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Forrester Q&A: The Bar is High for Modern Sales Enablement

There are over 11,000 open jobs on LinkedIn with the term “sales enablement” in the description. What’s going on?

“Sales enablement as function and as a profession is having a moment. It’s more crucial than it’s ever been before,” said Forrester Principal Analyst Mary Shea.

Shea serves B2B marketing and sales professionals with a focus on how business leaders must adapt to the empowered buyer. Not only is Mary an expert researcher with deep ties to the sales tech ecosystem, she’s also a practitioner with a lengthy career heading up successful sales teams.

Our CMO Wayne St. Amand sat down with Shea to discuss sales training and productivity. Here are the highlights of their conversation.

Watch the complete interview here: Evaluating Sales Training and Accelerating Sales Productivity – A Conversation with Mary Shea

WSA: Sales as a practice has changed over the past few years. What has changed about selling and how is that driving interest in the topic of sales enablement?

MS: I think the profession of selling has changed more in the last three to five years than it has in the last 25 and all of that comes from what’s happening with buyers.

As business buyers, our experiences and expectations are shaped by our favorite brands like Spotify or Amazon or Apple. Buyers are enjoying the consumer experience of these brands, and now they’re bringing it into the work world. They expect to have that same kind of experience when they interact with sellers or even with marketing assets. It’s a very, very high bar that buyers are now setting for sellers.

These buyers are pretty independent. They’re self directed in the early phase of the buying journey. As a result, they don’t want to have a standard conversation around your company, your product, your solution. It’s a very different experience from what we trained and developed folks on in the past.

WSA: Is it harder than ever to enable sales because the buyer has become more knowledgeable?

MS: In the past, the sales person was really the primary conduit of information into the company. But now there’s so much transparency out on the Web, in review sites and all kinds of ways that buyers can find information about competitors’ pricing and more. So if the buyer connects with a sales person and it’s a miss, they simply just go on to the next pipe.

Now that pipe could be your competitors’. It could be an online marketplace, it could be e-commerce. Sellers are getting fewer opportunities in front of that buyer, and when they are in front, if things go wrong, they’re not going to get a second chance. So it’s really difficult.

It makes it more crucial to enable your sellers to be successful, to be ready for that moment when they’re going to interact, whether that’s virtual, digital or in person.

WSA: How does sales readiness fit into that broader sales enablement category?

MS: When I think about enablement in a more complex and sophisticated way than we probably thought of it in the past, there are three core technologies that make up modern enablement.

The first is sales engagement. That’s the category that helps sellers manage their multi-channel cadences with customers and prospects. Then there is sales enablement automation. That’s a category that helps sellers get access quickly and efficiently to external content.

Thirdly, there is sales readiness, which focuses more on internal content. This helps sellers be ready, effective, and able to engage at the level that the buyer expects when you drop that content, when you deliver that meeting, when you have that initial phone call. All of these solutions work together to provide what we call the core modern enablement solution.

WSA: Many sales training programs are geared towards replicating a classroom experience online. How does a modern sales readiness approach differ from traditional sales training approaches?

MS: Sales people are just like customers. Customers don’t want static brochures or to go on a very static website or have a linear pitch. They want instantaneous access to information on their smartphones, whenever, however they want it. So why would salespeople be any different?

If you think about the demographics of the selling organization, more and more digital natives are part of that organization. By 2020 half the global workforce is millennial. So a one- or even two-dimensional strategy around sales training, development or onboarding isn’t going to work.

There are several things that I love about readiness that I don’t love about more traditional training. Number one, you can do it online or offline. Number two, you have access to data and analytics. Number three, it’s easier to reinforce key concepts.

In the past, you would bring everyone in for sales kickoff. You pull them out of the field. You bring in your sales training provider. They train for two to three days. The sales people remember five to seven percent of what was trained. You have no data and analytics, no visibility into what’s working, what’s not working. Readiness is crucial to your sales enablement program and to rounding out how you’re training, onboarding and developing sellers.

WSA: What’s the benefit of knowledge created in the field by others “in the arena” versus a top-down approach, with corporate training that’s produced and handed down?

MS: It’s golden. You can’t put a price tag on it because salespeople have a unique DNA. They go about the world in a very specific fashion. Salespeople are going to be inspired by their peers. If there’s a peer who’s pitching a certain way and who’s having great success, even if they’re sitting in Singapore and the rep’s sitting in Thailand, when they can see the video and understand what that person’s doing and are able to integrate it into their process, it’s priceless.

