What Is “Sales Enablement” And How Did Forrester Go About Defining It?

There are other definitions floating out there about sales enablement – some are from our competitors, there is a Wikipedia definition, and several vendors in the space are promoting the phase pretty heavily.

  • So why did we just publish a huge research document on the topic? 

Let’s start with how we decided we needed to invest a lot of cycles writing a big report about defining something some could argue was already defined.

  • In August 2008, we convened our first Sales Enablement Executive roundtable (a roundtable is where I facilitate a group discussion about relevant issues facing our community and drive shared understanding about changes that need to be made moving forward) near Leesburg, Virginia. We assembled a cross-functional team of VP-level executives from sales and marketing roles, representing 16 blue-chip companies like: Accenture, CSC, IBM, CA, Siemens, BMC, etc.
  • During that session, as a group — we debated, painfully, the definition of sales enablement, which Forrester subsequently reviewed (to gain buy-in) from other roundtables we convened in San Mateo, California and London.
  • We published our short definition in our Uncovering The Hidden Costs Of Sales Support report in April 2009, where we worked with several CFOs to understand their point of view about managing “cost of sales.”

One of the major debates we wrestled with internally at Forrester was 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). Based on our analysis and bias, we determined that sales enablement is a role, a function within an organization, albeit an emerging and poorly defined one. All of the tasks people perform to “help” sales, we now define as “sales support activities.”

With this backdrop, here are some data points to help you see why we believe our community needs a much meatier definition. Since publishing our first definition back in early 2009 I (or our team) have:

  • Fielded 514 inquiries (conversation about our research with our customers).
  • Presented at 5 of our conferences — where client feedback scores rated the presentations in the top 5 of each of those conferences.
  • Conducted 9 teleconferences presented to our clients — each one receiving high customer feedback.
  • Conducted 6 more roundtable-type discussions as mentioned before.
  • Have been briefed by — get this — 85 different vendors who each claim to have a “sales enablement” solution.
  • Worked hand in hand with many of our clients setting up their charters or advancing the maturity of their programs.

Scott, I Get It — You Talk To A Lot Of People — What’s The Point?

What’s common across the board is that to be successful with a sales enablement program, you need to develop a team to work across traditional organizational boundaries and reporting levels within your company — and that’s a big challenge. Consider:

  • How differently executives interact with customers from individual contributors.
  • How differently people with portfolio responsibility work with customers than marketers, trainers, or salespeople.
  • How differently each of these people actually defines who a customer is.
  • How different their goal and objectives are.

Look, I’m a pragmatist. I realize you’re going to have to get started in your own group. But eventually, to be successful with sales enablement, you will need to break down the walls between organizational silos to get customers the information they need.

Did I Mention Customers?

Your buyers are really the core reason sales enablement needs to be tackled in a more holistic manner. Here are a few trends worth noting:

  • It used to be that the vendor salesperson had value by having information about their company’s products and services that the buyers didn’t have. Search engines (Google, Bing) and social media sites provide those buyers with access to that information.
  • If salespeople do not add value — like providing information about how those buyers can tackle a problem, or examples of how others customers have realized value — the likelihood of securing appointments with budget-holding executives declines.
  • In order to better control costs, buyers are increasingly looking for any way possible to cut costs, and professional procurement organizations (which concentrate on squeezing concessions out of vendors and also reducing the number of suppliers they work with) are growing.

So Why Is “Sales Enablement” A Big Deal?

Go-to-market models always change during periods of disruption, and this economic downturn has been deep, long, and might not even be over. The more that buying organizations are forced to “do more with less,” the more they adopt different business patterns. Today, buyers are looking for business partners that will help them drive business results or outcomes — rather than bundle their products and services into “solutions.” As a result, Forrester sees a supplier caste system emerging.

  • Business outcome class — vendors who align their resources to help their customers achieve results.
  • Commodity class — suppliers who provide choose to compete on their products or services and look to fit their capabilities to specific stated requirements. 

 So What Is Sales Enablement?

Forrester views sales enablement as the key linchpin required to help a B2B company bridge the gap between their business strategies and how they execute in the field. Too many common challenges (problems cross-selling, long sales cycles, declining win rates, margin pressure, getting average deal size up) can be traced back to the same source — the conversation between your client-facing people and the combination of stakeholders that represent your buyers. 

