Sales enablement —the strategic use of people, processes, and technology to improve sales productivity and increase revenue — is the (usually) missing key for sales organizations that want to evolve beyond a handful of overachievers and into a well-oiled, agile, and high-performing commercial machine. Along with go-to-market — how an organization engages with customers to convince them to buy its product or service — sales enablement plays a critical role in how commercially agile a company is. However, between the two functions, it is GTM that is most covered in business literature and thought leadership articles, leaving sales enablement under-studied and most companies confused on how to even start building this muscle, what skills to look for in the talent market, and where to place it in their organizational structure.
GTM strategy, as a skill and a business function, has also been thoroughly covered in other posts from Future contributors and I find that the Growth+Sales framework is still the most cohesive strategy for SaaS and enterprise companies. With that in mind, I will share some thoughts on how companies can build a solid sales enablement strategy that will elevate their GTM strategies and accelerate their sales engines.
Designing a sales enablement strategy
The physics behind the law of communicating vessels says that a fluid will reach the same level in all parts of the system, regardless of the lowest point of the pipes. This is actually what happens between GTM and sales enablement, too, as both feed each other with strategic input, sales insights, and customer feedback. Many companies approach the connection of these two teams in a linear way, with GTM handing over the commercial strategy to sales enablement for execution — but this is short-sighted.
Sales enablement leaders benefit by being able to identify gaps in the GTM strategy and, more importantly, test it with the sales team and customers. They also benefit from being able to partner with the internal systems and tool teams to optimize the tech stack to support this strategy and turn sales results into insights. In a way, sales enablement is the glue keeping all GTM strategies tied together and on track for success.
Most companies define sales enablement very narrowly as the practice of providing sales teams with the resources they need to effectively sell. Although this is definitely an important part of what sales enablement teams do, their role can — and should — be much more strategic. A successful sales enablement strategy:
- Designs skilling and readiness programs to build accelerated sales expertise.
- Ensures that sellers “sell on strategy” following the company’s sales methodology.
- Translates sales analytics into actionable insights for marketing & engineering teams.
- Simplifies and automates the sellers’ journey of discovering marketing assets curated for their target customers and personas.
Before I expand on each one of these sales enablement pillars, it’s important to address the different parts of the enablement quadrant and see how organizational clarity and smart metrics can empower enablement teams for success. The sales enablement quadrant visualizes the different parts of a successful enablement strategy, but also the different skills, teams, and methods needed to bring each step into life.
Sales skills and capabilities
This is the part that focuses on the learning aspect of enablement. Learning and knowledge management experts collaborate with enablement specialists to design courses that will quickly ramp up sellers and help them acquire the right skills.
How to sell
This layer is where GTM and enablement teams work closely together to identify the right sales methodology for each segment, build synergies between digital and in-person sales strategies, and generally address evolving customer needs.
What to sell
This is where enablement, GTM, and marketing teams collaborate to design content strategies for each segment and buyer persona. The enablement teams are using sales tools and platforms to empower sellers to discover the right assets at the right stage of the sales cycle, track the effectiveness of marketing assets, and build internal feedback loops to optimize the sales journey.
Closing the deal
This is a fairly new practice and has co-evolved with the practice of account-based marketing (ABM). Sales enablement leaders, ideally with previous sales experience, are focusing on specific accounts and big pipeline opportunities, actively supporting the sales teams to build orchestrated strategies and discover upsell opportunities.
Organizational structure and smart measurement
Most companies, especially startups, have a hard job deciding where to place GTM and enablement in their organizations because these functions, by design, are supposed to connect other functions like sales, marketing, engineering, and delivery. One solution is to make both GTM and enablement part of the sales organization with an empowered role to go over organizational boundaries and build synergies accordingly. By placing GTM and enablement under sales, companies can do a better job tracking and measuring these teams with metrics that are focused on sales rather than on marketing.
Relatedly, there is a growing literature and public debate about the value that the OKR (objectives and key results) framework can bring to organizations. Whether they are the right measurement framework for all parts of a business or not, I am a big advocate of using them in GTM and enablement teams. The reason is that OKRs can strike a rare balance between strictly numerically measurable results, qualitatively measured targets, and long-term objectives that, by definition, sales teams should aspire to. Being obsessed with tracking monetary sales targets has proven to be a myopic strategy, leading to sales efficiency but not sales effectiveness.
Rather, in the name of sustainable commercial growth, companies instead focus on revenue, sales methodology, and internal feedback loops. Some key metrics for sales enablement that address these aims are:
- Pipeline and deal velocity
- Win rate
- Business decision makers (BDMs)/target personas involved in the sales journey
- Number of marketing assets used in a sales cycle
- Number of deals lost to competition
Sales enablement pillars: Pick your battles
Designing skilling programs to accelerate sales expertise
Corporate knowledge management was always a hot topic in the field of organizational management and business leadership. If we think about a company as a living organism, then a knowledge management system is essentially the collective brain that keeps that organism alive and running. With most companies following work-from-home policies the last two years, the need — and the difficulty — of building a distributed knowledge management system is greater than ever.
Companies should think about modernizing how they theoretically approach and define sales training and sales knowledge management. The latest research suggests that sales is an “ill-structured domain.” An ill-structured domain contains many concepts that are relevant during application, but the patterns of combination of those concepts are inconsistent “across case applications of the same nominal type.” In other words, there is often great variability in how the concepts look when you are taking action in the domain, even if these concepts are simple in theory. For example, I have personally attended multiple trainings on sales methodologies and deal-closing techniques, but every time I am in front of a customer I have to improvise. This is because the old cliche that “every customer is different” is true, hence the variability and inconsistency in sales concepts.
