Starting selling flowers in her mother's shop in France, Celine Grey has worked her way up through sales positions to being the Sales Enablement Global Lead at Peakon, a leading platform for measuring and improving Employee Engagement. It goes without saying, Celine Grey is very well versed in the scene. I was excited to catch up with and learn from her about the fascinating, and sometimes overlooked, world of sales enablement. There was certainly plenty to discuss!
Rory Brown (RB): Hi Celine, thanks so much for joining me. Why don’t we start with a little bit of background of who you are, how you got into sales enablement, what was that journey like, and how did it come about?
Celine Grey (CG): Yes, I’ve worked in sales for many years. That started at my mother’s shop in France, selling flowers to people who didn’t want to spend money to buy what was perceived as a luxury item. I understood at a very early stage that sales is about understanding the value your product brings to your client.
After 5 years in banking I moved to Ireland, where a wealth of American tech companies had set-up shop. It was tech, it was exciting and it was sales and management techniques I could really resonate with. I was working for Gateway 2000, when the PC market crashed in ’98. We had a busy floor with 850 people taking inbound telephone calls that went quiet. This was hands down one of the scariest things I’ve seen for a sales team. I picked up the phone and started calling business accounts that had not ordered any computers for the past two years. I knew tech was moving so fast at the time, chances were there was a need to refresh. Some of the sales leaders asked me “Hey, can you teach other people to do that?” I put a quick training course together, we created outbound teams and I was promoted to team lead.
RB: You’ve done it from the ground up?
CG: Definitely. Software was where the money was at the time so I moved to the UK and joined a software company as an individual contributor. I learnt about complex selling in large organisations and worked my way up to managing sales teams again. One of the most enriching experiences was building and leading the EMEA inside sales functions for an IT security company. We started with a team of 3 and a challenging $2.5M target at the time to a team of 20 and hitting $22.5M revenue in just 3 years. A large part of that successful growth was down to what we now call sales enablement.
I needed sales headcount to support our fast growth but I didn’t have the budget to hire sales reps with experience. Our strategy became to hire great people, even without sales experience, and train them up to become excellent at selling. We focused on tightening the interview process and creating an onboarding programme. I learnt early that the direct applicability of everything that was learnt during the 1 week onboarding was key to the individual being set-up to succeed.
RB: Yes, of course.
CG: As a sales leader it became apparent that success was hinging on sales enablement, coaching and effective management. But doing it all became too much and I decided to focus on one thing. I added instructional design and adult learning to my other certifications (SPIN, Solution Selling, Challenger, Miller Heiman, NLP trainer, NLP Coach, DISC, etc...). I love learning and tend to want to certify in everything!
RB: Nice, like a trophy cabinet of qualifications.
CG: It’s just picking the best practice out there because things change all the time. You want to be the best you can be, right?
CG: Rackspace gave me the opportunity to move to Sales Enablement full time. The HR function was looking for somebody who understood what it was like to be a sales director and a sales individual contributor. It was about the learning journey, but also productivity, understanding sales numbers, ramp up, regional market disparities, training need analysis etc.
That progression was natural and the rest is history. This is what I’ve been doing ever since.
RB: I’m going to take it right back to the first thing you discussed, it seems, unless you’re about to tell me otherwise, is best practice syllabus in terms of what sales enablement is? And secondly, where it should sit? To you now with all your experience, what is sales enablement, and if you were to break it into pillars, what would they be?
CG: To me, the mission of sales enablement is to enable the sales organisation to acquire, grow, and retain customers. That’s it.
How you do it depends on the maturity of the sales organisation that you’re working with. There’s a book called Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? Whilst it is not about sales enablement, I think it should be the bible of all sales enablement leaders. That mission of acquiring, growing, and retaining customers is quite big, and you could end up doing a million things. The idea here is to focus on incremental change.
