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Sales Enablement, The Sound Of One Hand Clapping

by David Brock on May 17th, 2022

Again, I have to start this post with an apology. I’m a huge fan of sales enablement and some of the outstanding sales enablement practitioners who I count as friends. I think, however, one of the biggest problems with sales enablement is not what they do, or the quality of the programs they develop.

I think one of the biggest problems with sales enablement comes from outside the organization, with sales executive leadership and front line management.

Recently I had a fascinating conversation with a sales enablement team. It’s a team that I think of as modeling some of the most forward thinking programs in developing the capabilities within the organization. They were, however, struggling. While there programs were leading edge, the participants in the programs rated them very highly. But somehow, they were failing. Overall, while the sales people were scraping through, barely hitting their goals, the feeling of executives leading the sales organization, top field managers, and the sales enablement management team was they should be doing far better.

As we reviewed the sales enablement programs, their programs were among the best I’ve seen. They had spent a lot of time understanding the key competencies and capabilities for success. They programs they were delivering were both comprehensive and well designed, but somehow there was a gap.

The more we discussed things, the more concerned I became about what I wasn’t hearing. I wasn’t hearing anything about sales management–both top sales executives in setting the overall goals and priorities of the organization, and front line sales managers. The words “sales management” were not uttered in the conversation. The focus was exclusively on what sales enablement was doing and how they were building measurable increase in competencies.

When I asked, “How is sales management involved? What are they doing to both help set your direction and priorities, and support the day to day execution of the skills sales enablement trying to put in place?”

Silence…..

Finally, one of the leaders spoke out, “As we put together sales enablement programs, we sit down with executive management to understand their strategies, priorities, and goals for the future. At the same time, we are the experts in what high performing sales people should be doing. As a result, our programs are designed to merge both, creating a “best of breed” approach.

“Cool,” I replied, “what is front line sales management doing?”

“Well…. we listen to them when they ask us for new programs, but we don’t have the resources to address all the individual needs of each manager….”

“What responsibilities to front line managers have in coaching and reinforcing the capabilities you are trying to build?”

Silence….

I waited, I could see the squirming even over Zoom.

“What are the sales managers doing to reinforce and further develop the capabilities you are developing in your programs? What are sales managers doing to understand, for each sales person, areas of performance improvement for each sales person? What are managers doing to address those?”

Just because we are training and developing the best competencies in our enablement programs, don’t mean our sales people can actually leverage them with high impact in their work.

As we discussed this, the team started asking, “How do we do that? We don’t have the resources to do this with each individual!”

“That’s not your job! Your job is to maximize the capability and capacity of the organization to perform. It’s sales management’s job to maximize the ability of each individual on their team to execute what you are teaching them.”

This is a mistake too many organizations make, each part of the organization optimizes their performance for what they do, but when taken as a whole, there are huge gaps, we haven’t optimized the whole organization and each individual’s abilities to contribute to the organizational goals.

Stated differently, each part of the organization is doing their job, but optimizing the pieces parts, can fail to maximize performance (for some of you nerds, this a fundamental to systems thinking, we can’t optimize the subsystems, we have to optimize the overall system.)

Enablement and sales management must work hand in hand to optimize performance. Enablement can only focus on overall organizational competencies and capabilities. Managers have the responsibility to maximize the capabilities of each person in implementing and executing those things. Managers are the only people that have visibility, day by day, week by week, on how well each person in their team is executing on what they have been trained to do. They have the responsibility to work with each individual addressing the specific issues and challenges they face.

However well we develop and implement sales enablement programs to drive capability in the organization, if we don’t have the clear buy in from front line management on their responsibility to coach, reinforce, and address individual performance and execution issues, we will fail to achieve our full performance potential.

Having said that, sales enablement has a role in helping managers do this–they can train managers in how to identify individual performance challenges, key indicators managers should be watching, how to coach and reinforce, what resources managers have to help them do this.

Without the whole organization working hand in hand, in a coordinated fashion, with each understanding their roles and responsibilities in maximizing performance, we will not perform to our potential.

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4 Comments
  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    Dave, you, and I, have seen Many Management FADS, I’m afraid Sales Enablement like the others is past its Sell By date.

    It joins, Lean, TQM, JIT, Balance Scorecard, in the No Competitive advantage box, Just another Table Stake.

    Sometimes I believe you can’t really model Business or Sales, as the Players make up the rules as they go along, and each ‘game’ is unique, unlike Cookery, or Gardening.

    • Brian, I sometimes feel exhausted when I look at all these things. Sadly, all these things, Lean, TQM, JIT, Balanced Scorecard, Sales Enablement, etc are great and can have great impacts. But we tend to pervert their implementation in ways that were never intended, so we are actually making “fashion statements,” rather than driving real changed.

      I do believe we can model these things, but I think the mistake people make is attributing too much precision/certainty to the models. For example, we can model various types of complexity and begin to address very complex issues, but when we try to attribute too much precision in something that is inherently imprecise, then we fail.

      As always, thanks for stretching my thinking.

  2. Joël van Beelen permalink

    ‘Show me what you’re measured on and i’ll show you the results…’

    Just like it did for marketers and their consumers, (sales-enablement) technology has made it easy to measure the behaviours of (top) sales reps. Measuring is one thing, executing is something completely different.

    Just like marketers often show little true understanding of their consumers (they measure likes, shares, comments etc), sales enablement measures top rep activities that require a change in the habits of mid- and low reps.

    And that change is scary, jjust like buyers find it scary to follow a sales rep’s prescription for change…’I know what i got but i don’t know what your recommendation for me will do…’ If managers and coaches don’t get involved here, often nothing will happen. Changing sales rep behaviour is like wading through thick mud (if not quick setting concrete).

    If sellers would simply think of their own daily habits, professional and private, they would remember that they too act as insecure buyers all the time. Understanding their prospects would become a lot simpler if they simply thought of themselves as buyers and how they act. But most sellers never look at their own behaviour.

    On (voluntary) sales rep learning behaviour:

    I remember a 2016 SiriusDecisions webcast (now disappeared in the Forrester-mist after the acquisition) on how sellers and buyers interact with sales content.

    By far the most reveailing barchart was the one that showed that successful reps read content BEFORE engaging with prospects while mid- and low reps began to read AFTER the first call with a prospect. Often after they’d been found wanting for a clear answer / knowledge…

    If you’re hiring for sales, just hire a curious person, never mind about sales ‘experience’. Most reps do the same thing x 1000…

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