EPISODE 501: Success Strategies for Sales Enablement Professionals from Dr. Brian Lambert

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Sales Game Changers LIVE virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on April 13, 2022. It featured an interview with sales enablement expert Dr. Brian Lambert.]

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BRIAN’S TIP: “If you do this, you will elevate your career because you’re going to have to figure out how to navigate and get the answer. Identify the top 20 accounts in your company by name, and figure out who are the top 20 accounts by revenue, and what they’re actually buying from your company. You think that would be a simple question, it might take you many months to actually figure that out and you’re going to have to make many friends. That’s the key in enablement, is to understand how the money works and orchestrate across a lot of different functions. Go try to figure that out, that’s the scavenger hunt that I want to give people.


Fred Diamond: Dr. Brian Lambert, you and I met each other a long time ago, but we really got to know each other when you were one of the two or three people who led the creation of the Sales Enablement Society (SES). I was involved then as well, technically I’m a co-founder although you were really one of the co-founders and I’ve gotten to know you over the years. You’re truly one of the foremost thinkers on sales enablement. We’re going to get deep on it today. We have a lot of people who listen to the podcast, Brian, who are titled with sales enablement and it’s an interesting position.

I’ll give you a little bit of an example why I think a lot of the work you’ve done has reached a lot of fruition. When we started the Institute for Excellence in Sales, my contacts at the companies were usually the VP of Sales, or maybe someone in marketing. Now, 25% of the people who are the day-to-day people that we deal with at large companies are sales enablement professionals. Their title is either VP of Sales Enablement, or Director of Sales Enablement, or whatever it might be. It’s an interesting position, it’s an interesting time for sales enablement. We’re doing today’s show in the spring of 2022, it’s great to see you. Let’s get started. Here’s the question everybody loves. Define sales enablement. For people who don’t know, tell us what it is and as we get into the conversation, we’ll talk about why that’s so potentially troubling, whatever it is you’re going to say.

Brian Lambert: Fred, I really appreciate you having me on. Thanks for being such a great advocate of the sales profession as a whole, I really like what you’re doing on the Sales Game Changers podcast. I’ve learned a lot from your interviews and I’m just really glad to be here, so thanks for having me on. It’s a great question, I actually get it a lot, maybe once a month. “How do you define sales enablement?” What I would like to do is say there are definitely a lot of ways to define it. You could define sales enablement as a task, you can define it as a technology, you can define it as a job title, you can define it as a role. I’m in the Scott Santucci school of sales enablement which is sales enablement is a strategic function, which means it has a budget, it has a remit, it is staffed, and it has some sort of charge, something to accomplish, and it’s resourced as such.

A lot of my work is evolving sales enablement to that functional role to eventually take the next step, which is more of a VP of Sales productivity, thinking through the efficiency and the effectiveness of salesforces – plural – that many sales enablement functions support. I view it as a function and it’s a strategic function, and I think that’s where I’m seeing the most interesting activity in the space. I get a lot of inquiries around people who are looking to elevate their role to that functional view, but not quite sure how to get there.

Fred Diamond: It’s interesting, you’ve built your whole career in being at then nexus where there’s friction, where there’s challenges organizationally. You and I have had some great talks about why did you pursue this? For people who are listening, you have a PhD. What is your PhD in, by the way?

Brian Lambert: It’s actually in organizational management, which is about how organizations are designed and built. I was lucky enough to actually study sales the whole time, so for my classes I would use sales teams, sales management, sales ethics, things like that. I would infuse all my writing and all my research on sales and people got annoyed with me, but they actually learned a lot and I did too. I like to say I’m a hybrid of sales, organizational design, and adult learning with brain science.

Fred Diamond: That’s an interesting place where sales enablement comes in, because the mission of every organization – and I’m not going to go into shareholder value – is to sell. It’s to generate revenue. There aren’t accountants, there aren’t finance people at the company if the sales team doesn’t sell things. My view has always been, which is why we created the Institute for Excellence in Sales, that every organization in the company should be working hard to make the sales process, the revenue generation process easier, to remove some of the complexity, and to remove some of the roadblocks. We’ll get deep into that.

You mentioned that sales enablement should be viewed as a function. Tell us right now what some of the main functions are that sales enablement professionals should be either responsible for or directing.

