How does sales enablement need to respond to the way the commercial landscape is being transformed, asks Dr Phil Squire?
The business world is all about change – so much so, in fact, that the notion of unrelenting change has become almost a cliché. Yet this doesn’t mean that we can ignore it.
Today’s business environment is characterised by unremitting technological change, an incredible richness of knowledge that is constantly growing, the proliferation of data and fierce, unrelenting global competition. This environment requires many organisations to operate in ways that are vastly different from even ten years ago.
Of course, education, training, learning and development are all about change, too. Traditionally they have equipped us to respond to the demands of the business’s world, to interpret and make sense of it and, ultimately, to compete.
But what happens when the constructs and solutions presented by our development functions become out of synch with what is taking place out in the business world? Currently, our sales enablement functions are facing the twin challenges of operating in the context of a rapidly changing business environment alongside profound advances in our understanding of corporate sales models.
How do our sales enablement organisations cope with the demand for constantly updated knowledge? How do they manage the sheer volume of output required, deliver it in a timely fashion before it becomes redundant and curate it effectively when such knowledge is, in many instances, disposable? Adapting to this ‘pick and mix’, patchwork environment is by no means easy.
Should we instead be placing greater emphasis on teaching people to think, encouraging a learning and inquisitive mind-set, while making more time for reflective practice? Should training be less focused on traditional skills and more concentrated on developing strategies and structures for helping individuals to determine exactly what knowledge is required on each occasion and then helping them to acquire it as speedily as possible?
The questions go on and on…. What are the bottlenecks between formulating go-to-market strategy and delivering it in the field and how can we return sales enablement to its role as a facilitator? Does it matter how the sales enablement function is structured?
Unquestionably, there is an element of ‘horses for courses’ – what is right for one organisation will not necessarily be the same for another. In general, though, the approach will need to be agile; flexibility and speed of delivery may be key. One thing is certain: our sales enablement organisations need to help us cope with and excel in today’s environment of constant change.
In an effort to provide some detailed answers we asked a number of senior sales leaders and sales enablement professionals from a range of global corporates to discuss these questions – here’s what some have to say.
From commodities to added value
So-called ‘commoditisation’ is a familiar problem for companies that produce certain products, whether these be IT specialists, automotive manufacturers or pharmaceutical giants. Global competition has created a downward pressure on prices while shortening product lifecycles mean that offerings may quickly become superseded. At the same time, policy-makers may be deliberately seeking to boost consumer power – think university funding or healthcare.
Matthew Lang, vice president global sales and marketing operations for Sony Mobile Communications has a challenging job on his hands – changing the organisational culture of the business’ customer-facing teams. This aims to introduce a new go-to-market model that moves the operation from essentially a ‘box-shifting’ approach to more of a solutions provider. The imperative for this is simple: the organisation has to make money and increase profitability.
Inevitably, the initiative involved “a lot of effort working out how to change the sales process”. He says: “We’ve worked for almost two years to build new systems. We’re rolling these out to the sales force.”
Yet, of course, such a profound change requires a holistic approach, drawing together various strands of strategy, including equipping the salespeople with the right skills to enable them to sell in a different way. If necessary, the organisation will also be looking for new talent should some of the existing salespeople be unable to adapt to the new model.
In terms of changes to the development process, the key to success is the ability to align this “top-level strategy with what the salespeople are doing” and with the company’s partners. Development initiatives involve moving beyond what was essentially product knowledge and feature-driven training towards an emphasis on C-level strategy. “We can’t just sell product; we need to sell a complete proposition, the concept of a whole ecosystem.
“The old-fashioned salesperson works with one or two parameters – price and volume,” Lang explains. His task is to help the salespeople think about the bigger picture, particularly what the customer wants them to achieve. “They need to think about the business cases; not just the lowest price and volume.”
How can they do this? Sony, for instance, has no shortage of attractive content – including games, music and movies – and is looking at bundling this with its hardware. The company also has the option to go out and form partnerships with third-party content suppliers. “The new thinking is very much to understand what we as a total company have to offer,” Lang explains.
Training has evolved into equipping members of the sales organisation with the mind-set to step up to this change in approach. “What we want the sales leaders to be able to do is to work internally to understand all the ideas and value propositions that we are putting forward. For instance, on a simplistic level, this might involve understanding whether a partner wants a package of, say, films or games on a phone. Not only can this add value to the Sony proposition, it might also drive value in a way that is a priority for our partner too (such as increasing ARPU through data usage). I don’t think our salespeople have ever thought that way before.”
In the past, the company has not conducted much sales training itself, preferring to rely on recruiting the right talent. However, Lang is now responsible for driving the whole cultural change and is working with external consultants to design and implement the required processes
High-speed agile transformation
Wipro Technologies is a global IT services, consulting and systems integration company headquartered in Bangalore, India. Its commercial environment is fast moving, with ‘real-time competition’ so that solutions and offerings have to change equally fast in response. “If you have six months you are lucky,” says Robert Racine, vice president and global head of Sales Enablement.
Accordingly, sales organisations need to adapt, and that’s where sales enablement comes in. “Your go-to-market strategy is changing so fast you need someone to glue it all together.”
Wipro has three L&D organisations of which sales L&D is the smallest but also the most senior and staffed by the most skilled people, according to Racine. His sales L&D team is augmented by external trainers who help to deliver training that is more about the mind-set and the philosophy. These include world-class veteran sales trainers. “They must be credible – be athletes – have experience of selling.”
