Is sales enablement dead?


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Sales Enablement is a huge topic in B2B these days. You can spend all day every day and still barely scratch the surface of all the dialogue, debate, and events exploring the "real" meaning of sales enablement, who is doing it well, what tools are most useful, and how social media will revolutionize the whole process. (Forrester's upcoming forum is a great example.)

The activity makes sense. We all know the B2B sales cycle keeps getting longer, more and more people are involved in big purchase decisions, and lead nurturing is incredibly important. We know that crafting custom solutions is essential if we're going to avoid fighting over discounts with procurement folks on the other side of the table. Our sales teams need to know more, do more, and be ever more capable of having the right conversations with the right buyers and influencers at the right time.

And this isn't just talk. Sales enablement is a big area for investment. According to IDC, ITSMA, and other analysts, sales enablement is a top priority for many marketing leaders. It's one of the few areas of increased spending (along with digital marketing, of course) amid relatively flat marketing budgets. Sales enablement companies like SAVO are growing like gangbusters.

So, this is great news for marketers, right? We're drilling into what sales really needs and making a difference.

Well, I wonder. In today's world of B2B solutions, is sales enablement even possible?

The practical reality for many B2B organizations is that sellers don't really sell anymore. What they do is help people buy once those buyers have made up their minds it's time for a purchase. 

Buyers today have all the information. They have extremely smart and sophisticated teams that know far more about what they need than any sales person. They talk to peers across their industries to learn more about what's working and what's not — and which vendors are worth considering and which are not. Along the way, in fits and starts, they decide it's time to invest in a new solution. Then, and only then, they start to talk with vendors and potential partners to see if you can deliver what they need.

OK, you know this, too. It's not news to say that buyers are in control and that they set the pace. So is it just semantics when I suggest that sales enablement is dead and the real issue is buyer enablement?

Surely we cannot just get rid of our sales forces, spread the good word about our solutions, and wait for buyers to show up. Indeed not. Especially in the world of high-end solutions, sales teams are more important then ever to helping buyers move from defined need and interest to crafting specific solutions that deliver clear value, and then closing the deal. 

As sales guru Neil Rackham noted recently at ISBM's conference on marketing and sales alignment, sales people increasingly need to move from value communication to value creation. They can't just talk about the value of your offerings, they have to work with customers to help create the solutions. 

To help this process along, sales people need a huge amount of help, i.e., enablement! As the analysts keep pointing out, too few sales people are well equipped for these kinds of consultative conversations and too few buyer executives find any value at all from our sales people. 

But language matters. It reflects our mindset. And our mindset needs to change. 

Buyers are in control; that's not going to change. Traditional selling is less and less effective, and often even counterproductive. Helping buyers craft solutions and invest in real value for their business is the way we should be thinking about our work.

For marketers, then, it's not so much about enabling sales, it's really about collaborating with sales to enable the buyers. More investment can help, and new tools can be useful, but I think the starting point is clarifying exactly what it is we're trying to do.

Do you agree? Is this a meaningful distinction or just a pointless word game? I'd love to hear how you're approaching the issue.

Photo credit: Dan Perry

Rob Leavitt
Rob is a Principal at Solutions Insights, a B2B consulting and training firm, and a Senior Associate of the Information Technology Services Marketing Association (ITSMA), where he served as Vice President of Marketing and Member Advocacy from 2-27.


  1. Rob,

    I think you’re spot on. The techniques of sales enablement are as important as they ever were – but their purpose is to equip and enable sales people to facilitate their prospect’s decision making process.

    Sales enablement works when it is the result of a profound shared understanding between sales and marketing as to who their most valuable customers are, what issues really matter to them, and how and why they choose to buy.

    Some of the most valuable “sales enablement” tools are the ones that prepare sales people for the genuinely consultative conversations you refer to. For example, we’ve seen great value in conversation maps and equipping sales people to share anecdotes and sell through storytelling.

    As one senior buyer remarked in a recent voice of the customer interview, “For as long as I’m learning something, I’m listening. But the moment I get the sense I’m being pitched to, I tune out”.

    Our top performing natural sales people understand this instinctively. Our challenge must be to equip their middle-of-the road colleagues to raise their game.

