"Do you need a sales enablement team?"

I can hear what you're thinking from over here and yes, I can see those eyes rolling, too. You're thinking that sales enablement is another management consultant initiative that basically just reinvents the wheel. Or maybe you're thinking it's how software vendors are rebranding and repacking existing sales functionality.

"My sales operation," you're thinking, "works just fine."

And maybe it does. Maybe introducing change in sales — a group that's not known for responding well to new processes and tech applications when forced on them from outside — would be counterproductive.

I'll give you this, too: sales enablement is a relatively new space and its mission is often misunderstood. So let's clear that up right now.

What Is Sales Enablement?

Sales enablement is meant to place the right content into the hands of the right sales reps at the right time in the buying cycle in the right format to facilitate a sale.

Think of it as a role instead of a task, wrote Forrester Research in this blog post on the emergence of sales enablement. Sales enablement is "a function within an organization," it wrote.

So perhaps the better question to ask is, "Do you have a well defined sales enablement function?" Because if you do, I would argue that you don't necessarily need to shuffle operations to formalize what you already have in place.

Certainly, companies with a formal sales enablement team in place are in the minority. Seattle, Wash.-based Highspot's recently-released 2015 State of Sales Enablement report found that only 14 percent of the respondents it surveyed have a sales enablement team.

The study, which was conducted in August 2015 with Heinz Marketing, also in Seattle, surveyed more than 400 B2B sales & marketing professionals.

7 Key Questions

By now you may be asking yourself if you need to formalize what probably started out as an organic movement – the divvying up of certain tasks within sales and marketing in response to changing market trends. Or maybe you are asking yourself, 'my sales are okay but they could be better? Is sales enablement the answer?'

But to answer those top level questions, you need to start with these first.

1. How are your sales? Is your sales team meeting and exceeding performance goals?

If one were to summarize Highspot's survey findings into a paragraph it would be companies with sales enablement teams in place work better. Two key stats from the report:

  • 57 percent of respondents reported that their sales efforts were effective or very effective for companies with sales enablement teams versus only 35 percent without
  • Organizations with sales enablement teams were significantly more effective (by as much as 25 percent) on key sales support activities vs. organizations without sales enablement

Companies with sales enablement teams in place also sell more.

Another report by New York City-based Forbes Insight and Brainshark, a sales enablement provider based in Waltham, Mass., found that 59 percent of companies that surpassed revenue targets, and 72 percent that exceeded them by 25 percent or more, have a defined sales enablement function, compared to only 30 percent of underperforming organizations.

2. What does your sales team think about sales productivity?

Ask them, suggests Highspot CEO Robert Wahbe. One of the reasons why sales enablement is growth mode is that many top executives are coming to the conclusion that something is missing in their sales operations.

"There has been a shift in their understanding of how sales has changed," Wahbe told CMSWire. "This shift often began when these executives would talk to their sales teams and actually ask them, 'how effective are we in getting content to you and helping you do your job in general?' And the sales teams’ response would usually be along the lines of abysmal."

3. When you think about the problems in your sales-marketing sphere, do you fixate on content? 'If the team or teams could just get the content right,' you say to yourself, 'everything else will fall into place?'

If this is the case, then probably you do need to adopt the premises and methodologies behind sales enablement.

As Jason Liu, CEO of SAVO, a Chicago-based sales productivity firm told CMSWire earlier this summer, sales enablement is meant to address a complex problem. "In reality there are three enablers for improving the productivity of your sales organization – content distribution, sales process reinforcement and automation of sales tools," he said.

It's not just about content, in other words.

4. What roles or responsibilities are shifting or have shifted within the marketing-sales sphere?

Many of the sales enablement functions were traditionally the purview of product or field marketing. So if there is organic movement around these areas within your internal teams, then you are on the right track.

In the Highspot survey, when asked what activities were included in sales enablement the responses from sales enablement practitioners themselves were very telling.

In general they focused on knowledge transfer, knowledge sharing and tools and processes to identify and share best practices as key to sales enablement -- activities that were traditionally part of the product marketing or field marketing role.

Content, though, was still in marketing's realm.

"Marketing is still expected to produce the content and sales enablement is in charge of training the sales team on it, ensuring they can find it when needed and measuring the effectiveness of it," the report said.

5. Is all of your content created by marketing being used?

Despite the emphasis on holistic processes in questions No. 3 and No. 4, content is a key indicator of how well a sales enablement team is working. According to Sirius Decisions, 60 to 70 percent of all content sits unused, and the real numbers can be even higher.

If content is not being used that means that either 1) the sales team thinks it won’t be effective or 2) the sales team is not able to find it in time. Either way, this is a major indicator that something is wrong.

Another possibility to consider, however, that content is being used but it is being altered so that marketing is unable to track it through the sales process. Highspot CEO Robert Wahbe discussed that trend with CMSWire when the company unveiled its Content Genomics feature this past summer, which is able to identify content that has been duplicated by the sales team and then trace it back to the original based on any number of indicators.

Content genomics, he said, is like facial recognition for marketing content.

6. Do your marketing and sales team members act as though they have a "portfolio-level" responsibility?

This is one of the reasons Forrester gave in its blog post in support of the idea that a separate sales enablement team is necessary. Although they are in the minority, I would argue that some organizations have holistically-trained marketing and sales teams that are also empowered by the organization -- you need to have both -- to take action when needed. To treat a problem at the 'portfolio' level and not as a sales or marketing-specific issue.

7. Do your teams recognize there are many different "customers" they have to serve?

Another issue cited by Forrester. There is the customer of course, but the marketing team must also recognize that the sales staff is its 'client' as it creates user-friendly and easily-located content. Ditto for sales, which must communicate its needs to marketers.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  Title image by Fraser Mummery