I love that concept of learning in the flow of things. The companies that are going to be successful as we get deeper into the 21st century are the ones that can course correct in real time. It’s going to be less about analyzing data and analytics that are backward looking, and more about being able to adapt in real time in the flow of things.

WSA: Readiness helps support highly distributed sales teams. What’s your perspective on capturing knowledge that’s being crystallized literally every moment of every work day all around the world?

MS: Sellers are all over the world. Many are home-based, remote workers, and honestly, it’s a lonely, tough job. There’s a reason salespeople make great money. If it was so easy, everyone would do it. One thing that I love about readiness and the capabilities that it brings to the table for sellers is that it can connect people.

I was doing an interview with the head of sales enablement who had rolled out a sales readiness platform to some financial advisors in a fairly traditional industry. One had been selling for 20 years. He wasn’t really receptive to the platform. Finally, he did get involved and it was an amazing experience for him.

He said, ‘I ended up talking to someone more in the last two weeks than I have in the last 20 years because we were going back and forth about the video and a variety of different things.’ There’s so many different things that readiness can do to bring a sales force together culturally.

Another issue is brand equity and brand dilution. The further away your sellers get from each other, the more risky it is to your brand. It’s really hard to maintain brand stickiness as you get a more distributed sales force. Having a readiness solution is 100% essential in those types of environments. If you are in a regulated environment, financial service or life sciences, there are significant implications if sellers aren’t pitching in the right way.

WSA: What are the unique challenges of sales managers who are managing distributed sales teams?

MS: 2020 is going to be the year of the first-line sales manager. We’ve ignored that individual for so long, and they’re so important to the business. Reps leave companies if they don’t have a good manager and if they don’t have a good experience.

Most sales managers are promoted up through the organization because they’ve been uber successful. Then when you become a manager, the skill set that you need as a manager is quite different from the skill set that you acquired as an individual contributor. I could speak from my own personal experience. I learned the hard way, and it was very difficult for me.

Readiness is so important to the sales manager role because they’re under supported. They need guidance. Managers now are going to have to get better at uncovering and analyzing data. The AI that is integrated in some of these platforms can help managers understand and unravel what their next best action should be in terms of a coaching action with a rep.

Readiness solutions help heads of sales understand if a manager is struggling. Prior to that it was gut level. You had a sense, but you had to wait a long time for the data and it was historical backward-looking data.

Now you can see if you have a manager whose folks are behind on their training, where they’re struggling in certain areas. You can nudge and take action sooner. Readiness solutions will finally provide the support that’s been lacking for those first-line sales managers.

WSA: How should we think about return on investment in sales readiness and other sales enablement technologies?

MS: ROI is the $1,000,000 question. I was fortunate enough to be able to conduct some really exciting research that’s just gone live. I partnered with one of our consultants on our total economic impact team that looks at the financial impact to organizations that acquire a technology, product or service.

We did both significant qualitative and quantitative research to look at what the ROI was for organizations that invested in the three enablement tools that I talked about earlier: sales engagement, sales enablement automation and sales readiness.

For organizations that made that investment and successfully operationalized those tools, the return on investment was astronomical. We found that within 12 months, there was about 20% lift in revenue across the board. Then we saw around 18 to 20% lift in individual sales at the rep level. We saw a reduction in ramp time of new hires by about 25 to 50% depending on the type of company.

The return on investment over the course of three years was 666% for organizations that made that investment. That is very compelling.

For those who are thinking about how to quantify the impact of this investment, there are several things to consider.

  1. Make sure that you’re tracking key performance indicators. How much are you spending to train your salespeople? What is the cost of bringing them in and putting them up in hotels and flying them in from all over the world?
  2. Create a baseline. What do your average deal cycles look like? What is the average order value? How many products or services are in your first sale? What are your growth rates for existing customers?
  3. Work with your vendor and start tracking those 12 months before you actually ink your deal so you have a baseline to compare to. You’re going to be so pleasantly surprised at the results.

WSA: Where would you advise sales leadership and sales enablement professionals to start?

MS: There are a couple of things to know. One is, don’t delay any longer if you don’t have these solutions in place. There’s already a pretty significant gap between what buyers expect in terms of their experiences and most selling organization’s ability to deliver against that. So don’t delay if you aren’t already modernizing your approach.

The next thing is to figure out where you’re going to get the most impact and start there. Start to measure and build a case, then build a road map for how you want to go forward, and communicate that with others.

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Watch the complete interview today: Evaluating Sales Training and Accelerating Sales Productivity – A Conversation with Mary Shea

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