Try this the next time you’re with salespeople: Ask them what they think sales enablement is and how it improves sales performance. I bet if you ask 10 people, you’ll receive 10 different answers.

For some people, sales enablement is about data – preferably big data (typically from companies that sell big data services). Others will talk about procuring better quality information from your customer relationship management (CRM) system, or having marketing content at their fingertips, or using artificial intelligence (AI) to better target their selling or having more tools that give them just-in-time market analysis. The range of answers will build from there.

So…which is it? Well, it can be any or all of these things. It’s better to define the purpose of sales enablement and how your organization can leverage the investment in it for stronger sales. Here’s the simplest definition: Sales enablement is about providing salespeople with content, tools and data so they can have more effective conversations with prospects and clients. One hundred percent of sales enablement – including the reporting, sales processes, data, analysis, lead scoring, marketing content, AI and more – is there to position the salesperson to have better quality sales conversations. That’s it.

The Last Mile

The central challenge, then, is how to more reliably ensure that your investment in sales enablement actually leads to better sales conversations and, just as important, better outcomes from those conversations. One way to answer that question is to consider a concept known in the telecommunications industry as “the last mile” – the final leg of the network that reaches the user’s home or business via traditional copper wire or fiber optic cable. If the last mile is sub-standard, the millions of dollars the telecommunications company is wasted.

Translated to sales, the last mile is that moment when the sales rep sits down with the customer. Sales enablement is there to empower the sales rep for that moment. If your sales reps lack the necessary conversation skills and acumen to engage the customer at the right level, all the sales enablement initiatives in the world – all the data, analysis, marketing content and everything else that you’ve invested in – won’t matter.

Here is where sales training becomes the critical, and often overlooked, part of sales enablement – and where the two working in tandem can yield strong results. For example, if a salesperson can’t incorporate into her customer conversation the financial analysis data provided to her by the enablement team, and do so in a way that helps the customer more clearly contrast his current and desired situations and better explore the gap between the two, then the data is just more noise.

The Buyer’s Journey

Here’s another consideration: If enablement is about providing the data, content and tools that help salespeople have better quality conversations, all three of those elements need to be aligned with the buyer’s journey – the path all customers travel when weighing a major decision. We all go through various phases when we’re making a major purchasing decision. Your prospects and clients do, too, and buyers’ definitions of the value that they receive from spending time with salespeople change depending on the phase of the buyer’s journey that they’re in.

In the earliest phase, buyers assess their needs, challenges and opportunities. They ask questions like, “Do we have a problem? If so, how severe?” and, “Do we have an opportunity? If so, what’s the potential upside?” These discussions are largely internal – and they’re important.

The second phase involves evaluating different alternatives to solving the problem or addressing the issue. In this phase, clients ask questions such as, “Do we explore different vendors or partners, or do we handle this challenge internally – and, if so, how?”, “If handled internally, do we use the money we’re saving for something else?”, and, “Do we do nothing and just live with what we have now?”

Those questions involve evaluating alternatives – and if your customer decides to move forward with one option over another, they enter a third phase, where last-minute risks and concerns bubble back to the surface for a last look before they pull the trigger on a final decision.

The salesperson’s ability to deftly identify and connect to where the buyer is on that journey is a critical sales skill. What’s more, a too-often overlooked requirement of sales enablement is the alignment of data, content and tools to deliver value based on the relevant stage in the buyer’s journey. The selling skills that can create value for a buyer who’s in one phase may be counterproductive and inappropriate for a buyer who’s in another phase. For example, a product-centric sales presentation is only valuable when a buyer is evaluating alternatives. In earlier or later phases of the buying journey, even the most well-delivered product-centric presentation will be a value-detractor.

Managers and Coaching

If the goal of sales enablement is to empower and equip salespeople to have better conversations with customers, then managers play a critical role in developing the potential of their people to plan and execute those conversations. In a recent survey by Integrity Solutions and the Sales Management Association, nearly three-quarters of sales leaders said that coaching is critical to achieving their goals. However, 76 percent of managers said that they do very little coaching, if any.

The bottom line? In order to sustain and leverage the investments you’re making in sales enablement, it’s critical to equip your mangers to have coaching conversations that build, develop and capture the potential of every sales rep.

Your sales enablement investments pay off in the ability of your salespeople to translate data, tools and content into an effective conversation that creates value for customers. This is enablement’s last mile, and it’s also where your enablement program will yield the highest return on investment.