Brian Lambert: At the top level, if you think about what you brought up, growth and revenue. Underneath that growth and revenue there’s usually a go to market strategy. Thinking through what is our go to market strategy, what are we trying to sell, and then how are we going about selling it? What are the channels? Et cetera. Sales enablement sits at that intersection of go to market and selling to accounts. When you think about sales enablement, it really should be focused on sales conversations, helping salespeople and the portfolio of salesforces that enablement supports. There’s a lot of different sales teams inside a company that are trying to monetize accounts and create new accounts.

Sales enablement sits there really focused on sales conversations. That’s the key thing we need to double down on in the profession, spending more time understanding what sales conversations need to happen and advocating for what’s required to have those conversations. When you look at the conversations, there’s two pieces of it. Again, at that go to market view for the right hand to the go to market, there’s how do we do this effectively? How do we have the soft skills we need to have effective sales conversations? Then what efficiencies do we need? How efficiently are we executing in the market? What’s our sales process? How are we organized? What are the internal processes and policies that we need to follow? That efficiency piece is really critical today. Efficiency plus effectiveness equals sales productivity focused on sales conversations as a way to drive that. I think that’s where sales enablement needs to stay and where the greatest value is, in the function.

Fred Diamond: We’re over 500 Sales Game Changers podcast episodes and I believe a lot of things, but one is that it comes down to conversations. Continuing to put the sales professionals, the sales organization in position to have ongoing conversations and that is really the goal. The goal in a lot of cases is to get to the next conversation, whatever it might be. I want to ask, where do you think we are with sales enablement? I was doing a survey of the corporate members and sponsors of the Institute for Excellence in Sales and who our contact points were, and I was actually very pleased to see that 25% of the IES relationship with a company is owned by then official sales enablement organization. Not a marketing person who’s also tagged with enablement, not an SDR manager or inside sales manager who also is given the responsibilities, but bonified professionals. Where are we, do you think, with the profession? Is it reporting to the CEO? Is it known as that? Is it viewed as ops used to be viewed? Give us your sense on where it is institutionally.

Brian Lambert: A lot of it has to do with the go to market strategy and the size of the company, but if you take a step back, you look at the fact that in the last five to ten years sales enablement has really grown as a job title, and there’s thousands of people on LinkedIn with that title. When you look at that in mass and look at it globally, if you think of crossing the chasm, you’re in the hype cycle of enablement where enablement is making a lot of promises and executives are putting a lot of investment in realizing the promises of enablement.

You have a lot of vendors that are really putting a lot of money into socializing the impact of enablement, you have a lot of enablement leaders with the title of enablement that are taking on these remits to drive sales conversations and simplify the selling system. Then you have go to market strategies which are really predicated on two things, product-led strategies to drive product awareness, or trying to grow organically, cross-sell, upsell and acquire new logos which are more sales-driven strategies. These product-led strategies versus sales-driven strategies, that’s really where I see a lot of the figuring it out of enablement.

If a company is growing and has reached a cap on product-led strategies, it’s going to look at, how do we get new logos? We need to double down on sales effectiveness, we need to make sure the sales team has what it needs. I think when you look at that, a lot of sales enablement people aren’t quite ready to have that conversation because the market has been so focused on, “We need to teach a product, we need to make sure people know how to book revenue.” Very tactical, we’re in a hypergrowth environment because of the pandemic.

You go to the other end of it, there’s companies that are trying to sell massive capabilities that look at salesforces as a strategic value communicator. There’s so much complexity over there that there really needs to be a lot of simplification, and I think sales enablement has been encouraged by the market, by the vendors in the market, even executives to really think more about themselves as a product proliferator tactician, helping salespeople get point solution help as opposed to tackling the ecosystem that they operate within.

I think that’s the two bifurcations that I see. I see 80-20, maybe even 90-10 of enablement, 90% focused on helping salespeople in the month, in the quarter, and maybe 10% of enablement leaders I tend to work with that are focused on, how do we build out an ecosystem? How do we orchestrate value across a lot of different functions? How do we take things out of the salesforce? That’s a whole different type of strategic thinking that executives haven’t really started looking for. But they know it when they see it, as most sales leaders do.