    Bob Apollo | Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners

  2. Rob,

    I too agree with the premise of your article, I sometimes use the word sales enablement thinking the word and what it implies is universally understood, especially when attending a Sales 2.0 event, but I quickly learn that sales enablement often is code for a CRM enhancement application that doesn’t actually focus on the cultural disfunction between how sales professionals work and the world of marketers.

    Even using the name Sales Enablement doesn’t resonate for sales people they would say (rightly)it’s a marketing creation and thus points to the bigger issue in this so-called “enablement” space. To close an enterprise deal, a sales professional does rely on new tools and information sources to “know the client” better, but at the end of the day a quota-based rep must use personal tried and true relationship skills to achieve his/her objectives, marketing however does not.

    It’s good that marketers want better tools and insight to determine the inner thinking/wants/expectations of prospective clients, but companies should endeavor to align marketers and sales in quota and revenue expectations in this way enablement would transform from a purely marketing perspective to a shared vision.

  3. Great post Rob. I think you nail it when you say ‘They can’t just talk about the value of your offerings, they have to work with customers to help create the solutions.’

    Too many sellers have products and services that can generate considerable value for their clients, yet they aren’t able to sell or implement them in way that realises that value.

  4. Bob, Jeff, Richard: Thanks much for your thoughtful comments. As you all suggest, building a shared understanding across sales and marketing of what customers need most, especially the most important customers, is an essential next step for advancing “buyer enablement.”

    I agree with Jeff that aligning the two around revenue expectations can be a powerful driver in this direction, although I would caution that this should not mean simply putting marketing in a traditional support role for sales. Both need to change if we’re going to remain relevant and helpful for increasingly knowledgeable and independent customers.

    Perhaps most important, we need to find ways to connect sales people’s knowledge of customers and opportunities in the field with marketing’s knowledge of market trends and company capabilities so we can all focus more directly on the co-creation of valuable solutions for our customers.

  5. Rob,

    I agree with your last post now the question is how firms actually alter the cross-functional roles that sales & marketing play? The problem I see time after time is a lack of willingness or awareness of senior executives to push for the kinds of re-alignment strategies we’re discussion in this blog. I think creating a financial motivation makes sense, it’s what drives most sales people, I’m certain marketing would respond to their own kind of motivation if the goals were clear and unambiguous, now that’s what I would call sales enablement!

    Jeff Lionz
    CRM/Lead Management Consultant
    [email protected]

  6. Yes indeed, excellent stuff Rob.

    Personally I found that the “big picture” of much of this new world commerce was very well laid out, for the individual in Daniel H Pink’s “A Whole New Mind – Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future” and, for the company/corporation too in Thomas L Friedman’s “The World is Flat”.

    And I think when both people and the companies they form have done so with a view to filling buyer needs wants and desires from those angles, the enabling of our communicators (sellers, story tellers, architects, orchestral business conductors) will be a much more natural and obvious exercise.

    It’s all “Connect & Collaborate” now, not “Command & Control” that has been the bedrock of 20th Century production line and “push” or “interruptive” thinking.

  7. Rob;

    Very good post and discussion. I cannot argue with anything you say, and may even have to quote you!

    One question that regularly comes up when meeting with clients (mostly Silicon Valley-based high tech and pharma), is, what IS sales enablement? I was at an executive level meeting, just recently, in the Silicon Valley area, where a comment was made by the senior VP of worldwide sales, that the term would need to be defined for the sales force, because it meant different things to different people.

    We recognize three types of sales enablement subject matter:

    Product/service training which includes features, functions, differentiators, competitive landscape.

    Sales training which includes how to sell, how to qualify new prospects, how to deliver presentations, how to handle pricing discussions.

    Sales knowledge which includes specific case studies of successful, and failed sales cycles which give sales teams opportunities to learn from their peers. The content here would be, which marketing collateral to use at specific parts of a sales cycle, or, how to get to decision-maker levels in the financial services industry, or, how to shut out a competitor in the pharmaceutical industry, when selling drugs to hospitals.

    Three distinct buckets of enablement, all of which are crucial to the development of a high performing sales team. How does this training get delivered in an optimal scenario?

