Sales enablement and sales training, while certainly related, are certainly not the same thing.
And yet, we see the terms used almost interchangeably.
Today, we get to the bottom of sales enablement and sales training, how they’re different, the pros and cons of each, and how to identify which one you need to improve your sales team.
What is sales training?
Let's clarify what we’re talking about here.
Sales training is the process of improving seller skills, knowledge, and attributes to drive seller behavioral change and maximize sales success.
Obviously, this definition is a bit vague.Sales training can take a ton of different forms. Sometimes it’s teaching reps a new methodological approach, or tips on how to make micro-improvements.
But overall, the goal is to make reps better by changing the attitudes and behaviour of the reps themselves.
Generally speaking sales training sits in two camps: event training and on-the-job training / coaching.
- Event training is when you get in a trainer to come teach your team how to do their jobs better. This happens at best a few times a year (e.g. in a sales kickoff).
- On-the-job training / coaching is basically your front-line managers, helping reps get better every day, usually on the fly and usually in stolen pockets of time.
The pros and cons of sales training
Now that we know what we're talking about, let's dive into the pros and cons of sales training.
Sales training is generally good at two things.
First, it’s good at communicating process, product, and methodological knowledge to reps. Particularly for new reps, particularly for reps straight out of school, sales training is a great way to get a lot of knowledge into them in a short space of time.
Second, it’s a good tool (especially if its regular / formalized) to solve specific problems that your organization has identified. For instance, if you’re seeing some a challenge with getting enough discovery calls booked, you might want to run a sales training session with your VP Sales or an outside sales consultant on the best way to book a disco..
However, sales training – at least, traditional classroom-style sales training – is also terrible at a few things.
For starters, there’s not a lot of evidence that sales training alone leads to lasting improvements in sales performance. Spotio reported that 84% of all training knowledge is lost just 90 days after training – an insanely fast decay.
What's more, sales training is overwhelmingly perceived as a one-off event. Little / no follow up means sales training doesn’t stick, and more importantly, isn’t measured in terms of hard figures. Rarely is a company willing to not-train half their reps for a true A/B test of training efficacy.
Third, since sales training is about changing behaviour, it’s by far the most effective when it’s tailored and personalized to the person who’s receiving it. We’ve known for a long time that the most effective teaching is 1:1 tutoring, and yet training remains something that is usually completed en masse by every rep, regardless of proficiency.
Finally, training is expensive. In 2018, companies in the US spent $15 billion on sales training. And while there are reports that show sales training returns a positive ROI, measuring and tracking that impact continues to be a challenge.
You should consider sales training if
- Your organization has a specific, measurable problem that you’re looking to solve
- You have a raft of new reps who need to learn sales 101
- Your front line managers have the time and capacity to fine-tune and reinforce the classroom training for months afterwards
- You have a specific event you want to get reps up to speed for (e.g. a product launch) and need to kickstart the sales training process.
What is sales enablement?
So if sales training is all about attitudes and behaviours, what is sales enablement?
Apparently, we're not the only ones who are curious, since 11 million other results come up when you Google it. And while there are plenty of definitions floating around out there...
But consensus is thin on the ground.
For instance, take a look at this screenshot of G2’s sales enablement grid.
It includes companies like us, Seismic, and Outreach.
Now this isn’t to say that one of these companies isn’t sales enablement. Rather, these three companies all do very different things… and yet are all classed as “sales enablement.”
So enablement is still a pretty messy world.
TOPO did a great job earlier this year in clarifying exactly what sales enablement is:
Sales enablement is the process of providing the sales organization with the information, content, and tools that help sales people sell more effectively.
Where training is focused on changing the attitudes and behaviours, sales enablement focuses on building an ecosystem that make sales people successful. This might mean:
- Managing the content sales needs to send to prospects
- Building and distributing internal documentation to help reps understand their target audience
- Surfacing content that’s relevant to deals automatically
- Building onboarding programs that get reps ramped faster (and actually measuring these sales enablement metrics)
- Giving sales a place to practice pitching and get feedback before they get in front of the customer
- Capturing and sharing reps’ experience with sales teams
To summarize: sales training focuses on what decisions to make, while sales enablement catalyzes making those decisions so the right ones are made more often.
Pros and cons of sales enablement
Sales enablement tends to thrive on three specific use cases.
First, an organization is onboarding new reps, probably a lot of them, and probably very quickly. Sales enablement is a great option to help streamline this process (e.g. with a tool), formalize the rep onboarding experience so that everyone starts of on the same footing, and define what that onboarding experience looks like.
For instance, sales enablement is a great function to help define the learning program that reps go through as they get up to speed and create and manage that journey. At scale, this requires a tool, but for smaller organizations this might just be a spreadsheet with tasks to be done or subject matter experts to talk to on it.
The second major use case for sales enablement is continuous training. Sales leaders are constantly looking to make their teams better, and enablement can provide the scaffolding that makes that easier.
For instance, sales enablement might refine your sales process to make it easier to buy and thus, increase your close rates. Alternatively, enablement might provide additional support for your sellers around an event, product launch, new line, or segment, or new audience to make sure that sellers have the support they need to operate effectively.
And the last, and best known use case for sales enablement content. And this comes down to three things:
- Building / orchestrating the content that sales needs to hit their objectives (e.g. working with product marketing to build out a case study or positioning document)
- Organizing internal and external content so it’s easy for sales reps to find it
- Automatically surfacing the right content at the right time to move a deal forward
But like anything, sales enablement isn’t a silver bullet. There are things that sales enablement isn’t that great at. For instance:
- Generating the content sales needs to hit their objectives: like we said earlier, sales enablement is a catalyst. That is, it’s good at rallying and organizing other teams rather than owning that content production itself.
- Product marketing: there’s a reason sales enablement started as a subset of product marketing. However, it’s a distinct role, and it’s function in an organization shouldn’t be to find and articulate product / message-market fit.
- Fixing poor sales leaders (who don’t want to change): front line sales staff are the lifeblood of a sales organization. And if your sales managers don’t have an interest in changing how they do business, sales enablement alone won’t be able to solve that. That level of change management needs to be a concerted effort from enablement, marketing, operations, and most importantly – senior leadership.
You should consider sales enablement if
- You want to improve your onboarding process to get reps up to ramped faster
- The bulk of your revenue comes from a few top performing reps (and you need to move the middle of the pack)
- You have lots of great content that sales doesn’t use
- You want to approach sales performance from a continuous improvement perspective rather than in fits and starts
- You want to build an environment of high sales performance
Both sales training and sales enablement have their place. What’s more, sales training and sales enablement overlap a lot in what they’re trying to achieve.
But they come from fundamentally different approaches. Sales training is focused on using people (e.g. trainers) to shift rep attitudes and behaviour, usually in a group setting. It’s about teaching reps “this is the right way to sell.”
Enablement, on the other hand, takes that core desire to teach reps how to sell and extends it out to every aspect of the sales process. From the tools reps use to the resources they access to the very process of selling, enablement is about building a scalable, repeatable system that can make any rep in the organization better at their job.
Sales training and enablement are both powerful tools that can improve your sales team.
But, as always, it’s about choosing the right tool for you.