my best. But we’re in a really fascinating period where the practice of sales enablement is kind of in its infancy and trying to define itself.

So, I wanted to do what Rich just did actually, and have a bit of a kind of a state of the room. And I kind of took note of the various hands that were going up, and I think there’s a relatively decent split of professional types represented in the room. And to kind of echo what Rich was saying, sales enablement today is very much made up of people coming into it with different directions of travel, and as a result of that we’re kind of trying to understand and define as I mentioned before. But one of the big things, and so kind of by virtue of introducing myself in a kind of a bit more depth, importantly I want to introduce a theme that dominates and resonates and echoes through sales enablement, which is the sales and marketing alignment conversation.

When I first became introduced to the concept of sales enablement, it was positioned to me as the silver bullet that would resolve the long term dysfunction that exists between sales and marketing. And I thought that was really interesting, my career has kind of zigzagged really, between sales and marketing roles, so I feel the- and have felt the pain that exists from being in that dynamic between sales and marketing. I started out life as a client-side marketer for an IT company then went into online directory sales, involved in a startup internet business. And back in 2000 there were startup internet businesses, that’s what they were called. I then set up a B2B digital marketing agency, and that’s where the bulk of my career has kind of spun out from. Then went through a period of earning out, having sold that business to a global communications agency then ran business development in AMER for that company, and laterally have kind of formalized my interest around sales enablement as a practice, and gone back in and set up a new business to kind of address that. It’s been the experiences that I’ve had along the way as someone working and zigzagging in the divide that I now look to so when we’re working with sales enablement departments, when I’m chatting to sales enablement professionals, it’s the experiences that I’ve had that I quite often look to as my inspiration as to how to tackle a specific challenge or problem. And I would absolutely task everyone in the room to either look to their own experience set when they’re tasked with a sales enablement challenge, and we’ll talk about what that actually means shortly. But look inside themselves, and that sounds quite poetic and a little bit fluffy. But the real world is where quite often that kind of the hard truths exist. So if you don’t have those experiences then go out and speak to sales teams in your organization. Go out and speak to the marketing teams, actually get down into the grit of the reality of what we’re kind of facing.

For me, as a junior marketer I supported 30 field sales guys back in the Wild West of the IT industry in kind of 2000. I was referred to on a daily basis as the leads monkey, which I like to think of as a term of endearment. I don’t think it really was, but I was effectively like a piñata that they would verbally bash on a daily basis and expect a kind of a flurry of leads to kind of fall out of my backside. Which isn’t a great image actually. I learned a lot and kind of got to grips with some of the real pain points of field sales guys and kind of their eternal search for their Glengarry leads.

I then, as part of the internet startup that I was partly founded called newburynow.com which was an online directory business. And I went out and I was basically flogging online advertising space to publicans, landlords, ledger centers, I did presentations in squash courts, all sorts of weird and wonderful things. I was physically confronted by a publican who accused me wrongly of harassing his wife on the telephone, which was hairy. But yeah, I learned a huge amount about the reality of actually being in front of someone who’s going to be buying a product or service and navigating through that conversation. And some of those hard lessons still sit with me and I still use them in terms of trying to deal with enablement challenges that we have.

In the guise of running the digital marketing agency that I ran, for all the great accolades that we won, there were probably four or five lead generation digital campaigns that we were running for our clients that didn’t actually work. And I can say that in retrospect, in full transparency, but that was the reality. And I had that gut-wrenching frustration of being in a room with a team of salespeople, and the sales leaders saying to me, when I’ve asked him what happened to the three or four hundred leads that we created and generated in the last couple of months, and him responding and saying, “It wasn’t a priority. We’ve not touched them.” And that, for someone who’s been responsible for crafting that multichannel digital kind of lead generation, lead nurture campaign, to be told that, that’s so so hard. And as much as I wanted to leap across the table and grab him, there’s a reason why there was that level of disenfranchisement with what we were doing. Probably he’d been burned multiple times by that marketing department who had generated really shit leads for him. And as a result there was this “I’m not going to touch it, it’s not worth my time or my team’s time.” And that’s the reality of where we are, and things are getting better with sales and marketing, and the level of dysfunction, but we are the accelerant as enablement professionals to help kind of resolve that.