    Product/service training is delivered as a broad, conceptual overview at regular, perhaps quarterly meetings. Ideally, advances in the product line have accommodated feedback from sales teams to the product management group. More detailed information on the product line is created for a sales audience, leaning on key messages, competitive differentiators, unique selling propositions etc. If a sales guy, in high tech, is going to a sales meeting that includes a team of engineers, it is common practice to take along a product management person who can talk about bits and bytes as required.

    So, quarterly, in-person, updates backed up by detailed content, created with sales in mind, that can be accessed via a sales portal and/or ideally via a CRM system.

    Sales training will likely occur when a new sales person is on-boarded, with revisits and intra-team coaching/mentoring throughout the year, at scheduled sales team meetings. Much of this content will be or should be documented and accessible in the same way as the product/service training. In larger organizations, this is likely to occur regionally, often with little coordination or knowledge-sharing between the regions.

    Sales knowledge will be gathered at strategic times throughout the year, and made available as easily as possible to the rest of the team. Think of sales knowledge as a sales case study. As well as capturing the nuances of how a top performer won a particular deal in a specific vertical, analysis is also applied to look beneath the covers and reveal the underlying themes that have made that sales person successful.

    Research (and personal experience) has shown that one of the biggest sales enablement challenges is getting the right tools in to the hands of the right sales people, at the right time in the sales cycle. SAVO, Kadient and others certainly offer solutions that support this, but without good content, the most sophisticated solution available will still miss the mark.

  8. All great comments and additions to this discussion. But now that we’ve gone deep and wide how can we do what it takes for people to do more than understand what sales enablement is, and why it’s important? I believe that, as with most everything we do, now that we’ve broken it down, laid it out, reasoned its importance and explained its place, we need to simplify it.

    It should be as easy to understand as sales process. Of course, we’ve been talking about the need for optimized, formal, structured sales processes for many years and most companies still don’t have those in place either…

    Company size is a big factor in all this – not the size of the customer, but the size of the seller. A large company can create a dedicated position for a Sales Enablement Officer. A small company may not even have a sales manager! The President providing “as needed” sales management is no more likely to enable his sales force than he is to coach them; and he is not qualified to do either.

    How can we simplify this further so that companies can begin to adopt the concepts, practices and approach?

  9. Hi all — The great comments continue! Thanks to everyone for furthering the discussion. Here are a few more thoughts based on the comments and general past experience:

    – Per Dave, I totally agree that simplification is essential, and that it starts at the top. When companies have a clear mission, story, and value proposition to the market, and clear sense of which types of customers they’re serving, everything else gets a whole lot easier. One of the biggest challenges that both marketing and sales have is trying to keep with with the frequent changes in overall corporate strategy or the lack of a coherent strategy altogether. Companies ranging in size and complexity from IBM to to HubSpot have pretty clear overall stories and messages to the market, and that makes everything underneath easier to implement. From a marketing perspective, this should mean a constant focus on sharpening the core message of the company, sharpening the focus on key market opportunities, and consistently highlighting a handful of basic stories about the business issues that the company is addressing. All this will make the work with sales on buyer enablement easier.

    – Per Michael and Jeff, I also agree that there is a lot of confusion about what “sales enablement” means. Some folks have an expansive view and include the types of training and knowledge sharing the Michael outlines (I’d personally add ongoing coaching to that list). Others, such as IDC, have a narrower view that emphasizes information support. I’m not sure we can solve this one so easily, given the financial stakes that so many people and vendors have in their particular definitions. But, as in my original post, I’m more interested in shifting the discussion to how marketing and sales together enable the buying process. A much greater emphasis on understanding our customers, their markets, and our own competition is essential, and can be a good driver for the “connect and collaborate” approach that Neil mentions. Projects like “Competipedia” at Xerox, which provides a social media platform as well as clear financial incentives for marketing and sales to input and use market and competitive intelligence is a great example of the new approach in action (ITSMA has a good case study at

    – Finally, we’ve found that focused projects with key accounts is a good way to jump start marketing and sales collaboration around more of a buyer enablement approach. You’re usually much more willing to try new approaches and take more of a buyer first (vs. product first) attitude with your most important accounts because of their importance to the business. New ways of serving their needs not only keeps them happy, and probably drives even more revenue and profit to you, it also often generates new ideas and new solutions that can be taken to market more widely, and often with very credible references and testimonials from those key customers. Proving the value of the new approach with a few key accounts then makes it much easier to start spreading that approach across marketing and sales overall.