Fred Diamond: Actually, one of the value that I had learned with working with you, and you mentioned Scott Santucci, who was on the Sales Game Changers podcast a long time ago, was the fact that because there’s all these new systems in place, having somebody with a sales understanding driving the use of the systems as compared to someone in IT or someone in the automation team or something like that, there’s a lot more value in making the sales process smoother. The whole mission of the Institute for Excellence in Sales, although we like to say it’s to help sales leaders attract, retain, motivate, and elevate top tier sales talent, it’s to make it easier for the sales professional to be successful. Brian, we have a question here that’s coming in from Mort. Mort says, “Where does enablement fit in versus training?” That’s an interesting question. I’ve spoken to a number of enablement people trying to get on their calendar and I’ve heard them come back and say, “I’m doing onboarding for the next month, so I’m really not going to be available.” Training continues to evolve, but nonetheless, talk about the role of enablement as it relates to what we think of as sales training.

Brian Lambert: That’s a great question. Thanks, Mort. Let me back a little bit up with the points you made which are spot-on about the idea that enablement leaders are perceived as being more aligned to sales. You didn’t say that directly, but this idea that enablement understands sales, and perhaps people came from sales and now they’re in enablement. This is an interesting point because I think the phrase sales enablement has come to have a lot of meaning, but it’s really fascinating to me, it’s a bit of an indictment actually, on a lot of sales enablement people that they don’t even have access to Salesforce.com, and they don’t know how to use it.

I’ve talked to a lot of enablement people who actually don’t understand salespeople like the title would imply. Of course, there are others that understand how to run reports, how to sell, actually how to look at pipeline, do the forensics, et cetera, but they’re few and far between to have an actual deep-dive sales conversation with people. I have a sales background, and I can see that coming from a mile away. I think there’s this double-edge sword. We’re enablement, we’re here to help, and sales enablement has a huge growth, huge push from vendors, a lot of executives want it, but that will fizzle if you can’t deliver results and if you are seen as part of the problem that you don’t have enough sales empathy or you’re not quite hitting the mark with the training content, the messaging content, et cetera.

That leads to your other question. What’s the difference between training and enablement? I would say that a lot of people are in the training space that happen to be in enablement. You would call that talent enablement where talent enablement is critical and that’s a huge proportion of sales enablement today, is talent enablement. But if you’re not running talent enablement as a function or as a service to salesforces and you’re really a standup trainer, you should really be called a sales trainer. You should be doing training facilitation and not call yourself sales enablement, because enablement would be understanding what the conversations are, understanding what skills are required to have those conversations, understanding that not all sales teams are the same, that communicating value at different altitude levels requires different skill sets. You would architect that, you would think through what content, what skills, what tools, how do I bring in from product? How do I bring in from marketing? How do I create real-life environments that model reality and not just push somebody’s training topic like time to roll out the next comp plan? That’s a big difference between an enablement person who’s enabling skill versus a trainer who’s perhaps got a book or portfolio of training content and they’re doing standup delivery. I’d prefer they call themselves sales trainers.

Fred Diamond: I want to touch on something you just said. I spent a large part of my career in marketing, product, industry, and then field marketing which of course is really at the end of the day about accelerating the sales process with whatever it might be. Events, advertising, it doesn’t really matter. But what is the best marketing strategy? I spent a lot of time justifying my value to sales, and I didn’t have to justify my value to marketing because we were all marketers, and what’s the cost per impression? All those types of things. We knew if we were doing a good job as marketers, but then I realized at one point, Brian, which is why I created the Institute for Excellence in Sales, that it’s about sales. It really is about sales.

We could do millions of marketing things, we could do them great, but if it doesn’t increase revenue, it doesn’t make the salespeople more successful, it’s just interesting. It’s not even really that worthwhile. How do you suggest that sales enablement professionals show that value to the sales leaders? In a lot of organizations still the sales leaders are the big shots of the company. They’re the ones that get the attention when things are going great and get the attention when things aren’t going great. How would you suggest to either a VP of Sales Enablement or someone who reports to that person to justify, to prove on a ongoing basis that they’re providing value?