This is why it’s useful to change the way we think about what learning means for sales. The way we are taught concepts in school presupposes that the concept is what is important; examples are merely given to illustrate that concept in action, and then discarded later. This mostly works for regular domains like chess and physics and math. But in ill-structured domains like sales, case studies are everything.
Therefore, learning in such a domain demands that the enablement strategy resist reducing everything down to a single explanation or a single prototypical example. Successful enablement teams:
- Identify sales experts/overachievers.
- Perform cognitive task analysis on these identified experts to extract their expertise.
- Build a case library of case studies.
- Build training simulations based on case studies.
Selling on strategy: Adopting a common sales methodology
A sales methodology is a framework or set of principles that guides sales teams throughout the sales process. It takes goals and turns them into actionable steps, and bridges the gap between what needs to be done and how to do it.
In the 1950s, formula selling became popular, and is still used by telemarketers and door-to-door salespeople everywhere. AIDA (which stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) is perhaps the most famous formula, encouraging salespeople to grab the buyer’s attention, stimulate interest in the product, induce desire to own the product, and move them to take action.
A few years later, Xerox invested several million dollars in the development of a “needs satisfaction” approach, also referred to as “solution selling.” This, the first of the modern complex sales methodologies, was so successful that Xerox packaged and sold it to other corporations under the name of Professional Selling Skills.
Today, there are many sales methodologies popular in the tech industry — like SNAP, Challenger, and MEDDIC — and each company ends up adopting one of them and slightly customizing it to fit their needs. Regardless of which methodology is adopted, though, it’s helpful to have a team that will act as a “gatekeeper” by curating the internal sales tools to reflect the chosen methodology, tracking it, and enabling the sales teams to follow it.
This is one of the most strategic responsibilities of successful sales enablement teams because, most of the time, the how is more important than the what or the how many. For example, a SaaS company may be successful selling a product for some time, but if it doesn’t have the right decision-makers involved in the selling process, or if it heavily uses discounts or has poor customer-success engagement, that success won’t last long. There will be a competitor doing this in a more holistic way.
Another thing to consider is that, as companies consider their return-to-work strategy, there is no consensus defining the “new normal.” For many sales organizations, the major question is whether they will eventually go back to a sales model that features inside and field sales reps connecting with their customers both onsite and online. In 2022, 66% of sales teams operate in virtual or hybrid environments. This means that identifying a sales methodology that fits a company’s customers’ needs and its own sales capabilities is imperative.
Translating sales data into actionable insights
There has been a lot of public discussion about the democratization of data, data visualization tools, and the notion of translating data into insights. Again, the practice of not just tracking, but actually translating, data is not well established in most companies. Many companies have sales excellence teams, but they tend to focus on quota attainment, target setting, and revenue tracking.
Successful sales enablement teams, on the other hand, are analyzing sales data to identify emerging customer behaviors, sales patterns, competitive signals, and new use cases. These insights can be the foundation of a feedback loop between sales, marketing, and engineering that helps guide the company on product development, new marketing campaigns, and even identifying sales talent gaps. Atlassian is a great example of a SaaS company that evolved its GTM as more sales data from various customers came in, ending up in a multi-layer strategy that targeted different decision makers inside a company (from developers to IT leaders) with different solutions (from Jira to Confluence).
With new sales metrics and KPIs being introduced every day, sales enablement can also benefit by identifying the most valuable metrics and guiding the whole company to focus on them. For example, the latest reports show that the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed organizations to continuously focus on metrics that track buyer loyalty and retention. Companies that track net promoter score (NPS) as a measure of sales performance increased by 4% year over year, and organizations report 7% higher customer retention rates when they track NPS. By making sure buyers are happy with the solution and service, organizations can create repeatable revenue flow from existing customers and growth through upsells or cross-sells.
Another interesting finding is that companies that track the number of deals lost to competition report a 7% increase in quota attainment and a 10% increase in customer retention.
This is the kind of insight that sales enablement can discover through smart data analysis, share with marketing and engineering, and — most importantly — integrate into sales programs to create an always-on organizational feedback loop.
Simplifying and automating the seller’s journey
One of the oldest tales in the business world is the never-ending conflict between sales and marketing. The story goes something like this: Sales is critical of marketing because sales feels that marketing’s campaigns, assets, and messaging are not relevant for customers; marketing believes that sales doesn’t invest time in educating itself on marketing’s narrative, and loses customers as a result.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Despite the popular consensus, the most effective way to resolve this tension is not by just quantitatively measuring marketing efforts. Rather, it’s by building feedback loops between the two organizations and measuring both on their mutually agreed accountabilities. For example, sales teams can be measured on the quality of their account plans, how many marketing assets they used during an engagement sales cycle, and whether they followed the company’s sales methodology, while marketing can be accountable on the velocity of an engagement, the usage metrics of sales assets, and the engagement rate of key target personas.
Sales enablement teams can bridge that gap by picking the sales enablement (or sometimes CRM) platform that best serves the needs of their company, educating both marketing and sales on how to make the most out of this platform, and championing its adoption and use. We very often talk about customer journeys and experiences, but we rarely address how challenging and even chaotic the experiences of a marketer and a seller can be in building campaigns or discovering the right marketing assets for their customers. This is a very important problem for all sales teams, regardless of the size of the company, and this is exactly why there is currently a booming SaaS sales enablement industry.
Very often, startups and even established tech companies invest time, money, and resources to find answers to questions that are not even the right ones in the first place. For example, for questions like, “When is the right time to invest in sales?”, there now seems to be public consensus that the right time is always now. Investing in building a sales enablement muscle can help companies answer many of these questions and, more importantly, help them focus on the right questions.
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