Why Sales Enablement is in the Business of Influence

The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes - strategic communication is an integral part of successful sales enablement. Communication matters. And the success (or failure) of a sales enablement function is intertwined with its ability to influence a sales organisation and change behaviour.

While it may not be immediately apparent, communicating well with and managing stakeholders is a prerequisite for successful sales enablement. Therefore, you need to be thoughtful about communication, as getting it right helps a sales enablement team earn trust and build credibility, which over time expands its scope of influence. This is important as ultimately, there’s just two states that a sales enablement team can ever be in. Either the sales leadership rates the sales enablement team and think they add value - or they don’t. Effective communication and stakeholder management ensures it’s the previous, and not the latter.

Sales enablement is a unique function, with its own opportunities, challenges and pressures, however, I think it shares many parallels with the role of a management consultant. Just like consultants, we sales enablement professionals are in the business of problem solving by providing counsel and guidance, but ultimately, we are reliant on other teams to execute.

But merely problem solving and managing stakeholders is not enough - to be successful, sales enablement leaders must persuade, coach and cajole, so people take action and change their behaviour. Ultimately, that’s what drives results. As sales directors, managers and reps rarely report into sales enablement (nor should they), we must use other tools at our disposal. The stories we tell, the data we use and the future state we describe matter (they matter a lot) and help influence.

Why is strategic communication important?
I will preface this by stating that strategic communication is important at all businesses, however the larger the organisation, the more important it becomes and more purposeful you must be.

To illustrate the point, think of the early days at a software as a service (SaaS) company. Communication is often tactical, unstructured and personality-driven, and by this I mean, the communication reflects the personality type of the sales enablement leader. This approach works upto a point, however, as the organisation grows, with more teams, markets, regions, segments and complexity, being strategic about communication becomes much more important.

As companies grow they tend to respond by making communication easy, ubiquitous even, thanks to email, Slack and Zoom et al. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the communication by the people using these tools is good. Indeed, I think a lot of sales enablement communication is weak, rather than strong - it’s undervalued, overlooked and little more than an afterthought.

The point I’m keen to stress is that how a sales enablement team communicates is important, as sales enablement is in the business of influencing people cross-functionally, rather than managing directly. That's an important distinction. Subsequently, establishing the best cadence, channel, content and format of communication is a hugely valuable exercise to undertake.

Below are some of the communication lessons I’ve learnt from leading sales enablement at HubSpot in EMEA and speaking to industry colleagues:

1. Communication must be planned
Communication is too important to be left to chance or viewed as an afterthought. It has to be planned, and planned well. But here’s the thing - too often communication is an add-on and done in the moment, rather than purposefully and strategically.

Delivering great work is important, but it’s not enough - sales enablement has to clearly, quickly and consistently articulate what something is and why sales reps should care enough to change their behaviour. For this to happen, you must invest time in planning communication. As a good starting point I think planned communication needs to be at least 10% of a sales enablement project.

2. Everyone understands what good looks like
Planning communication doesn’t necessarily have to be difficult. However, driving alignment on what constitutes good communication, plus getting people to execute on it often is. Defining what good looks like is invariably hard, however, at a minimun I would suggest that it’s clear, tailored, consistent and predictable.  

There’s a bunch of smart ways to understand what communication should go to who and how frequently, but ultimately, you need to categorise the type of communication based on its importance, audience and urgency.

3. Know when to use the carrot or stick
The best sales enablement professionals understand how and when to use a carrot or stick to get sales reps to change behaviour. Undoubtedly, one of the best levers to influence sales rep behaviour is by changing the compensation plan. While this can alter behaviour quickly, it also comes with a word of caution - changes to the plan need to be fair and achievable, otherwise you risk damaging sales rep morale.

For example, if a SaaS business wants to increase up and cross-sell revenue as these clients churn less, they may choose to pay more commission on deals where an up or cross-sell has taken place or they may want to pay less for deals without an up or cross-sell component. Creating the right level of incentive is a fine balancing act as you want to create just enough reward or pain for a sales reps to change their behaviour without harming morale.

4. Continually remove complexity
Less is always more. The temptation for sales enablement teams is to go full throttle on every type of communication and while this is sometimes noble, it is always misguided and wastes both time and energy. Effective sales enablement communication is akin to great design or the role of an editor - it wants to take away and remove complexity, rather than add to it.

Sales enablement professionals have to be empathetic and understand the life of a sales rep and wherever possible, look to reduce cognitive load. Some guiding principles that I follow are that a good sales enablement team prunes the superfluous, is clearly understood and makes it easy to find out more.

5. Value credible communication and data
The importance of using credible data and understanding attribution is not a challenge exclusive to the sales enablement industry, but it’s a potentially damaging issue that needs to be addressed. What I’m keen to emphasise is that sales enablement professionals must avoid the temptation of chasing the biggest number, and instead go for the most credible one. This advice sounds simple, but it’s surprisingly uncommon.

Let me explain. I believe for a sales enablement team to succeed it must positively influence the performance of the sales organisation. That’s a given. Subsequently, one metric it should track and share with the sales organisation is quota attainment.

However, that doesn’t mean to say sales enablement is wholly responsible (and can claim credit), either for good performance by the sales team. Measuring sales enablement by quota attainment drives alignment with the sales organisation, but it’s disingenuous to suggest it has a huge impact on quota attainment. After all, there’s many factors at play in every deal. Instead, the sales enablement team should also carry an influenced revenue goal - this more accurately shows how the team help close deals and contributes to the overall quota attainment of a sales team.

In short, sales enablement should use quota attainment as an overall indicator to see if they're heading in the right direction, but understand that influenced revenue is a more accurate SaaS sales enablement metric.

But credible communication goes beyond data and attribution - it also means that if bad news has to be delivered, then doing it quickly and without hesitation. The best sales enablement professionals are consultants and adopt a Challenger approach, which means not being a “yes” person - they diagnose a problem clearly, share insight and add value by coming up with a solution.

How I structure sales enablement communication
There’s a distinct lack of sales enablement thought leadership publicly available, so I often spend time studying other disciplines to learn how they’ve overcome similar challenges, and then figure out how that approach can be applied to the world of sales enablement.

Below is a sales enablement communication matrix I’ve created, which I’ve adapted based on similar tools used by Intercom, Reforge and Edelman.

sales-enablement-communication-matrix.png

The matrix lists the key sales enablement stakeholders along the top, as well as the type and frequency of communication each should receive. The matrix is a valuable tool to clearly differentiate stakeholders, so that they receive the communication they need. That being said, what I like most about the matrix is that it’s simple, specific and actionable.

On the left of the matrix I’ve included the types of events that should be communicated. Broadly, the key events can be defined as:

  • Charter - information explaining the sales enablement team’s vision, why they do what they do and what differentiates them from other teams.
  • Significant changes - events that will have a big impact on the way sales reps sell, such as commission, lead views and territory changes.
  • Learnings - sharing key learnings and results that will help sales reps sell.
  • Process - updates which sales should be aware of, but will not necessarily make an immediate or big impact.

To conclude, allow me to reiterate just why communication and influence matters. Simply put, if a sales enablement function doesn’t communicate effectively it will fail. I believe it can, and indeed, should be put in such binary terms. Sales enablement as a term is often poorly defined and subsequently misunderstood - this results in people not knowing what the team does, the value it creates for a business or projects to collaborate with it on. Fundamentally, this is a communication issue and is rooted in poor, ineffective and inconsistent communication. This can, must and will change.

For sales enablement to succeed, communication has to evolve from something that is overlooked and undervalued to something that is front and centre, and both recognised and invested in for the important role it plays.