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Sales Engagement: What You Need to Know in 2020 and Beyond

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What’s the difference between sales enablement and Sales Engagement?

No, that’s not the setup for some obscure go-to-market joke. It’s the question that will help companies stand out as we put 2020 behind us.

As sales leaders figure out how to do more with less, 9 out of 10 sales orgs consider a Sales Engagement Platform (SEP) critical to their team’s success.

That’s because Sales Engagement isn’t just a tool for automated sequences and CRM integrations. It’s a flywheel for the entire sales funnel, speeding up sales motions and connecting every revenue-generating activity.

Sales Engagement, both now and in the future, is not just a critical piece of the sales tech stack — it can serve as the foundation for the entire modern sales org.

What is a Sales Engagement Platform (SEP)?

There’s plenty of misunderstanding when comparing sales enablement tools and SEPs.

Basic sales enablement is a good start, but it’s just that: a start. In simple terms, it’s all about providing your team with the resources they need to close more deals. Sales enablement tools — your CRM, asset management solutions, etc. — will remain important pieces of the puzzle. However, a new “home base” for reps is emerging.

A Sales Engagement platform is a technology platform that brings sales (and often customer success) activities under a single roof, allowing sales professionals to efficiently and effectively focus on selling.

Sales Engagement is designed to promote consistent conversations, rapid sales motions, and sales and marketing alignment.

“SEPs will soon encompass all the tools that you are using now in one solution.”

SEPs provide core sales enablement functionality: automating manual tasks, scheduling meetings and follow-ups, setting up sequences, and more. But the best SEPs go beyond activities, enabling sales leaders to dig deep into messaging, pipeline, and customer campaigns.

“SEPs will soon encompass all the tools that you are using now in one solution,” Matt Millen, Chief Growth Officer at Sapper Consulting, told me. “Conversational intelligence, forecasting, customer success and more will all ultimately live in one tool. SEP innovation will result in awesome breakthroughs to help sales teams engage in the optimal next best action in real-time.”

Is Sales Engagement Always the Right Fit?

Any new sales tool requires an investment — both time and resources.

Not every sales team is in the position to take full advantage of Sales Engagement. To assess whether or not an SEP is the right move, sales leaders will need to determine:

  • Buy-in. Sales Engagement can be a catalyst for change, but not if the software is pigeon-holed as an SDR tool. Get buy-in from the revenue leadership team to ensure you get the potential of your ROI.
  • Use case. SEPs have out of the box implementation but a longer road for transformation. If, for the time being, you’re looking for a simple sequencing solution for a small team of SDRs, siloed sales engagement tools may do the trick.
  • Maturity. What stage are you in modernizing your sales org? Planning and exploration can lead to trying out a handful of SDR seats, then full adoption. Start simple, then add complexity.

Sales Engagement is on the Rise

Make no mistake about it: SEPs are in a position to extend and deepen the reach of the modern sales org.

Forrester recently released a report evaluating Sales Engagement vendors to help sales leaders choose an SEP that best fits their needs. Some key insights:

  • According to Venture Scanner, in the past 16 months, Sales Engagement vendors have raised more than $250 million in venture investment, with $62 million of that in 2020 alone.
  • 10% of companies that have reduced headcount have reinvested the savings into new sales technologies.
  • More than one-third of existing Sales Engagement customers surveyed for the Forrester evaluation said they plan to increase licenses with their vendor.

Read More: The Forrester Wave™: Sales Engagement, Q3 2020

“Sales engagement is poised to meet the moment,” wrote Mary Shea, Forrester principal analyst on the report. “2020 will be remembered as a watershed moment when B2B buying and selling changed forever. … With 53% of white-collar workers planning to work from home for the foreseeable future, sales engagement (SE) and adjacent sales technology categories are in the right place at the right time.”

To stand out in 2020 and beyond, revenue leaders will need to ensure they’re in the right place at the right time, too. It’s why Manny Medina, CEO of Outreach, has said sales technologies are the most important digital transformation investment this decade.