The culture that comes with any kind of merging of sales and marketing cultures, add to that the organizational sort of cultures clashing and this is no kind of disrespect or disservice to Louis who bought the business that I built. But that again is a real challenge and that’ll be the reality for people in this room. Having then got into running business development in EMEA for Louis, I had the other side of the kind of the scenario I’ve described with the sales team. I was the sales team and I was presented by marketing a strategy and a creative approach on how they were going to engage the European buying community, only to be within about two minutes scratching my head because I knew that what they were going to go on and present was not going to work. And again that’s really really frustrating but there’s a reason behind why that was the case, why were they so removed from the reality of what buyers wanted and what the sales team and what the business development team needed.

So these are all things that we’re here to help address, the sales and marketing divide can be a chasm, can be a narrow thing, there’s a big range that I’ve experienced where there are scenarios where sales and marketing teams are working in perfect rhythm with one another, and delivering fantastic results. But even today I think that’s an exception as opposed to rule. And I feel this strongly that I kind of- I bit the bullet last year and thought actually I’m going to set up another business called Bridge, and this isn’t a shameless plug. Well, it is. But our role is to help you guys to help to bridge that gap.

But just to kind of introduce us, let’s kind of just quickly talk about sales enablement as a thing. So it’s not new, it’s been around for years and years in little pockets of activities and tasks that have existed in different silos in departments out there. What’s happened is we’ve seen a crystallization around it, and it’s been given the term sales enablement, which I think has helped all of us kind of rally and start to really think about what it actually means, and these disparate tasks have started to be swept together and consolidating around the term sales enablement and we’ve defined the space. But it’s not a new concept. The marketing and sales communities have a history of doing this. You look at ABM for example, ABM, that’s been around for donkey’s years, the idea and the concept of high per person list, one to one marketing, that’s not rocket science, that’s common sense and people have been doing it for a long time.

What the explosion around the term of ABM, what that did was it brought everyone together to go actually what does this mean, we need to bring some rigor and some structure to this. And then some tech and some tools got around it and all of a sudden it’s become a micro-industry in its own right. And sales enablement is following suit which is why- it’s not a gimmick. We can create quite a lot of BS in this industry and there is an ebb and a flow of it, that comes in and washes back out. But there are some significant things that stick. And I don’t think that anyone would be in this room investing their time if they thought that sales enablement was one of those things. And it’s an awesome place to be. I use indeed.com as a barometer for how an industry is kind of performing and reacting, and sales enablement is a job title and kind of variants around that has now got 1300 live jobs in the UK at the moment. About 12 months ago that was about 800. So it’s an industry and a profession and a practice area that’s kind of on the up. Random burger slide.

So why does it now have a name? What have been the contributing factors as to why sales enablement has had this crystallization effect? So I’m going to use a weak burger analogy here, okay? So we’ve got the patty in the middle, which is a slot. We are the B2B marketing sales community and I’ve kind of lumped the buyers in with that as well. We’ve then got the bottom of the bun, which is the ever-growing MarTech industry, the kind of the channel mix, the marketing mix, the sales channel mix that sits at the top, you kind of squeeze it all together and try and make it work. When you extrapolate that out, you explode it out, you can then start to actually isolate where and why sales enablement has kind of come to be.

On the left-hand side here we’ve got our decision makers, our buyers, okay, and over the last decade we’ve seen this steady consumerization of those buyers. The smartphone was the driving force in the catalyst for that consumerization. It well and truly jammed together the private and the professional world in a way that it then had a fundamental and a permanent shift on buyer expectations. So a need for B2B brands to be more emotive with their content to really start to think about how they’re touching people on a human level. The days of going “Here’s a 60 page thought leadership piece” as your opening gambit to a prospect are well and truly gone. No buyer will entertain that.

So B2B buyers have shifted. As a result and as a result of just digital in general, the funnel has shifted. We all know about 60% to 70% of the decision-making process exists without there being a human in the room with the buyer. It’s all done from desktop research.

And then on the right-hand side, kind of have the enablers. And the enablers have created and recognized that there’s this- that sounds weird, S&M divide- Sales and marketing divide, you kind of lump into that this need for better buying experience and then the changed shape of the funnel. And I think there are more than that in terms of contributing factors but these are the main reasons really, in my view, as to why sales enablement has come to be.

Who’s in the enablement mix? We know that these are the protagonists that we’ve got here, we’ve kind of identified that- I don’t mean- these are fairly crude kind of base terms for defining people’s professions. There are huge amounts of nuance and variations around the edges of these so I don’t mean to do a disservice to anyone’s jobs, but for simplicity, it’s easier to kind of lump people into those sections.