  10. Hi Rob,

    My guess is that sales enablement is still in gestation…In an ideal world, sales people would spend all their time closing the deal and negotiating the terms of the sale.

    Marketing would anticipate buyers’ every need–and get them what they want, the way they want it. And, the cost of sales would drop dramatically.

    That’s the ideal, getting there is more challenging. Sales enablement systems are only as useful as the content they provide.

    As Bob notes, essential is determining who the most valuable customers and prospects are, what matters most to them and how they prefer to buy–so you can deliver the content customers want where and when they want it.

    This basic research, done well points the way to creating the solutions, and the value, that Rob advocates–as well as the topics around which the content revolves.

    Too often, this research is done in haste, or focuses on just one aspect of customers’ needs causing companies to either miss opportunities–or produce communications too general to be of value.

    That said, as the market becomes more competitive, I for one am seeing more emphasis on developing buyer personas, and highly-specific value propositions–so that both solutions and content capture and engage prospects’ interest.

    As for the organizational structure, it would be great if we can do a better job of integrating all customer-facing personnel–which means service in addition to sales and marketing. That way, we can share knowledge more easily and speak with one voice to our customers and prospects.

    Some companies are already co-locating individuals in these functions for specific product lines. With technology to capture and categorize information, we may be able to integrate the roles themselves–and staff these positions with generalists who respond to prospects and customers needs across the continuum. A good plan, since our existing customers are also our best prospects…

  11. I think this is where many of us are seeing WWIII being played out Barbara. Because I agree that it says in many a late 20th Century “text book” that…

    “In an ideal world, sales people would spend all their time closing the deal and negotiating the terms of the sale.
    Marketing would anticipate buyers’ every need–and get them what they want, the way they want it. And, the cost of sales would drop dramatically.”

    …and yet precious few companies ever found that faceless/nameless and “silent” marketing staff could ever form meaningful relationships with either key accounts or prospects, in order to discover what they really, really wanted. And nor would they listen to any sales or account handling/servicing staff who might already have known this, and certainly not so that those staff were then a functioning part of the loop, who could also stand to gain from enhanced internal and external relationships and revenues & profits.

    So we have indeed instead got to this version…

    “As for the organizational structure, it would be great if we can do a better job of integrating all customer-facing personnel–which means service in addition to sales and marketing. That way, we can share knowledge more easily and speak with one voice to our customers and prospects.

    Some companies are already co-locating individuals in these functions for specific product lines. With technology to capture and categorize information, we may be able to integrate the roles themselves–and staff these positions with generalists who respond to prospects and customers needs across the continuum.”

    …with plenty of examples in those Pink & Friedman books, and Marc Benioff of noting the rise of “Connectors & Collaborators” from their internal use of the Chatter app, Dell and others noting Chatter as their exclusive collaboration platform, HP switching 40,000 seats from Oracle to SF along similar lines I imagine, Seth Godin talking (blogging – to his tribe) about the need to hire “sales architects”, and a contact of mine explaining to me that Microsoft 365 with various connect & collaborate and sales enablement extensions will be taking this truly global, any minute now.

    Personally I’ve always been extremely proud and in favour of the most intelligent and adaptable “sales” people already having these skills, most obviously, but with the need for those being recognised and rewarded. It otherwise seems to require that “marketing” folk would have to learn (or evolve) a whole lot more skills or traits in the art of one-to-one human communication (like “grow a personality” even!) than sales people going the other way would have to understand about a few “sales enablement” tools. The clumsy/ noisy/ boring sales staff that might be deemed to be in the majority are mostly, as far as I can see, the product of companies where “marketing” did hold sway, and they only wanted to recruit/ employ/ train/ motivate sales “closers” anyway – as in “Sell ’em what we’ve got today – don’t ask them what they might want next week!”.


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