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To most people, the idea of running a sales enablement function by yourself is pretty daunting.
You have to create content for dozens (if not hundreds) of salespeople, deliver and update training that helps them succeed, and help managers ensure that reps can actually apply what they’ve learned in the field. That is a lot to ask of one person.
But Lisa Mauri Thomas has been there and done that. As the first-ever National Sales Trainer at Tactile Medical, a Minneapolis-based medical device provider, Thomas has led and executed all sales enablement efforts for a 225-person sales team. And since joining in September of 2017, she admits she has been running at “full tilt” every day.
“There had never been a ‘me’ before [at Tactile Medical],” Thomas says. “There had been sales training, but not true sales enablement. And my role, once it was first posted, was actually open for many months – which is not unusual with any new position, because it’s hard to envision what hasn’t been done yet.”
“My job was to take sales training to the next level, and it’s been an incredible journey so far.”
Thomas joined Brainshark’s Chief Readiness Officer, Jim Ninivaggi, in a recent webinar to discuss the many challenges one-person sales enablement teams face today. Their conversation highlights tips and best practices Thomas found useful as she worked to overhaul Tactile Medical’s sales training approach, implement a new sales enablement platform, and – in her estimation – cut new hire ramp-up times in half.
(You can listen to the full webinar here)
When should companies invest in a dedicated sales enablement leader?
That’s a little bit like asking, ‘When is the right time to have a baby?’ There’s no one perfect time. The biggest question in that example is, ‘Do you want kids or not?’ In a sales training situation, you would ask yourself, ‘Do you want to fully enable your sales reps to excel beyond anything you’ve seen to date?’ And why wouldn’t the answer be yes?
Sales enablement is not just about your sales reps. Think about all the support sales ops, marketing and HR provide. All those areas are just as invested in seeing the sales team succeed. Sales enablement is all about getting these players working together effectively. It’s truly a multidisciplinary, team effort.
Ready for it or not, it will change the organization once implemented. And I believe it’s all for the better.
What type of person makes a great sales enablement leader?
It’s a critical question, especially if a company is looking to bring aboard a solo practitioner.
Sales trainers are typically former reps or managers who have a real passion for conveying what they themselves have probably learned the hard way. The idea is that whoever does the training has to fully understand the sales reps’ world in order to be credible – and that’s a great start. But I have found that it’s not the whole picture.
Sales enablement needs to be highly strategic and well thought-out. You need to understand the reps’ full career cycle and how you build training pathways from one critical milestone to the next. Sales enablement leaders need to anticipate future training adaptations or expansions and understand how to bring all those elements together.
The skills that have been most important in my role are: strategic thinking, program development, strong influence and engagement skills, and solid assessment skills. Throw in some superhero-like organizational skills and a completely fearless attitude for good measure.
I report to the SVP of sales, but I work in partnership with all levels of the organization. It is a highly visible, collaborative role. There will be pushback, ruffled feathers, and a lot of preconceptions about what training is and isn’t. Training isn’t ‘telling.’ Sales enablement professionals really are the ‘conductors’ of an entire orchestra.
Why are assessment skills so important?
It’s great to have people practicing. I work with our sales managers quite a bit because I have them using [Brainshark’s video coaching and practice tool]. I want them to set up the coaching assessments and know what they want to look for and assess. But people don’t always come equipped with natural assessment skills.
Coming from a higher-education background, I’m a big fan of rubrics. I’ll create an assessment rubric for sales managers so they’re very consistent in reviews. They understand what they’re looking for. They can see what’s missing.
Practice is only as good as the coaching and feedback that comes back. To be great at coaching and feedback, you have to have solid assessment skills to hone in on what they should keep doing, what they should stop doing, and what they need to improve on.
What should the first 90 days look like for a solo sales enablement leader?
It’s about assembling the right infrastructure, and as a solo sales enabler, you really need to make it scalable and manageable for one person.
Here’s a series of questions I think anybody during their first 90 days as a solo leader needs to ask:
- What content is available?
- Is it any good?
- Who validates it?
- Can it be repurposed?
- What’s missing?
- How is it typically delivered?
- How has it been evaluated in the past?
- Who does it address?
- Who does it ignore or leave wanting?
- And above all, how does it all connect?
Describe your first 90 days at Tactile Medical.
I was an external hire, so it wasn’t just about understanding the role, but also understanding the company itself. The first thing I tried to focus on was understanding where the sales organization was heading. I needed to understand the vision. An organizational vision can be quite grand, but that doesn’t mean there’s a readily shared understanding of how that vision will come to life.
So I was learning how to navigate the various departments and strengths of the company. And that’s a big thing to realize. How much do you want to put on the plate of your newly-minted sales enablement professional? Fortunately for me, I’m utterly fearless and a superhero – and modest, right?
