I’ve been hearing more and more about this thing called Sales Enablement. I kind of thought I knew what it meant, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my understanding of it was pretty fuzzy.

It turns out I’m not alone. A quick Internet search showed me that lots of companies are doing it, but what “it” is is still a bit up in the air. In the broadest terms, Sales Enablement is anything that “enables” salespeople to win more sales. That might mean skills training. It might mean materials that they can share with prospects. It might be a better sales strategy, or sharper analytics. It could also include a CRM. Or even a smartphone, I suppose.

In a recent survey by HubSpot, the most common phrase used to describe the Sales Enablement function was “develops strategy” (61%). Next most common: “creates materials and assets” (50%). (People could choose more than phrase, obviously.) Then came “sales training” (42%), “performs analysis” (41%), “integrate new channels” (36%) and “find cross-selling ops” (36%).

Didn’t we used to call that sales management?

There were more, but my head was starting to hurt. The list was starting to look like a job description for sales managers.

So is there something new here, or is Sales Enablement just a new buzzword for the same ol same ol?

Despite all the fuzziness, I do think there’s an important principle emerging from all of this. And it has less to do with the specifics and more to do with a philosophical approach to how sales forces are organized.

Many years ago, I was introduced to the idea of the “upside-down org chart,” in a training session at the ad agency where I worked. The consultant who was conducting the training suggested that those of us in “management” roles were really working for the front-line account execs.

Darn. I’d just gotten promoted, too.

This is, of course, the “servant-leadership” concept. It meant that we managers needed to be at the disposal of our account teams — all of us, up to and including the top brass. The account exec should have no hesitation calling the CEO and saying, “This is what I need you to do,” the consultant said. For example, sometimes a quick phone call from our CEO to the client’s CEO could unblock a logjam or cut through the client’s internal politics that were keeping projects stuck.

From that perspective, I kind of like the idea of Sales Enablement as a guiding principle for sales managers. And it’s okay that the term encompasses a grab-bag of definitions. It’s really more of an attitude than a function. It says that the organization and its managers are taking ownership for two critical tasks. One, they will identify and provide whatever it takes for salespeople to win more sales, whether it’s market insight, sales strategy, skills training or anything else. And two, they will remove those things that prevent salespeople from winning sales, including ineffective strategies, red tape, outdated processes, or whatever.

If you’re going to embrace that approach, it has to start with your front-line salespeople. Find out what they think they need to do — and stop doing — to get the results you both want. That’s a two-way conversation, of course, but a useful one to have. Maybe your reps think the CRM is a hindrance to sales, while you see it as a critical sales-enablement tool. That discussion may lead to a better understanding of how to best use your CRM. Similarly, you might open up a discussion about how reps can best deploy you, the manager, as a “sales enablement” resource. For example, maybe they’d like you to check in with their customer once or twice a year to find out how things are going. That can be an extremely valuable tool for the rep, because it can surface issues that the customer isn’t comfortable sharing with his or her day-to-day contact.

The bleeding edge of any business is the interaction between buyers and front-line salespeople. So why not structure your business — or at least your sales department — to enable that interaction?

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