Having worked with and spoken to and run events like this and met with hundreds of sales enablement people, I kind of thought it would be interesting to look at some of the kind of key observations and the common aspects of that that exist.

More often than not, enablement departments are born out of tactical pain. So they have been spun up to address a very specific organizational challenge, so that can be we need our marketing component to work harder as it goes through the sales cycle. Or we’ve got to fix our onboarding process, we need a better training program to make sure that we can stop the constant churn and leak of salespeople dropping out the bottom. It’s very much addressing a very specific tactical pain, which is good in one respect because it’s about getting things done, actually. It’s not a kind of a vacuous department that’s being created to serve some higher strategic purpose. It’s actually getting some things done. Or adding value. But the net result of that is that sales enablement departments struggle to be strategic. They struggle to elevate themselves organizationally to look a master plan, and as a result they, therefore, struggle to demonstrate that value back at a kind of a senior level.

As a result of both those things there’s quite an introspective stance that enablement departments take, they’re quite inwardly focused. Non-budget holders, so it’s very rare I’ve come across enablement departments that have got their own purse strings. Typically that comes onto who owns it. So, they’ll be on a constant leash and a yoyo going cap in hand to their owners. Interestingly in the salesenablement.pro report, they’ve spotted a trend that marketing are owning enablement less and less. And there’s an increased amount of departments that are reporting into C-level executives and into the board. And that is music to my ears. For enablement to really become a game-changing practice area within an organization, it needs senior-level sponsorship and visibility. So the more that that direction it travels sees enablement start to move up organizationally, and have that level of interaction with the C-suite, the better.

So, that’s a really interesting point but I mean typically, who owns enablement? It’s more often than not sales, lesser so marketing now as I’ve just kind of pointed out. On occasion it goes into ops, there are scenarios where it would go into the HR function.

Subservience to sales, so you take the term sales enablement, and at a very binary level, it kind of spells that out. We are there to enable salespeople. That’s one way of looking at it. And I have seen a level of subservience to sales that means that departmentally they are operating as a support function and as a kind of a crutch for sales, which again isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if you want to be doing game-changing enablement, it needs to be more than that and you need to have a comparable relationship and a kind of a shoulder to shoulder relationship with sales. All again, no idea.

Again, I would look to history here to illustrate this point, so marketing automation is a good example here. Probably six, seven years ago when marketing automation tech started to kind of punch through into our industry, B2B brands did what they do which is we want first move advantage, so we’re going to spend six figures on some licenses and we’re going to steal a margin on our competitors and we’re going to do some awesome lead nurture campaigns. Did they match that level of investment in the people to then run and the expertise to then run that platform? No, they didn’t. They gave it to the existing marketing teams or the sales enablement teams and say “Right. Give me that work. This is going to change everyone’s lives.” And the reality is it didn’t. And it took two to three years of those teams scratching their heads, doing a test and learn exercises to really understand how to leverage marking automation technology.

That whole process has been kind of a five-year exercise before it’s now an embedded piece of tech that is delivering demonstrable value within businesses. And for me, sales enablement is kind of at that stage now where the sales enablement tech vendors have done an awesome job at making the market, they’ve gone out there and they’ve exploded it out, and created a load of noise and conversation. And we’ve got soirees and all sorts of great stuff. We as practitioners are now kind of in that head-scratching phase where I’m going “Right, okay, this is all good, how do we actually bring this together into something that is logical and we can understand and we can bring into the context of what it’s going to look like within our company?” But to kind of evidence these points, 68% of companies have invested in that sales enablement tech.
So we’re on that curve, we’re on that journey. I’m hoping that we can learn from what’s happened before with ABM, with content management systems, and that whole industry explosion, CRM, and we can learn faster.

What’s the remit for sales enablement? We kind of understand who’s operating the space, we understand why it’s come to be. So, what’s the remit? I think I prefer this side, I’m going to stay on this side. So there’s this kind of- depending on who you speak to, who owns what part of the funnel will vary, and it varies from organization to organization. But yeah roughly let’s call it kind of even. Marketing has come down the funnel, the decision-making process, and grabbed more ownership as it’s become less about human to human interaction in the sales to buyer dynamic. But probably in the last couple of years we’ve seen a shift and sales has started to come upstream now, and getting involved higher up the funnel, as they need to start demonstrating more and more value as salespeople. So, therefore, they need to get involved earlier in the conversation.