Of the three principal components of a typical organisation – the growth engine, delivery and the back office – perhaps the growth engine is the most tricky. “Very few MBAs have insight into what is growth and what drives it. Nevertheless, unless you have a solid growth engine the company is not sustainable,” Racine stresses.
In this context, Racine predicts that we will see L&D functions interact less with the business and become a pure service provider to the central enablement functions. Already, Wipro is seeing sales enablement acting as the functional authority and business process integrator feeding requirements to L&D.
At the same time, it’s not just about pure sales skills; messaging content and domain expertise is crucially important. “Customers appreciate a very good salesperson but they are also demanding that you understand the nature of the business itself.” Racine suggests that “for this reason, rapid project/role-based on-boarding is becoming critical to our success.”
This means that, while selling remains undiminished in importance, the nature of the talent involved in sales is changing along with the role. The trend is for the gradual devolution of selling skills from pure “professionals who do sales” to technical and industry domain experts who are put into a role where they have to do some selling, according to Racine.
As a consequence, the traditional model of building a course – for instance, a lead-generation course – may not deliver what it is intended to do, partly because of a silo effect whereby elements of the selling system “are not integrated and don’t flow”. Racine is forthright: “Today, the world of pure L&D has great difficulty seeing the bigger picture. What’s being taught is not aligned; it’s great teaching but it doesn’t increase overall sales performance.”
Volume of knowledge
Part of the challenge facing educators in the corporate sector is the sheer volume of knowledge required, some of it only for a limited period, and all of it changing on a continuous basis. At the same time, there is a requirement for the relevant content to be rolled out faster. As Racine says: “In today’s world, anything that takes longer than two to three quarters to deploy is too slow.”
In sales, there are more than 450 sales processes, any of which would benefit from training, Racine explains. Additionally, the number of broader business competencies has increased substantially. He suggests that in 1990 a person needed some 42 business competencies; yet by 2001 the same executive needed 950 competencies to survive in the commercial world.
That’s a big change. “You need to be broadly skilled,” Racine acknowledges. However, it doesn’t mean that everybody has to be a genius polymath to compete. “You just need to know 1 per cent more than your competitors,” he argues.
Today’s environment requires customer-facing businesspeople to be agile and flexible; furthermore in certain fast-moving sectors, strategy needs to evolve in real time. “You need to listen to the real-time voice of the customer and aggregate it up so there’s a picture of where new opportunities are appearing.” In this context, training may have to be responsive even down to the level of individual projects, he argues.
So how does this work? The approach that Racine favours involves focusing on “micro-competencies and messaging kits” that are specific to each solution, service, and opportunity and integrating these into a catalogue of learning offerings. It’s also important to understand the target audience for each learning: is it for everybody, just a few, or available on demand? The approach requires “tremendous experimentation and agility at the beginning” which is then stabilised over time.
The rapid response is made possible by “little factories” – teams of four or five people who respond when requests come in. “These have to be designed to go fast; instead of doing a perfect job you have to have a more agile approach – it’s good enough and then you release.” Then you move onto version 2.0.
A flexible but established approach
The Linde Group is the world’s largest industrial gas and engineering company with a heritage stretching back to 1879. The organisation continues to innovate by exploring new application solutions to create additional value for clients.
In a global organisation where every region and country has a strategy, the delivery of such strategic ambitions is critical, according to global sales excellence manager, Jeremy Noad. Strategies need to go beyond “I’m going to sell more; I’m going to keep more customers. You need to understand where you are going; then you need to put in the content, deliverables and timelines around that.”
Executing the business strategy by the sales organisation involves the extraction of the “selling elements” to create the sales strategy and associated plans while continuing to execute the existing plans and tactics.
To facilitate the commercial strategies, sales enablement can work from the top down or build from the bottom up, working from the individual to the portfolio to the regional and then country level.
In terms of capability development, training workshops around traditional sales topics such as negotiating and key account management only account for 10 per cent of sales enablement activity. “We focus very much on how you take that out into the field and put it into practice,” says Noad. This stems from the fact that, with a workshop alone, there is about a 25 per cent chance the content will be retained; in contrast, by going and doing, there is an “80 per cent chance of it sticking”. A proven methodology is to train the first-line sales managers to deliver the material – they become the primary coaches.
Certification is also important; participants need to demonstrate they’re constantly applying that knowledge properly, and they also have to be re-certified on a regular basis. Certification is an internal process for sound practical reasons – there’s no single awarding body that can carry out certification on a global basis. Instead, each country’s sales leadership team forms the certification panel and participants have to complete tests and undergo visits with their first-line manager, who is both their trainer and their coach.
Wider technical knowledge is made available to the sales teams via internal wikis and forums. “There’s a knowledge base for people to ‘prep and go’.” At the same time, broader business education is provided by the L&D organisation.
The sales enablement function sits outside the broader L&D organisation. “We talk with them frequently to ensure we align and compliment each function’s activities. We do leverage the broader skills that people may need such as finance for non-finance people and communication and presentation skills. We focus on working closely with the sales organisations within the countries to enable them to be successful.”
Indeed, there is no single way of cutting the structural cake as the emphasis is on the customer, in their market, which is different in each country, in Noad’s view. “In the case of the Linde Group the philosophy is local ownership, enabled by the central functions,” he concludes.