This article originally appeared in Forbes on Dec. 26, 2018.
At the majority of organizations, the term “sales enablement” refers to equipping sales reps with the knowledge, skills, tools and content for success. For many of these companies, though, enablement stops with the reps — and often, first-line managers are ignored. In fact, per sales research firm CSO Insights' 2017 report, nearly one in five companies in its 2016 study made no training investments in these managers at all.
So with sales managers getting little to no training, it comes as no surprise that enablement for sales executives (director and VP level) is virtually nonexistent. And that’s a shame — both because of the unique responsibilities and challenges facing sales leadership and because sales executives can play make-or-break roles in sales enablement success. They need to have deep familiarity with — and first-hand appreciation for — the programs. In short, they need to be both enablement participants and enablement champions. Here's how you can facilitate that shift as a sales enablement professional, based on my experience as the chief readiness officer of a sales enablement solutions company.
What Does Sales Executive Enablement Look Like?
Sales leaders are actually poised to greatly benefit from the additional knowledge and support of enablement — since many have responsibilities akin to running a small business. For example, if a sales leader is overseeing a region producing $50 million in revenue, that leader could be considered the de facto CEO of a mid-sized company. As such, sales leaders need to hone a skill set that includes financial acumen, communication skills and so on.
It's important to verify that sales leaders have mastered these skills, but from an enablement perspective, it’s often easier said than done. Leaders have typically been high achievers throughout their careers, so the enablement head who blithely offers to help a venerable sales executive do their job more effectively may need to duck.
To structure enablement programs and services that are both palatable to and productive for sales leaders, heads of enablement should:
- Involve them in the program. For example, enablement professionals might say: “Here’s where our organization needs your help. If we were to develop enablement services for you so you can help with our program, what might those services look like?” Feedback can also be collected via survey.
- Make an outline. After incorporating sales leaders’ feedback, enablement heads can then present an outline for review before fully fleshing out a program.
- Discuss the frequency of executive enablement. The reality is that sales execs are busy. A realistic aim for sales enablement professionals could be to provide enablement quarterly. Perhaps you can tie it with travel to quarterly business review (QBR) locations.
As an enablement professional, you can also provide support as sales leaders address their business-critical responsibilities that are differentiated from those of other leaders in the organization. Some of these key duties include:
- Coaching the coaches. When sales leaders coach sales managers effectively, the managers, in turn, can coach their reps adeptly. Executives can also be more confident in managers’ forecasts, field readiness assessments and more. You can provide guidance both on how often these coaching conversations should happen and on the structure of those conversations.
- Translating strategy to execution. Sales leaders need to continually communicate business strategy so that managers can effectively lead their teams. For instance, after a major reorganization with redefined territories and new sales structures and processes, sales leaders must not only share the details with the managers below them but also communicate why the changes are so important. To facilitate unfettered and continuous communication, enablement professionals can provide templates for communications to deliver live or as a video or podcast.
- Owning the sales talent strategy. People are the lifeblood of an organization and talented, motivated and productive sellers are key to driving more sales. Sales leadership typically owns and is accountable for sales recruitment and retention strategies and success, so you can work jointly with them to establish hiring targets and help guide the hiring and assessment process.
Sales Executives Should Be Enablement Advocates
Beyond standing to benefit from your enablement services, sales executives also play pivotal roles in your overall sales-team enablement success. The truth is: without the buy-in and wholehearted support of sales leadership, your enablement initiatives are always in jeopardy. If you have a sales leader who just gives lip service to the idea of maximizing sales talent but lacks a true commitment to getting reps buyer-ready, then you could struggle with adoption and impact.
At a time when maximizing sales talent is a major challenge and the costs of bridging skills gaps can be high, sales enablement and readiness are arguably more important than ever. In fact, according to CSO Insights' 2018 Sales Talent Study, “sales organizations are experiencing a talent crisis” as more than eight in 10 sales leaders (83.6%) surveyed didn't agree that their companies have the sales talent they need to succeed in the future.
Yet sadly, even in the face of this talent crisis, many sales leaders aren’t helping to address it. It’s not because the problem isn’t a priority — but, rather, because they’re laser-focused on short-term goals, and the day-to-day and quarter-to-quarter responsibilities required to achieve them.
To enact change and convert sales leaders into enablement champions, enablement professionals must convince them both of the tangible, long-term benefits and the potential perils of ignoring enablement.
Executive Enablement is a Two-Step Approach
Lack of sales leadership buy-in is one of the most common reasons why sales enablement programs fail. Sales enablement professionals, however, must understand that executives aren’t going to magically “see the light” and take an active role. Rather, it is the job of the enablement team to get leadership involved in the program.
Accomplishing this is a two-step process that begins with convincing sales leaders that it’s in their own interest to become champions and agents of enablement. Afterward, it’s much easier to accomplish the second step: having sales leaders participate in their own enablement process. When they do this, it can set up a foundation for continuously cultivating and fostering critical talent — at all levels of the organization — and driving overall sales success.
How mature is your sales enablement function? Learn that and much more in this annual report from CSO Insights: