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Real Sales Enablement

The power of the trusted outsider in high-value sales.


Ian H Smith

Today we have a relatively new role in the sales and marketing organisation: VP, Director or Head of Sales Enablement. This is often supported by some cloud-based Sales Enablement apps that are typically add-ons to Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems - e.g. Salesforce Sales Cloud.

What is Sales Enablement? To quote one firm:

"Sales Enablement is the process of providing the sales organisation with the information, content, and tools that help sales people sell more effectively."

This is hard to argue with, except, in my view, for one big thing missing: techniques.

I would argue that the most important thing in Sales Enablement is techniques: a method you apply that works for the entire buying and selling cycle. Underpinning a method is a need to coach sales professionals in practising such techniques in an optimal way. See Design Thinking in Sales.

So, I would say that the most important thing about Sales Enablement is coaching. Let's take a look at why coaching matters in the high-value, high-touch sell, and in particular, why a trusted outsider can make a big difference to sales professionals.

Five Compelling Reasons

Here are five powerful arguments for coaching in sales:

  1. Atmosphere
  2. Motivation
  3. Performance
  4. Retention
  5. Knowledge

#1. Atmosphere

The atmosphere inside a firm is the first thing an outside prospective buyer notices - a would-be customer - forming an opinion based on how it feels inside the walls of the firm's physical buildings or how sales professionals behave in online and face-to-face meetings.

In 'sensing' the atmosphere of the organisation, it is, to quote Colin Sworder in Developing Strategic Thought (1995), akin to asking 'can you hear the baby cry?' When the atmosphere in the firm is positive, everyone is 'tuned-in' to what is important - just like the mother, who hears the baby cry first - and above all other noise.

#2. Motivation

The late Sumantra Ghoshal talked about 'the pathologies of the inherited context': in plain English he went on to describe what this means in relation to what gets in the way of people's motivation to be genuinely innovative at work. This is the 4 C's: Compliance; Constraint: Contract; and, Control. What coaching in sales can do is overcome the worse interpretations of these four inevitable barriers, as aspects of everyday business life.

We comply to the latest regulation, such as EU GDPR; we are constrained by the firm's budget; we sign an employment contract; and, the Chief Information Officer controls the customer's IT systems. So, the 4C's are reality. But when the 4 C's are applied in an extreme way, it will have a corrosive effect on our motivation, as sales people seeking engagement with empowered buyers.

So, we need to counterbalance the 4 C's with 'the 4 E's': Empowerment; Empathy; Education; and, Earnings. And the last 'E' is not enough, if the other 'E's' are not apparent: money alone, is not a guarantee of employee motivation in the knowledge-intensive firm. Let's take a closer look at the '3 E's' that matter most to employee motivation:

Empowerment. If each sales person can be a sales coach too, then this is no longer about hierarchy, but capability. Everyone can learn, and everyone has something valuable to teach or share. If the CEO and other executives start the coaching programme, it will inspire others to follow. It will give a true sense of empowerment to all employees.

Empathy. Just as designers - or more broadly, Design Thinkers know, empathy is the key building block for building a foundation of trust among colleagues in the firm. It is the way people get to to talk and act truthfully. Empathy means seeing the other person's perspective - and in turn, this leads to creating receptivity, then rapport - and finally - and most crucially, trust.

Education. For many years, business schools have talked about creating a 'learning organisation' culture. This is based on the original thinking of Peter Senge at MIT Sloan School of Management. At the heart of this thinking is 'team learning': enabling knowledge and wisdom to flow across boundaries and with openness at its heart. As we enable boundaryless, open coaching in sales, it is appropriate here to mention the late Chris Argyris, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and his idea of moving from 'single-loop learning' to 'double-loop learning'. Double-loop learning is contrasted with single-loop learning: the repeated attempt at the same problem, with no variation of method and without ever questioning the goal.

#3. Performance

The truth about productivity in the knowledge-intensive firm is that we rarely think beyond the mechanics of financial measurables. Of course, the numbers and money matters, but so too, does the 'softer' things we can all do in business, This means things that have both a direct and indirect or positive impact on these tangible measures in the firm.

As Kim Scott argues in Radical Candor, before managers look at 'results' they need to, firstly, provide 'guidance', and then, secondly, enable 'team-building'. Clearly, mentoring has a profound impact on these two steps - leading to the measurable value outcomes. What Scott argues for is creating a culture of open communications; to 'get, give and encourage guidance'.

For guidance also read mentoring - and in a non-hierarchical way - crossing boundaries and with an openness that supports the measurable value outcomes attributed to 'collective intelligence' supporting field sales professionals. In knowledge-intensive firms, time is not something you can warehouse - it is an instantly perishable asset.

So, in a digital agency or management consulting firm, for example, when it comes to measuring billable hours against utilisation of people - it is clear that coaching beyond sales, and across organisational boundaries can greatly enhance the results here, where skills and knowledge become more transferable - hence, utilised more across ever-changing billable people hours environments.

#4. Retention

The ability to retain great people obviously relates to the three points above: Atmosphere; Motivation; and Performance. The first three 'E's': Empowerment; Empathy; and, Education are clearly related to employee loyalty and low churn rates. And whilst I have not made much about it in this post - the 'fourth E' - Earnings - is also another common sense factor in employee retention.

Coaching is a great way to underpin the 'sense of belonging' that features in all of these points about employee retention in sales. As we move away from the paternalistic incentives of final salary pensions, and as the notion of the long-serving 'organisation man' disappears, then employee retention is, of course, a relative measure today, compared to the distant past.

However, rapid churn is something that all managers in knowledge-intensive firms know comes at a very high-cost. So, by introducing multi-way coaching throughout the firm - starting with sales professionals - employee loyalty will clearly go up.

#5. Knowledge

As discussed in the third 'E' - 'Education' - by introducing coaching in the knowledge-intensive firm, we move towards a 'learning company' culture, where 'double-loop learning' is contrasted with 'single-loop learning': the repeated attempt at the same problem, with no variation of method and without ever questioning the goal.

Once we introduce goals into learning, we make coaching in sales highly purposeful: it becomes a way to harness measurable 'collective intelligence'. In turn, this has a tangible impact on 'hard' business values - such as increasing people utilisation and therefore, maximising billable hours.


Coaching is something that all senior executives can agree on: it is a good thing. But when considering the five compelling reasons for coaching, it will not happen unless the CEO and other senior executives take a lead role: becoming the first coaches in the knowledge-intensive firm.

However, even when executives are willing to make coaching happen, the firm needs a platform as a set of tools to engage employees across the entire firm. This is where Salesforce Sales Cloud and Sales Enablement extensions become key. See Design Thinking in Sales.

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