by Michael Idinopulos
on March 5, 2015

The State of Sales Enablement: 2015 Forrester Summit Wrap-Up

Nathan Egan, David DiStefano and I just returned from two days in Scottsdale at the Forrester Sales Enablement Summit. The weather was rainy but the food was good and the ideas even better. If you weren’t there (or even if you were), here are my main takeaways from the conference.

Software is eating the sales rep’s job

Everyone was talking about how difficult it is to be a sales rep in the year 2015. The trend towards customer empowerment is steady and unstoppable. Speaker after speaker bemoaned the rise of the self-educating buyer, the growing number of stakeholders participating in buying decisions, the erosion of trust in the sales rep as a credible and objective source of insights.

You might think this is just garden-variety bitching and moaning about how hard it is to sell. But Forrester’s Andy Hoar presented compelling data that B2B buyers increasingly prefer online purchases to ordering from a rep.

That’s a paradigm shift for B2B selling. Most B2B companies view the rep as an essential component of a “white glove” experience required to consummate highly considered purchases with discriminating buyers. They view online purchases as a cost-reduction tactic that cheapens the customer experience and reduces perceived value.

According to Andy Hoar’s data, B2B companies have it all wrong. Buyers—yes, B2B buyers—don’t want to buy from reps.

So it’s going to be a tough time to be a rep. Hoar and his team predict that the market for sales jobs will shrink dramatically. They’re forecasting a loss of 1 million sales jobs by 2020 for every type of salesperson *except* Consultant sellers who can navigate complex buying processes for complex products. (Those jobs will actually increase!)

Sales Enablement Technology is hot, hot, hot

The tech giveth and the tech taketh away.

While technology is threatening to put sales reps out of work, it will also make them more productive. The show was full of sales enablement technology vendors—products (including my own PeopleLinx) which empowers sales reps by arming them with the tools they need to navigate increasingly complex sales cycles.

There was a general feeling across the conference floor that the march towards these technologies was also inevitable. Maybe it won’t be these very products or even the approaches they represent, but sooner or later (and probably sooner), the corporate decision-makers at the event seem to think that technology is going to play a much more central role in the life of the sales rep.

The days when “Sales Technology” just meant CRM are clearly behind us. Besides Oracle, there wasn’t a single CRM represented at the event. No Salesforce, no Microsoft Dynamics, no SAP. Instead, the room was chock-full of tools that sit on top of CRM with the goal of making sales reps more effective. As one Forrester analyst told me during a session break: “CRM helped the sales manager. Sales enablement helps the rep.”

Nobody knows what “Sales Enablement” is, but that’s OK

The big topic of late night gossip wasn’t a new data set or trend-line or product announcement.

It was a name change.

At the start of the session, Peter O’Neill the conference emcee announced that Forrester has decided to rename the event the “B2B Marketing Forum”.

That bit of nomenclature triggered a wave of brow-furrowing that spilled over into hallway chatter. Forrester has spent the last five years establishing “Sales Enablement” as a category. They coined that term, they’ve used it consistently, and they’ve bragged about the fact that they coined it. Why are they walking away from it?

I heard lots of different explanations with one common theme: The change has more to do with how Forrester organizes itself than with a realignment in the market.

Confusion over the name-change touches on a broader question about “Sales Enablement” as a category. What is it? Who owns it? What do all the attendees, products, and presentations in Scottsdale this week have in common to merit inclusion under a common umbrella?

I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in Scottsdale with a good answer to that question. A lot of people flashed air quotes when they uttered the words “Sales” and “Enablement” in a single breath—a sly but slightly self-conscious way of letting the rest of us know that while they find the phrase convenient they haven’t drunk whatever flavor of Kool-Aid that goes the lingo.

I’m not sure what the renaming means for this conference, but I don’t think it matters much for the category.

Back in the late ‘90s when I was just starting my career as a clueless young buck with a McKinsey business card, I asked a sales and marketing exporting at McKinsey what “CRM” stands for. He said “It depends on who you ask.” Then I asked him what CRM systems did. He said again, “It depends on who you ask.” Fifteen years later, CRM is a well-defined category sized at $15-27 billion per year.

When the wheels went up in Phoenix, I was more firmly convinced than ever that–whatever you call it–“Sales Enablement” (note the air quotes) is here to stay.

That’s because the need is real. The buyer’s journey really has changed. It has forced the selling process to change along with it. Reps need help. The companies that provide that help will thrive, and they will need tools to do it.

I look forward to next year’s event in Miami. I just hope the weather’s better.

PeopleLinx has joined FRONTLINE Selling! Click here for the press release.