“Even when sales teams shrink, companies continue to spend on increasing the productivity of the salespeople they still have. They’re feeling the pressure of a demanding market that rewards both growth and efficiency, and they’re rushing toward advanced sales technologies that will help them land new customers, faster customer growth, and increased revenue.”

~ Manny Medina, CEO of Outreach

Between new work-from-home realities and increased scrutiny on deals, Sales Engagement platforms will help sales teams rethink the sales process with the future in mind.

What SEPs Bring to Sales Teams

The Forrester report on Sales Engagement highlighted three critical elements of an SEP: “B2B sales leaders need Sales Engagement vendors that can deliver functionality and workflows to enable full revenue teams, provide industry-specific expertise, and have a vision and plan for how AI will elevate all users. Vendors that merge these capabilities position themselves to successfully equip their customers in the new selling landscape.”

Forrester states in the report that SEP customers should look for vendors that have:

  • Functionality that enables entire revenue teams. An SEP should bring the entire revenue team together — not just support SDRs in their cold outreach. The UI for modern SEPs can support early- and late-cycle reps, customer success managers and revenue insights for leadership.
  • Industry-specific expertise and functionality. Sales tech has a habit of focusing on other tech companies. But standout SEPs will recognize — and build out expertise in — the intricacies of finance, logistics and other industries critical to economic growth.
  • A vision and plan for how AI will elevate its users. SEP vendors know that AI is the wave of the future. We’re just at the beginning of the kind of in-the-moment and fill-in-the-gaps capabilities AI can provide.

When I asked Morgan J. Ingram at JB Sales Training what SEPs bring to revenue-generating teams, he crystallized it for me: “The problem is that most people see a Sales Engagement as an SDR tool and not a sales tool. The more we can add technology to our process, the more efficient we can be.”

Forrester evaluated 31 criterion in its report — from security to partner ecosystems.

I want to dig deep into five of the areas that I think will be the most important for sales teams moving forward:

  • Sales content for engagement
  • Real-time insights driven by AI
  • Professional services (aimed at change management in the sales org)
  • Security and compliance
  • Industry expertise

Empowering, Cross-Functional Content

An SEP should efficiently consolidate and amplify sales content so sales professionals can quickly pull from the information in their conversations. Sales content should be readily available, allowing for easy access and seamless integration when reaching out to and talking with prospects.

I’m not just talking cold email templates here. Pricing breakdowns, testimonials, compete snippets, objection handling — an SEP should handle it all.

More than that, SEPs should provide the ability to dig into this content to see what’s working, what’s not, and where gaps exist.

Whitney Sieck, Senior Director of Enablement at Outreach, has found that sales content is essential in supporting customer outcomes.

“Using an SEP provides countless insights on content effectiveness, preferences and gaps,” she told me. “Especially as organizations move up market, content is even more important to nurture during longer sales cycles.”

“Attaching content to downstream metrics like ‘deals won’ increases rep confidence and, in turn, improves content engagement,” she added. “Understanding open rates by persona and sales stage help to reinforce when and for whom the content is most impactful. This allows enablement teams to provide stronger guidance for success at scale.”

The ability to quickly pull and test sales content will be a critical growth lever for sales orgs of all shapes and sizes.

AI That Speed Up and Deepen Engagement

More than a third of organizations have implemented AI in some form. It’s here. It’s happening. And it should be happening for sales teams, too. And 4 out of 10 sales and marketing teams say that data science and AI are critical to their success.

Sales is fast-paced, but also requires depth of knowledge, patience, and persistence. AI in sales can help with all three. AI capabilities within a Sales Engagement platform means:

  • Automating repetitive data enrichment tasks
  • Getting relevant snippets in real-time
  • Setting up smarter sequences
  • Identifying patterns and areas of improvement

That’s just the start.

“AI automates tasks for our customers,” says Eugene Ho, VP of Product at Outreach. “For example, we can automatically extract phone numbers from emails to ensure that the contact information is up to date. We also extract out of office information and use that to pause sequences, and then resume them when the customer returns.”

It’s not just about time savings. AI can also elevate real, human interactions. “We use AI to understand the intent of a conversation, such as an email message,” Eugene told me. “This gives our customers deeper insights into how their customers are responding, and as a result helps the business learn how to better serve and engage with their customers.”

