The Perfect Storm Gives Rise to Sales Enablement Leadership

A storm is brewing in sales organizations across the world. In its wake are changes that affect how sellers sell, how buyers buy, and the success of the business. At the eye of the storm is a relatively new role rising to prominence: Sales Enablement.

While the storm that produced the enablement function is nothing new, three recent factors have sparked a renewed focus on enablement’s differences from other roles and the need to invest more heavily in the function: new buyers, pressured sellers, and a changing economic environment.

Buyers

On one side is your buyer. The stories about how much the buying landscape has changed over the the last 10 years are well known. The average buyer is now doing their own research, entering a sales cycle with a wealth of notions and ideas. They are more knowledgeable about the landscape, tools, and features that they want to buy and are generally further along in the sales process than a traditional new lead. Buyers are also more consensus driven than ever, often requiring 7 or more team members to reach a decision. For each large deal in play, sellers will have to convince more buyers, each with their own research and idea of “good.”

Today’s buyer can be called risk adverse, and for good reason. With increasing pressures to make investments work this fiscal year, rather than years in the future, fast ROI is now a main requirement. Buyers are looking for returns in much shorter window: in 6, 12, or 18 months, as opposed to 12, 24, or 36 months from now. The pressure is on the seller to be able to deliver the right solution, but do so in a window of time traditionally thought to be reserved for adoption and installation.

In practice, this means much longer sales cycle lengths, more team and consensus building exercises, and a harder time of breaking the status quo, articulating the right value, and giving buyers the right information. This burden on sellers increases the chances that our current selling activities end up ineffective or simply wrong. Buyers are demanding more and finding less concrete information to guide their journey.

Sellers

On the other side, you find the rep. Despite the need for reps to be able to articulate value and win more business, they are burdened with constantly rising quota goals, an increase in the amount that they need to learn in order to sell, and less time than ever dedicated to training. This situation is not new, but is evolving – as products and services become more complex, and the buying landscape changes to require consultative sellers, reps find themselves needing more and more rich skillsets. Similarly, the time and money we invest in them to actually successfully master these skills, messages, or behaviors is remaining the same.

Reps demand access to the information that they actually need to do their job, and resources to help them reach specific or non-critical information at will. Armed with the right toolkit of skills, messages, and behaviors, they can be effective, but time limitations and unclear paths to resources prevent growth. Framing this problem is a need to improve the cost of sales, either reducing spend per rep or increasing return on sales investment.

Yet, above the seller is a constantly increasing pipeline of demand. Demand to sell more products. Demand to push more services to buyers. Demand to enter new buying centers and industries. This demand continually presses down on sellers, a burden that expects more and better performance out of a role already squeezed to deliver to current goal. This extraordinarily intense pressure clearly has its impacts – quota attainment rates continue to stagnate or slip, rep attrition is on the rise, and average tenure across sales roles is decreasing.

As the status quo continues, the realities for buyers and sellers will continue to compound. Pressures will rise on sellers, while buyers learn and demand more. Outside of this relationship is an external pressure that threatens to impact both sellers and buyers: the “storm” of the economic environment and the drive for efficiency increases in the sales function.

The Changing Environment

The storm that sparked a change in how we should approach the needs of buyers and sellers started in earnest in 2008, with the financial crisis. Industries across the board lost jobs, and for the most part, those jobs did not come back. To combat the loss of productivity and profit, businesses had to invest more heavily in efficiency, and in particular tools to automate processes.

For sellers, this meant large investments in CRM, email automation, marketing automation, and other SaaS platforms. At the same time, quota were raised, with the expectation that the efficiency improvements created by the new tools would continue indefinitely. As it turned out, reps were put under incredible strain to hit higher numbers than ever. Meanwhile, in a world now populated by easily accessible information, buyers become more savvy than ever, requiring a more consultative and educational sell.

The natural response was to boost the efficiency of what reps do. Despite these investments, diminishing returns over time make the impact of efficiency-based investments erode, as goals continue to rise above means. Without significant investments in efficacy – the actual ability of reps to perform assigned duties – little will catch the organization up to goal.

Sales Enablement Leadership

Today, this perfect storm is in full effect – efficiency boosts promised by new tools are becoming commonplace, and goals are still rising. Buyers, meanwhile, have more information than ever to independently access and use to influence their purchasing. Out of the wake, a role has emerged to bridge these gaps between what buyers need and what sellers say: Sales Enablement.

Your definition of the function may vary, but the overall goal is the same: enable sellers to effectively deliver value on each and every sales interaction. In some organizations, this may mean the role is firmly in the training world, leading onboarding and upskilling efforts. For others, enablement is an executive role, ensuring that everything that sales needs to meet the need is both accessible and in use. Regardless of function, the rise of the role over the past decade is a natural progression toward solving for what buyers want and what sellers need.

Why did Enablement rebound after the storm? Enablement is perhaps the only role that can both grow the efficacy of the seller and increase their ability to meet the demand placed over them, while also helping create buying situations that benefit the needs of the evolved buyer. This unique ability – to train toward the buyer – is what lifts Enablement into an executive, deeply impactful role. While the means rely on a blended solution of techniques likely already present in your organization – learning and development, performance tracking, messaging – having a central role leading the charge and driving toward sales KPIs will help organizations get ahead of this storm.

As the role continues to mature and take strides toward producing more effective sellers, expect a fundamental shift toward new patterns that make the enablement function crucial to hitting the number. Considering where enablement fits into your organizational landscape through the next decade can be the key to clearing the path toward your goals.

We’ll continue to look deeper at the function – including interviews with leading Sales Enablement experts. How does the role work at your organization? Share your experiences and thoughts below.