Brian Lambert: That’s a great one. I do a lot with small groups of enablement leaders, I’ve done a lot of work in the space out in the public and I’ve blogged and have YouTube videos and stuff, but most of my work is in groups of ten or less working with leaders that are either starting up a function, they’ve been brought in to create the function from scratch or take things over and change it. There’s a common theme across these leaders who have been brought in to make this type of impact, and it really has to do with we need somebody who’s a sales VP advocate to have the shots to do it and to say, “I understand our go to market strategy, I understand how our business makes money, I understand your role as a Chief Revenue Officer, Chief Sales Officer and can have that business conversation about what is the sales strategy.” The CFO has said, I’ve translated the business strategy into a sales strategy, here’s what I’m doing, here’s what I’m doubling down on.

These leaders, to add the value, say okay, let me translate that now into an enablement strategy. What does that look like? There’s talent enablement, there’s message enablement, there’s pipeline enablement and organizational enablement. There’s a lot of stuff that gets in the way of “selling cloud.” These are what we talk about and what we focus on to add that value to sales leadership, and it comes down to two things. Helping sales leaders help their teams, help the salesforces that they’re supporting focus on the right things and remove the wrong things. It’s about helping prioritize and focus and simplify the selling ecosystem as an orchestrator to product, marketing, even legal, which has been a real challenge lately.

A lot of companies are very risk-averse right now. Understanding that to drive transactions that are fueled by sales conversations. There’s a lot more at play here than just, hey, go sell and go sell higher, go sell cloud. That’s what I think the common denominator is, that’s where the value starts, is understanding that there’s real complexity here. As a sales enablement leader I can think these things through, and more importantly, I can be very disciplined in how I’m actually tackling that instead of just throwing a bunch of stuff in sales. They don’t want people that are part of that ecosystem, there’s too many people throwing things in sales, enablement shouldn’t be enabling that. It should be enabling the sales strategy.

Fred Diamond: When I think back to my marketing career at Apple, Compaq, and a couple software companies, one way that we showed our value was by doing a lot of things. I remember once I presented the marketing plan for the year and it was a hundred pages, and the VP of the division said, “You’ve got to cut your budget by 50%,” and I said, “All right, I’ll just cut out 50 pages,” and he said, “Don’t be a smartass.” I have two questions for you, let’s think about the profession for a little bit here. It’s a growing profession and as I’m asking you these questions, I realize that my evidence is anecdotal but I see more and more of the people that I interface with on a daily basis being sales enablement professionals who are responsible for the relationship with the IES. Our job is to help the sales team accelerate the process.

I want to talk about the career for a second. If you were brought in by a company as a consultant to build a sales enablement organization, which you probably are even hired to do, I ask this question of the sales leaders a lot, what are the two or three features or characteristics of a great sales professional? They always say things like energy, passion, listening skills. What would you say are the one or two really hardcore skills that you would look for as you’re bringing on someone to lead the sales enablement function at a company? Let’s say it’s over a hundred million, decent sized company.

Brian Lambert: Sales acumen. We hear a lot about business acumen outside of sales enablement, but I think you really got to have some sales acumen. At the very least, go to sales training and actually try to sell your company’s stuff, actually try to role play it. It’s harder than most sales enablement people realize. Then understand how the money works in sales, how bookings work, how the contracting process works, et cetera. The whole discipline of selling is becoming a little bit of a lost art, to be honest with you, because of these product-led strategies that are proliferating where the technology is perceived to sell itself and Gartner’s telling people that 80% of the buying decision is already made. We have to get back to the basics of selling where we have to understand how a dollar or a euro actually comes to pass and how do we actually capture it and what’s required. That’s one, sales acumen.

The other one is a bit different, but it’s huge. It’s systems thinking and I’ve been exploring systems thinking for 20 years, I first came into it in the late 90s and I thought it was a bit of a cool way to look at the world. But now, when I look at sales enablement, everything’s an ecosystem. You push something over here, it’s going to pop up over there. Everything’s interrelated, we’re in an ecosystem-driven world. In fact, companies that were often brought in, the hundred-million-dollar companies that you mention, are probably in an ecosystem platform play. That’s all systems thinking and understand that. Simplification means you have to think things through first, you have to understand how these things work in order to simplify.