Another one of my objectives was to launch Brainshark for about 160 salespeople at the national sales meeting, which was roughly my 90-day mark. To gauge what content was available, I had a wall full of Post-it notes (pictured right) for every training topic that needed to be delivered. I was constantly rearranging the notes to make sequential sense out of the training content I had to work with, and to plug the gaps I was uncovering. I had to think about, when do we deliver it? How do we deliver it? How do we assess it? How does it fit? I answered those key questions with Post-it notes and I mapped everything out.
So when I was going through the implementation phase with Brainshark, I was asked: what do you want to build? And I literally just sent them a picture of my wall. The first year was all about translating that strategy into a full-fledged offering of courses with coaching challenges and effective assessments.
How can a ‘team of one’ deliver great sales enablement programs?
Play to your strengths, because you’re going to need them. Nobody can do all things well, but you can make sure you fully leverage what you’re best at. Be very clear on what you can deliver, make real promises, and keep them.
Don’t think a solo practitioner doesn’t require a lot of help. I know I do. I got real chummy, real fast with a variety of subject matter experts, with other managers who also want their teams to succeed, and with previously-siloed departments that didn’t realize how much overlap there was in their existing training materials.
Those partnership bonds need to be strong. I needed them to trust me too. When I started, they thought what I was doing was radical change. I really had to sell them on the vision of sales enablement and what that meant – how working together would translate into everyone’s bottom line. While don’t have a direct report, I do have strong collaboration and influence across 25 or so people. That allows all of us to truly deliver sales enablement.
How should the solo practitioner be measured?
How we should be measured is ever-evolving. Decreasing ramp-up time is a big one. It’s also hard to measure because you don’t always know what it was to begin with. It can be captured anecdotally across many organizations.
I don’t care whether or not a new sales rep gets a question right the first time. Answering a multiple-choice question correctly rarely translates into the ability to apply the information in nuanced situations. That’s why I love Brainshark [video coaching activities].
And you don’t want to overlook training evaluations. You don’t have to ask reps the same boring questions we’ve been asking since the beginning of time. Don’t ask them if they were satisfied with the training. Ask them to what extent your sales enablement program far exceeded any training they’ve been through in the past. Ask them what top three things they learned that they know will contribute most to their success. Have them describe their excitement and confidence levels. And you can always leverage that positive feedback.
I know what I want to measure in terms of sales enablement success. Once you figure out what you want, you often find you weren’t collecting all the data in the first place that you’re going to eventually need.
A good set of starting questions to ask include:
- What data do I have?
- For each type of data, what has been the historical trend?
- What would that trend line look like without sales enablement?
- In theory, what do you think those trend lines would look like at specific training milestones?
I focused initially on courses for new hires to decrease their ramp-up time. My next step is to look at historical commissions of new hires – monthly, from date of hire – as an indication of their ramp-up speed. Anecdotally, I know new hire ramp-up speed has curved sharply upward. I’d be confident suggesting that new hire ramp up time has literally been cut in half. But I’m still working on which data actually proves that out.
When is one sales enablement leader not enough?
To know whether one person is or is not enough, you need to know the one person is as productive as possible. Are they doing everything they can to maximize efforts and see solid results? I can do a lot with borrowing time from 25 people. But I had to find ways to leverage technology and other tools to really maximize my efforts.
Using Brainshark is the closest thing I’ve found to cloning myself. I’ve created over 80 short courses in the past year. Every one of them feature my voice, my personality, my approach to engagement and assessment. And I’ve got 225-plus reps taking these courses at any given time, interspersed with [video coaching activities] that their managers have assigned. Meanwhile, I’m facilitating live training courses, or doing ride-alongs with sales reps to assess how effective their online and live training has been toward their efforts with real customers.
How do you ask for more resources?
Any solo enabler out there now thinking, ‘I’m swamped, I really need more help,’ has to be ready to talk ROI. Tie it back to company vision and strategic imperatives. It allows you to close in on those mutually beneficial commitments toward additional resources. You’ve got to clearly show how adding another person, for example, will actually triple what the two of you can do.
I really am content with being a solo practitioner for a while. When I’m ready, I will sell my boss on the need for additional resources just like I sold him on hiring me, even though I wasn’t a sales manager. I would explain the value of expanding resources. I would ask a lot of probing questions of my boss, not just to understand their mindset, but to frame questions in a way that easily leads them to saying yes. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if…?’
Then, because I’ll have done my homework, I need to be ready to support and satisfy anything that comes up in their questions – any objections that my boss or anybody else might raise – and to talk about ROI.
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