Where does enablement then slot into that? For the benefits of the fact that this is a presentation on a limited amount of time, and for just simplicity’s sake, I’ll draw some lines around here. But we don’t live in a straight-lined world, and clearly there’s going to be some variants around this. But I would say that the yellow area here is where sales enablement today starts and stops. Does sales enablement have a role working with marketing at the top of the funnel? Absolutely. I absolutely firmly believe that sales enablement should be in the room with marketing when they’re devising their lead generation strategies. Because that alignment piece will only get better if we’re there. I think that’s probably some time off, I think our work today starts at the point in which a marketing qualified lead gets flipped into being a sales qualified lead and the sales team starts actively involved. Sales enablement is about creating that strategy, bringing together training, fusing that with the right technology tool kit, and then flooding that with high performing content that’s really going to tighten up sales cycles and deliver the best possible buying experience.

And the net result of that is loads and loads of awesome stuff around in terms of improvement in processes and bottom line benefits. Which I’ll touch on now so- why, who, what? So what is the point of sales enablement? What is it actually demonstrably doing? So we have some statistics here from the salesenablement.pro report that’s just been published. For people who have had a formalized sales enablement department for businesses who’ve had that- and made that leap, who are kind of two years plus in, the improved close rates, there are loads of stats that support this including this one. There is definitely a direct attribution of uplifted and closed rates when sales enablement is in and firing within a company. On the other side of that, your sales teams are therefore kind of the byproduct, that is they’re meeting quota on a more consistent basis, which is again good for everyone.

And then more on the kind of training side of things, to plug that leaky bucket and that incredible pain that comes with failing sales recruitment, if you’re trying to scale a SaaS-based sales team, and you need to be bringing on ten heads every single month, if you’re losing four or five of them within the three month period then you’re burning a huge amount of cash on recruitment. And that overhead and that burden is one of the biggest pains that I ever come across when I speak to sales leaders. So really good onboarding should be coming through and being orchestrated by enablement will help to fundamentally fix some of those issues around that.

Where do you start? And this is often the question that’s kind of asked, especially when a sales enablement department is in its infancy and it’s trying to bed in and it’s trying to- well yeah I’ve heard some great theories, I’ve kind of listened to some really good principles around what good looks like, but where do I actually start day one? Well for me it’s kind of a mindset shift. Going back to my earlier point around changing from being a tactical function to being something that’s more strategic, and trying to elevate sales enablement to a point at which it’s delivering genuinely game-changing transformational results for the organization. I think we need a shift in how we think about it. So the direction of travel has been- we’ve kind of followed where sales culturally has been for years and years, which is this kind of inwards out. So we’re going to do a lot of stuff, create a lot of content, do some training and we’re going to go out into the world and we’re going to work our magic, we’re going to make it rain, and that’s what’s going to bring all the results home.

When in reality, I think we need to be thinking a bit more outwards in. Because buyers have moved on. That’s the common denominator that it took ten years for B2B marketing to work out that the buyers had moved on. And then we’re continuing to thrash around driving out your ego driven, organizationally driven content strategies, etc. out to buyers and going why’s it not working, why is it not working? Because they didn’t actually think about what buyers wanted, and what those experiences needed to be in order to truly engage with the buyers. And it took a decade for B2B marketing to work that out.

I’m hoping that sales enablement can again learn from that, and we can fast track that. I think we need to shift our thinking to being about supporting sales and giving them loads of great tools and things which is an essential part of what we need to do, but we need to come at that from the outside in, and start to think through the lens of the actual buyer itself.
Gartner produced, I’m sure some of you have seen this and read it, they produced a report called the B2B buying journey, and it was published about three to four months ago I think. And they’ve got some really interesting insights that kind of evidence this shift into buyer enablement. So they don’t use sales enablement, they use buyer enablement, which is an interesting slant. And I’m not suggesting that’s going to be the new name for sales enablement, please God don’t let us have another soul searching exercise of what we’re called. But in terms of the actual kind of mindset of thinking about buyer enablement, I think that’s really really interesting and I think that’s where we can really make the difference.

51% of buyers are doing more research before engaging sales. So, they’re doing more due diligence than they were. We already know they’re doing more than they were ten years ago. 50% of buyers require more business justification. So in order to get things over the line and get signed by the buying committee, they’re having to do more and more business cases and evidence gathering in order to get that kind of stamp of approval to get a sale through. 46% to 50% of buyers increase expectations of that value-added insight. Yeah, that falls directly back on the salesperson in terms of they need to be the person who can be well equipped to really drive that engaging business acumen heavy commercial conversation with someone and really make a product or solution mold around their unique commercial requirements.