We define sales enablement as:

Sales enablement is a strategic, ongoing process that equips all client-facing employees with the ability to consistently and systematically have a valuable conversation with the right set of customer stakeholders at each stage of the customer's problem-solving life cycle to optimize the return of investment of the selling system.

We recently published a large report (it’s over 20 pages, but don’t worry, it had 19 figures in it, so you can scan it quickly) that breaks these issues down and shines light on them. The document is divided into the following sections:

  • Confronting change, vendors are adapting new strategies.
  • Executive mandates result in an epidemic of uncoordinated initiatives.
  • Random acts of sales support undermine the best-laid strategies.
  • Sales enablement bridges go-to-market strategy and execution.
  • Implementation and success require cross-functional collaboration.

This past Monday, Savo sponsored an executive roundtable (I will try to blog on that later) where I facilitated a conversation around these topics with over 30 business leaders from companies like: Verizon, American Express, Morgan Stanley, IHS, ADP, SAP, Sungard, Honeywell, and JP Morgan Chase. Each attendee was given two pre-reads, with Sales Enablement Defined (our new report) being one of them. The feedback I received from those attendees on the report included:

  • “Did you work at our company before? It’s like you just described my work.” 
  • “I instinctively knew a lot of this, but I’ve never been able to explain what I was seeing to the rest of my company until now.”

We wrote this piece to provide purpose and guidance to the emerging sales enablement business discipline. We also expect this to spark debate and conversation within the community, so please give us feedback so we can continue to advance the cause.

Where Can You Get The Report?

Click here to access Sales Enablement Defined .


Congratulations to this benchmark - SE Defined!

Sales enablement Defined and your blog post come just-in-time!
Great that you included the optimization of the selling system's return on investment in the definition. It was already included indirectly in the previous definition but now it's stated very clearly! As we all need to sell our sales enablement approaches internally the impact on a company's top financial objectives is a critical success factor to make sure that the initiative is taken seriously and gets enough executive sponsorship. That's why we mapped our sales enablement levers e.g. reduced search time or content generation efficiency to the company's top objectives.

You are raising a lot of critical questions all sales enablement initiatives are facing regardless which approach (sales, marketing or portfolio) they have chosen to get started!
One of them is the question whether sales enablement is a role, a function or just a task. The more I'm thinking on that I believe that it depends on an organizations degree of maturity whether it is recognized as a role or not. Defining sales enablement as a role (and I assume a cross-functional role), requires a minimum of “breaking-down-functional-silo-thinking”.
That's one of the success factors of all sales enablement initiatives if they don't want to stuck in a situation just delivering nice isolated benefits. Tackling real business value to sales (and to our customers) requires open-minded thinking along the value chain regardless of organizational units – accepting different perspectives of sales, portfolio, marketing and delivery and much more important accepting that there is no right or wrong - just different perspectives which have to be integrated to a bigger picture – challenging role of sales enablement professionals.
Important is the design point which should be an outside-in perspective thought backwards from the customer with clearly defined core competencies in marketing, portfolio and sales and the linking dots between them (also depending on the organizations degree of maturity, the less it is the more has to be defined on a functional level). Important will be how the matrix reporting lines and the compensation structures are working in parallel. If the compensation systems are still based on functions and organizational boundaries, we have already an indicator if problems occur.

I totally agree: the most challenging question will be how to play successfully in the business outcome class. If a vendor takes the strategic decision to play in the business outcome class sales enablement should no longer be a topic of sales, marketing or portfolio: then sales enablement should follow an overall adaptive approach and should be part of the CEO's agenda - a big opportunity for our favorite topic! Then a lot of initial discussions should become much easier. I'm sure this approach will affect all roles, sales roles and all sales supporting roles, GTM, pipeline management, forecasting, content and delivery processes as well as compensation systems and commercial roles.

I'm looking forward to learn more about the experiences in our community!


"Sales enablement is a strategic, ongoing process that equips all client-facing employees with the ability to consistently and systematically have a valuable conversation with the right set of customer stakeholders at each stage of the customer's problem-solving life cycle to optimize the return of investment of the selling system. "

I think you need to check your terminology on the definition. Sales enablement does not "equip", it enables (thus the name). Next you can axe all the bs and simple say: Sales enablement is the set of tools, knowledge and processes that enables a sales force to succeed.