As a function, sales enablement has not been around for long, but it’s already seen some dramatic changes, thanks to shifts in buying, selling and technology. From the influx of artificial intelligence (AI) to the rising importance of coaching, enablement is undergoing a transformation and, in turn, transforming the management, measurement and success of sales.

“Transformation” was the theme of this year’s user conference for Showpad, an enablement platform provider. The practitioners who took the stage at TRANSFORM 2019 shared insights into how their companies are transforming the people and processes that support successful sales.

To transform an organization, noted Pieterjan “PJ” Bouten, CEO and co-founder of Showpad, you must transform your people. “Your sellers need to become more consultative. They need to add more value. They need to make sure that when they interact with the buyer, that that buyer actually feels like they’re learning something.” That’s where sales enablement comes in.

The Rise of Sales Enablement

Sales enablement has grown rapidly since its beginnings two decades ago. Last year, Showpad’s conference attracted 200 attendees. This year, almost 500 people came to the conference. Bouten said the number of LinkedIn users with “sales enablement” in their title has doubled over the last few years. Since 2011, said speaker Russell Wurth, vice president of sales enablement at Netskope, Google searches for “sales enablement” have risen exponentially.

Now, Louis Jonckheere (chief product officer and co-founder of Showpad) told me, “This space is on fire. Companies are really starting to understand that the next level … is all about enablement and training.” Sales enablement is receiving more traction in the C-suite, and corporate investment in the function is following suit.

With the rise of sales enablement has come experimentation regarding where it’s housed and who leads it. The job titles of TRANSFORM speakers and attendees reflect this variety; according to Bouten, 42% of attendees work in sales enablement, 32% in sales and 26% in marketing. Many attendees had “sales enablement” in their job titles, while others had words and phrases like “learning,” “training,” “sales effectiveness,” “growth” and “revenue.” In one panel session, two panelists reported to human resources (HR), one reported to sales and one reported to marketing.

Formalizing the Function

“We’ve been seeing a lot of companies catch on to the idea that you can no longer have teams where you rely on just a few superstar reps to carry the workload of the entire team,” Sari Eisendrath, a partner at Winning by Design, told me. Winning by Design is one of Showpad’s new sales effectiveness partners, offering revenue optimization services including playbook design, training and coaching, and strategy. The goal of sales enablement, added co-chief executive officer Dominique Levin, is to help ensure that “anybody can be successful, not just the superstars.”

The need to have a team of high performers rather than a few superstars makes sales enablement more important than ever. There’s always been “an internal debate over where sales enablement will be in [a] company,” Eisendrath said. She believes (and Jonckheere and Levin agree) that we’re going to see it increasingly turned into a standalone function, working in collaboration with sales, marketing and training. Enablement, Levin said, “is not training for training’s sake. It’s training in order to impact your revenue.”

The formalization of a sales enablement function is critical, as Tamara Schenk, research director at CSO Insights, pointed out in her presentation. Her research has found that when organizations have a formal sales enablement strategy (a “diamond in the rough”), including a documented charter, they have significantly better sales results. She believes that sales enablement is at a plateau, and the industry is at a critical time, when it has to focus more on using a strategic approach. That starts with having a leader with strong business acumen (not necessarily a program manager or a trainer) leading the function. “To approach this from a business perspective, you really need to have a business leader,” she told me. Unfortunately, she said, the current focus on technology (while important) means that too many organizations are neglecting the strategy.

After all, pointed out Rita Jackson, vice president of product marketing at Showpad, “It’s not about sales enablement; it’s about business enablement.”

The Critical Role of the Frontline Sales Manager

A common theme throughout the conference was the importance of enabling the frontline sales manager in order to enable the sellers.

“It’s a huge white space in training in general,” Levin told me, referring to supporting frontline managers as they reinforce their team members’ learning. “The only way the behaviors that are trained are going to stick is if every one-on-one a manager has, or every team meeting, these concepts come back … At the end of the day, it’s [all about] the frontline managers.”

According to CSO Insights’ research, 82.8% of organizations with engaging sales managers have engaged sales forces. These organizations also have 3.8% higher revenue attainment, 9.5% increased win rates and 9.3% increased quota attainment. “The frontline sales manager is the linchpin in the organization,” Schenk said in her presentation. “If you want to drive any kind of change in a sales organization,” you have to engage the frontline sales managers.

Unfortunately, Schenk told me, the biggest surprise, for her, that came out of this year’s research was “that so many organizations are still approaching sales coaching in a way that it’s left up to managers,” without providing them with the tools to do it. Similarly, Levin said, most managers have never been trained on how to provide the coaching their reps need. “That’s a missing link that we see companies small and large starting to invest in.”

“The better sales managers are equipped and developed to be great coaches,” Schenk said, “the more effective they can be in a short amount of time.” She recommends starting by running a pilot with willing and eager managers so you can prove that it’s worth the investment to any old-timers (who often have the viewpoint, “I made it without coaching! Why do we need it?”). Then, once you have executive buy-in, roll it out to the rest of the organization.

“Micro-enablement”: Putting Bite-sized Content in the Hands of Salespeople —Wherever and Whenever They Need It

Salespeople are busier than ever. According to Salesforce’s 2018 “State of Sales” report, reps only spend 34% of their time selling, with the majority of their time focused on other tasks. “Today’s sales reps,” the report concluded, “have far more on their plates than their predecessors. All the while, days have not gotten any longer.”

Sellers don’t have time to go to long in-person (or virtual) training sessions. They need to be able to quickly find contextualized support in their flow of work, whether it’s on a call with a prospect or in between clients visits. This support should be findable, contextual and bite-sized, said Jonckheere, in what Showpad calls a “single source of truth” — one location to house all marketing content, training content and sales coaching. This approach has the added benefit of enabling salespeople to be independent — to “let salespeople be salespeople,” but with a guide of where to go for help, said Jay Woolley, director of marketing for Showpad customer Harman International, on stage with Jonckheere.

That content can’t be bulky articles or long videos, either, and Jonckheere told me that Showpad “strongly believe[s] in” micro-enablement. “It’s about snippets; it’s about very little pieces of content,” he explained. Even better? When the sellers themselves create the content for each other based on their actual successes.

Your sales enablement program should shift training from a fire hose to a continuous learning approach. As Bob Huff, senior curriculum lead at Cargill, pointed out in a panel on onboarding, “It’s just-in-time, not just-in-case.” With bite-sized content, available on mobile devices, salespeople can learn at their own pace and whenever they need help.

What’s Next?

Every conference, in every industry, is likely buzzing with talk of AI and other emerging technologies. TRANSFORM was no different. Technology is making sales enablement more efficient, but presenters were careful to caution us against using tech for tech’s sake. In fact, in his keynote, author Steven Van Belleghem said that the biggest challenge in sales enablement is “to make sure that we don’t get blinded by technology” and instead focus on, “How can we use these technologies to create value for customers?”

Van Belleghem is a proponent of “intelligence augmented,” which he described in an email after TRANSFORM as “a management approach where you use software/technology to boost the performance of your teams. For instance in customer service, you can help employees to perform a more personalized service thanks to smart software. This approach will be necessary to keep service levels up to speed and in line with customer expectations.”

“The more digital the world becomes, the more valuable [the human touch] will be,” he said in his keynote. “I’m a strong believer in combining both.”

After all, as Carrie Fraser, head of global marketing operations for GE Healthcare Digital Innovation and Marketing Excellence, said in a panel discussion, the best part of being a sales enablement professional comes in “know[ing] that I had done something that created lasting value.” Technology can certainly create value — but at the end of the day, sales is about relationships, and the best sales enablement functions support that.