70% of B2B buyers state that their purchase was becoming increasingly more complex and difficult. So things are getting tougher for buyers. And this is a great quote I pulled out from the report: The problem is rooted far less in a rep’s struggle to sell and far more in a customer’s struggles to buy. Okay. And that’s really really interesting because if you follow that direction of going outwards and in, you go right to what does the buyer need to do, and the Gartner report talks about buying jobs. So what are the buying jobs? they kind of break it down into some nice digestible chunks. And that makes sense to me. So you’ve got these kinds of micro-stages here, problem identification, solution exploration, requirements building, supplier election, they need to go through these steps.

So, how do we, as sales enablement departments, how do we create activities, content, training programs that are going to facilitate that through our salespeople but ultimately with the purpose of serving getting those buying jobs done? Because if we can help facilitate the buying process, then we’re going to be in the right place. And that then leads to validations, so how does the buyer then get that squeezed through and the business case to a position where it’s acceptable for everyone, and you get that kind of consensus creation.

So, they’ve got these kinds of buying jobs, I’ve got five minutes left, and I need to do a very quick case study. I’m going to skip that. So, if I could just switch devices.

Here’s an example of a project that we ran for a large financial services organization, a global one, a very global sales force. And the brief that we worked on with the enablement department was we need better buyer personas, we need something that’s practical and useable for the salespeople that they can do inside five minutes. We don’t want to produce a 30 slide deck with forensic information on exactly what the buyer kind of wants because that’s just unwieldy for sales. So we need something that’s going to be kind of light and interactive. So we kind of created this tool here which has been incredibly successful, has worked very well, because of the sensitivity around the information I needed to kind of anonymize this. But this is used pre-meetings, it’s used as a way in which the sales teams can remind themselves exactly of the human being and the buyer that they’re going to see and the world that surrounds them. So the data that’s behind this was delivered through lots of distant research, we did some actual online panel research with CIOs, the buyer in question is the CIO.

We actually understood exactly what the fears of that buyer was, as for a salesperson selling into them, this is critical, they need to actually understand that’s percolating through the CIO’s mind, because that’s what’s going to resonate with them in terms of how they actually engage. Who are they listening to, who is the CIO listening to? Who are the big influences around the conversations, that are around those fears? So who’s the big voice who’s owning cryptocurrency. The salesperson should absolutely also have their ear to this influencer. They should be listening to what they’re saying, again so they can have validity and add value to the conversation with the buyer. Key brands that are visible and vocal in the space, where those conversations are happening both geographically but also in terms of the actual channels. Again the salesperson needs to start to immerse themselves in and around the world of the person they’re selling into. In this case the buyer. We’ve got links to some of the kind of the hero pieces of content that most industries have got flagship reports, indexes, frameworks, waves, quadrants, whatever it might be. Oh, I’ve done it now.

The language that they speak, again this is based on a series of different research exercises but we’ve basically pulled together the vocabulary and the kind of dominant vernacular of the CIO so that the salesperson can actually start to weave this into their patter. So this actually starts to form the language set, because you don’t want to be speaking the language that’s unique to you, you want to be speaking the same language of the person you’re selling into.

And then the last thing is, and I’ll kind of end on this. At a kind of a human-to-human level, and that kind of bridging the gap between profession and private, you also want to understand what their life’s been like as a professional. What have been the cultural reference points for them? For the CIO that was born in 1979, he’s kind of 40 years old, what would have been the big moments in the industry that they kind of worked through? What’s their childhood references, what would have been the big cultural things that they would have been fans of or would have watched? Because personally for me, somebody who’s sold a lot in my career, you get those kinds of nice magic moments you can latch onto where all of a sudden the façade of the businesses that you’re working in drops down and you actually have a connection with someone. And normally that can be a stimulus around not necessarily “Did you like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air?” but the kind of cultural reference points that kind of bring you a bit closer and you create a different type of relationship. And this is the kind of stimulus that made a real difference for the sales teams in regards to this client.

With that, I will thank you all for your time, you have an awesome day, it’s really exciting that the soiree now exists on UK soil. And I’m around for the duration so if you’ve got any questions I’d love to have a chat. Thank you.