Outreach also recently announced Kaia, which will bring this capability into real-time voice conversations.

Support for Change Management in the Sales Org

Professional services will be a huge differentiator for Sales Engagement.

Any platform can let sales leaders set up sequences. But the vendor should also be able to walk you through change management and completely upend the way that your sales org operates — if that’s what you’re looking for.

“Sales leaders want direction once they implement a Sales Engagement tool,” Morgan Ingram told me. SEPs are in a position to walk sales teams through not just implementation, but direction for change.

Without a base level service and support, you’re left on your own to learn the platform, troubleshoot issues, and answer key questions related to how you’re using the technology.

But SEPs should also go a step further: hands-on help for sales leaders looking to leverage the software for an entirely new sales process.

To support sales customers, SEP vendors should constantly be asking:

  • What are the unspoken — or even unidentified — problems that we can solve for our customers?
  • What is the most and least important to customers in modernizing their sales process?
  • What are some unique use cases among our customers?

The SEPs that continually address these questions are the ones that have a thorough understanding of how to best serve and support their audience.

Airtight Security and Compliance

Security, privacy, and compliance issues are more complicated — and just as important — today as they’ve ever been. That’s especially true with SEPs, as they house various forms of customer, lead, and confidential information.

Martin Rues, Chief Information Security Officer at Outreach, shared his thoughts on the top security and compliance issues facing the Sales Engagement space this year. “With evolving privacy regulations, SEPs will need to find ways to enable compliance for their customers by building it into their platform,” he told me. “Sales is still largely run out of the inbox. Vendors must be able to demonstrate how they protect the email data customers share.”

Security and compliance requirements are always changing. Because sales teams need to trust that the technology they invest in will protect them and their customers, SEPs will be expected to keep up.

Industry Expertise to Inspire Change

Leadership, vision, and an overall fresh approach to the sales process matter to the customer. Effective thought leadership does not begin and end with marketing; it’s also key to customer success and thinking long term.

SEPs have the opportunity to change the sales industry for the better by going beyond product and diving into process.

“Sometimes it’s challenging to take thought leadership from theory to application,” Whitney Sieck told me. “Sales Engagement partners that understand a business’ primary challenges should provide content that relates directly and help connect the dots for busy prospects.”

Whitney is new to Outreach, but has had plenty of opportunities to engage with Sales Engagement vendors. “I’ve enjoyed when they’ve sent me content relevant to my current initiatives and top priorities,” she said. “I especially enjoy the more tactical templates or the thought leadership content that contains simplified frameworks.”

“Habits and bias are being replaced with data and insights.”

Matt Millen had another take. With all the data and sales interactions SEPs are tracking, this new category can put out the kind of insight that could reorient the entire sales industry. “Habits and bias are being replaced with data and insights,” he told me. “SEPs will force lagging sales orgs into modern selling best practice not only because of their tech but also because of their communities. Sales Engagement is becoming a culture full of shared beliefs, ideas and best practices.”

It’s that shared culture of best practices that I’m most looking forward to. What about you?

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    • Awesome! I was about to google that question since I noticed we (professionals that use Saleshacker), are segmented in SDR, account execs, sales enablers & engagement, and a small minority of marketers that roam around here as well 🙂

    • This is a very comprehensive article. Lots to talk about. In general though, if you haven’t incorporated a sales engagement platform as part of your outbound strategy, you’re missing out. On the marketing side of the house, you’re so restricted by regulatory compliance, as it relates to opting in and communicating with promotional offerings, that you almost have to use a sales engagement platform to avoid the opt-in requirements to begin priming the prospect with content.

      At my company, we’re exploring tying our SDR outbound function, using a sales engagement platform, with our demand generation function (owned by Marketing). This means using the sales engagement platform to drive awareness of our opt-in marketing communication streams. I think this will ultimately deliver the fastest path to a conversation. Some won’t respond, some will engage the SDR directly and kick off a cycle, and some will get put into a marketing stream for regular nurturing. At least that’s the theory. Time will tell.

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