The third thing I would say is actually customer empathy. It’s really bad on how if we’re selling to IT organizations, sales enablement and salespeople actually don’t understand how IT organizations work, and the difference between a CTO or a CIO, for example. There’s the third bucket. Sales acumen, buyer empathy and systems thinking.

Fred Diamond: We’ve got a question here from Claire, “Would Brian recommend that I move into sales enablement as a career?” Let’s talk about that. It’s come a long way. Again, you were one of the cofounders of the Sales Enablement Society, you’ve done a lot of work to raise the profile of the position and it’s come a long way. Is it where you want it to be? Probably not, but what would you recommend to Claire? If people say, I want to get into sales enablement as a career, is it a good decision? Is it something that you would tell them, “I’m not quite sure”? I’m curious on your thoughts.

Brian Lambert: I would highly recommend it if you would like to be where the action is, if you like to solve problems, and to be honest with you, if you like to serve other people. I think this is the hidden strength of enablement that I find anywhere and everywhere, is that there is a passion to serve others. Sometimes sales enablement can make it a little bit all about themselves because we’re in the service mentality and we want to feel good about what we’re doing. But if you go beyond that, it’s how do we serve new SDRs? These people may be first in career, think about the hurdle they have of selling cloud platforms. Or, how do we serve an account executive that has a $20 million quota? I think that’s the power of enablement, this idea of providing services, serving one another.

Obviously, that means customer service, but providing services that people understand what they’re getting and they can see it’s valuable. That’s the future of enablement and I think that’s a great profession to be in, because a lot of functions internally – finance, legal, marketing, product, sales training enablement – they need to think more about the services they’re providing each other anyway. Enablement can be the tip of the spear in that regard. I highly recommend it, I love the profession. I’m still continuing to work to professionalize it, certify in it, bring people along in it, and I think it’s one of the cutting-edge digital economy professions. We just have to be clear on what problem we’re trying to solve and stick together in that.

Fred Diamond: I want to thank Cox Business for sponsoring today’s show. Brian, this was a great conversation. Again, I’ve known you for a long time and you’ve done a lot of great work, not just with your customers but in growing the intelligence behind sales. The reason we’re called the Institute for Excellence in Sales is because we view sales as a science, of course, there’s also an art to it as well, but there’s a scientific process that we like to promote and discuss. It’s thoughtful, and that’s one of the reasons I was so excited to be involved – it’s been six years since the whole team came together at the Beaumont Country Club to start defining a lot of this and look how far it’s gone, and you’ve been a leader in that. Good for you and good for all your achievements so far. We like to end every Sales Game Changers podcast with an action. You’ve given us a lot of great ideas along the way in the last 30 minutes, give us one specific action step that you recommend to the sales and sales enablement leaders listening or reading today’s transcript to help them take their sales career to the next level.

Brian Lambert: I’m going to give one that’s not a cliché, I’m going to give something that’s a bit meaty here because I know how this is going to be, but if you do this, you will elevate your career because you’re going to have to figure out how to navigate and get the answer. Identify the top 20 accounts in your company by name, and figure out who are the top 20 accounts by revenue, and what they’re actually buying from your company. You think that would be a simple question, it might take you many months to actually figure that out and you’re going to have to make many friends. That’s the key in enablement, is to understand how the money works and orchestrate across a lot of different functions. Go try to figure that out, that’s the scavenger hunt that I want to give people.

Fred Diamond: That’s actually a brilliant suggestion and it’s one that really hasn’t come up all that frequently. When I was doing marketing consulting, whenever I would get a new engagement – and I worked with a lot of tech companies that were looking to get from 10 to 20 million or 30 to 50, whatever it might be. The very first thing I did was an exercise called How They Buy or Why They Buy. I would say, come to me with your 20 accounts, 20 existing customers and I want to go through the process to understand why they became customers. The assumptions that my clients had were almost 100% wrong. “We got the best solution,” or, “We got a lead this way.”

But when we went through it in deep discussion, we realized, I remember one client, half of their customers came from one of their consultants who brought all her existing companies when she came. They were dumbfounded because they thought it was the product, so that’s a great exercise. You’ll discover so much about why people give your companies a dollar, and I tell that to salespeople all the time. Why would someone give your company a dollar? You need to truly understand that to be of value.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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