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 2022 behind us.
When science and sales meet, sparks fly. Just as cell phones and emails revolutionized the way people live and do business, sales engagement upends the infrastructure inefficiency that prevents even excellent salespeople from performing at peak excellence.
By bridging the gap between your system of records (the CRM) and your system of action (your marketing automation tools and sales playbook), sales engagement platforms supercharge rep productivity, accelerates sales flow, and helps drive revenue.
In short, sales engagement is a flywheel for the entire sales funnel, speeding up sales motions and connecting every revenue-generating activity.
Sales enablement vs. sales engagement
There’s plenty of misunderstanding when comparing sales enablement tools and sales engagement platforms (SEPs).
Sales enablement is the programmatic equipping of your sales teams with the right strategies, tools, content, and other resources to help them succeed.
It’s a good start, but it’s just that: a start. In simple terms, sales enablement is all about providing your team with the resources they need to close more deals.
As for sales enablement? Personally, I love the distinction in this blog post from Outreach:
Sales enablement is about supporting the sales team, but sales engagement is about cultivating and optimizing customer interactions. Sales engagement involves improving the buyer-seller relationship through strategic communication, data, and customer feedback. The goal of sales engagement is to provide a quality, customer-centric experience curated for your target audience’s interests and needs and ultimately convert leads into prospects.
Sales engagement is designed to promote consistent conversations, rapid sales motions, and sales and marketing alignment.
Real talk: Do you need a sales engagement platform?
A single sales rep or account manager — however skilled and driven — can only do so much.
Notwithstanding the conquer-anything mantra of motivational speakers, reality has a stronger presence on the sales floor. For one thing, there are only 24 hours in a day and only a third of that goes into the average workday of corporate sellers. When tasks mount, precious hours get used up, leaving sellers with far less time to make meaningful, value-yielding conversations with prospects and leads.
In fact, salespeople get so bogged down by multiple tasks that nearly 60% will miss quota this year, according to Salesforce. In other words, a clear majority of salespeople won’t achieve targets even when the best CRMs and marketing automation are already in place. In many cases, a higher number of disparate tools can even slow down the process, erode revenue efficiency, and undermine any effort to scale outcomes.
Clearly, sellers need further help just to make the cut. Meanwhile, sales leaders need an agile and comprehensive solution that can sync all the tools in their technology stack and efficiently scale performance.
That is where sales engagement platforms come in.
The experience of a New York-based recruiting platform exemplifies how the right SEP can make a world of difference. This firm needed to outperform larger industry players, communicate the right message to the right customer at the right time, and free its sellers from the shackles of time-consuming mundane tasks.
As expected, an agile and cohesive sales engagement solution delivered the goods. Using smart automation, persona-based messaging, and tailored lead nurturing workflows, this company achieved an impressive email open rate of 70%, and enabled its 10 salespeople to produce the equivalent output of a hundred-strong sales team!
3-item checklist: Is a sales engagement platform (SEP) the right fit for your team?
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.
What sales engagement tools bring to sales teams
Let’s dig deep into 5 key things sales engagement tools do for sales teams:
- 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?
Published in December 2019. Updated January 2023.