What is Sales Enablement? Why Is It So Hard To Define?

Depending on who you talk to, sales enablement means different things to different people and takes on different forms at different companies. It’s a field that suffers from being poorly defined. I’ve struggled to define it myself, and I’ve worked in sales enablement in some form or another for most of my career.

When I’ve attempted to describe sales enablement to someone unfamiliar, I often compare it to sales support or sales operations, in the hope that I strike upon a familiarity with those corporate functions. But I’m never quite sure that person walks away from the conversation with a clear understanding of what sales enablement truly entails.

At its core, Sales Enablement is comprised of four distinct activities:

  • Recruiting and Hiring
  • Training and Coaching
  • Equipping
  • Assessment

It’s a pretty straightforward list compiled by James Jordan, in his article “What is Sales Enablement Anyway?” In my experience, Equipping encompasses tools and communication. So given these straightforward activities, why is sales enablement subject to so much interpretation?

During the production of their 2010 Report, Sales Enablement Defined, the team at Forrester struggled with the question: “Is sales enablement a role (a function within a company) or a task performed by people (things people do already, like build sales presentations)?” I believe it’s a question many companies struggle to answer today. After much back and forth, the Forrester team concluded “that sales enablement is a role, a function within an organization.”

In my experience, when treated as a corporate function sales enablement becomes easier to define because it takes on a more formal role in the organization. Enablement activities typically tie to a single business unit specifically tasked with supporting sales. Treating sales enablement as a task or collection of tasks creates a more tenuous scenario; the role becomes less evident because tasks get shared across departments. The function is not apparent.

For startups embarking on building a sales organization, it’s natural to fall into a habit of assigning sales enablement activities across departments like marketing, finance and human resources. Early on distributing tasks can be very effective. It’s a startup. Everyone is used to wearing multiple hats.

This lean approach makes sense, but if never addressed as the company scales, it creates the situation where the function is never truly established. A best-case scenario, sales enablement activities continue to be shared, and an informal team can keep them prioritized across departments. No small task in a startup environment where change is constant.

The worst-case scenario, as the company and sales organization grows, enablement activities become embroiled in a fight for internal resources and mindshare. Departments that were informally sharing sales enablement are now having a hard time prioritizing the activities to support sales. In many cases, activities like training and sales tool development become afterthoughts, and the sales team starts to feel unsupported.

So how do startups avoid this situation? Sales enablement is at its best as a distinct function assigned to a dedicated team that handles the recruiting and hiring, training and coaching, equipping, and assessment or your sales organization. Often, a sales enablement team is part of a larger sales operations business unit. The group will work throughout the company, spanning departments, empowering sellers. This exposure helps raise the profile of the team and its contributions. Most importantly, their success ties directly to the success of the sales team they are supporting.

Startups committed to rapid growth through sales should have sales enablement on their radar from day one. Having a clear working definition of what sales enablement is and what it comprises makes this possible. That definition will likely lead young companies to our next question. So when is the best time to build out our startup’s sales enablement function?

I think it’s very easy to fall into the trap of answering this question quantitatively. “Once our sales team grows to 30, we’ll add a trainer, and for every additional 20, we’ll hire another team member to focus on sales enablement in some capacity.” It becomes an exercise in math rather than an exercise in need. A more useful approach is quickly assessing your current sales team’s skills qualitatively, regardless of headcount.

Sales Enablement Director Douglas Draper concisely outlines three areas of competency that lean startups should zero in on when conducting a quick audit of sales skills:

  1. Product Knowledge – Do your sellers understand the solutions your company offers? Can they explain how they work in a simple fashion?
  2. Customer Knowledge – Does the sales team know who your target customers are and their challenges, big and small?
  3. Messaging – Are they communicating appropriately and conveying value during the sales cycle as the opportunity advances?

I would add a 4th skill around the team’s ability to utilize Sales Tools and Technology efficiently.

Draper recommends a combination of shadowing, self-assessment and manager-led assessment to quickly execute the evaluation. The exercise will lead to a better understanding of your team’s strengths, weaknesses and readiness. That knowledge will allow startups to diagnose issues and plot a course of action that addresses immediate needs. If tools and technology are impediments, then you’ll want to prioritize adding a CRM admin or maybe a technical trainer. If product knowledge is lacking, then maybe a product trainer aligned with product marketing is the next addition to the sales enablement fold.

A quick skills assessment will give the leadership team valuable direction. Equipped with this knowledge and a clear definition of sales enablement, it becomes easier to chart your course, empower sellers and build the sales machine.