To focus on the right changes implies a good grasp of the sales metrics, so that each initiative has a clear purpose and success measure. In any given sales organisation, you have different career paths, different tenures, different geographical locations, maybe even have different product lines and so on and so forth, so you have that challenge of the unique. If you have a good data dashboard in terms of what that looks like, your actions become almost obvious. Let’s say for example you are looking to increase the number of won deals by 10%. If you look at your funnel, you could choose to heavily invest in marketing and add 10% more leads, anticipating a 10% increase at the bottom of the funnel. Or you could look at intermediary conversation ratios (between lead and qualification, qualification to solution, solution to proposal and proposal to win for example) and pick initiatives to impact each of these intermediary ratios. In the above example increasing each stage by 5% will yield a 16% increase in win, without additional marketing investment. The added advantage is risk mitigation. Because you rely on smaller incremental changes, you split the risk of a single action approach, and can rapidly course correct based on your data dashboard.
So it is the data that will dictate your action plan and sales enablement initiatives.
RB: That’s a really good point. You’ve mentioned the data, and you’ve mentioned basically the funnel, and where it’s fast, slow, dropping off, efficient, not efficient. This is where maybe the confusion comes with sales operations, but also this is where you and sales operations come together, because they're presumably providing the system that reports that information.
CG: Sales Operations are my hero. They help me measure where we’re at and whether the actions we’re taking are effective. They also make very good suggestions in terms of areas we could focus on.
In terms of data, we’re looking at the funnel, but not only that. We consider deal velocity, competitive win rate and ramp time for example. Traditionally ramp time is time to first order but most organisations miss measuring the activities that will lead to that first order, like time to first meeting, and time to first close-won outbound, for example. These intermediary goals allow a new hire to focus on steps that are achievable and lead to a healthy pipeline, rather than focusing on that first and distant order and running the risk of missing the activities that are going to land them there. It’s also helpful for one-to-one coaching. If somebody can’t get outbound leads, then we can look at what’s not working and we can fix it very, very quickly. Whereas if you wait six months for the first order to come in in terms of ramp time, and then the first order doesn’t come in, you have somebody who’s super-demotivated, with an empty pipeline. Chances are they’ll leave the company and by the time you recruit someone else and ramp them up, you’ve lost 9 months or 12 months of revenue on that headcount, plus cost of re-hire.
By coaching people on what they need to do to be successful, you are embedding best practice and demonstrating what repeatable success looks like. You effectively build successful sales habits.
In terms of data you could also look at things like competitive win rate and identify if there is a competitor where your team needs information in the shape of battle cards. We can look into the positioning of a unique value proposition or a set of customer stories where we’ve been winning, where we’ve been losing, and what we need to learn.
In one organisation for example, we had 20% of close-lost opportunities that were for lack of access to executive sponsors. We set-up a lunch & learn about the different types of buyers, and how to communicate at all levels within the customer organisation, and then reinforced through coaching.
I am also looking at Growth scores via the Peakon platform and ensuring we have initiatives that drive sales employee engagement.
RB: What you’re basically describing there is, the data tells the story of where you enable, based on what needs to be enabled first. Now, what a lot of people struggle with is, if you just looked into Salesforce and thought, what are all the ways that I can create insights based on this data? There’s a lot of answers. You could come up with a lot of stuff. Is there a process, or a framework, or tips you have for helping people to understand how to focus that a little bit?
CG: From working at Tableau I learnt that data exploration is also part of the process. If you are asking a question, you need to be receptive to any answer, even the ones you haven’t considered. In essence you should have a dialogue with data, not a monologue.
RB: So you know all about the possibilities.
CG: Here’s the thing, you can get numbers to tell all sorts of stories. First, you’ve got to be super honest with yourself. This is where the culture of the company is very important. You have to be able to look at the data and be comfortable saying: “Look, this does not work.” In one of my sales leadership roles, I looked at the data and realised the strategy that had been put in place was missing crucial information and dragging us down. I presented the findings during my QBR alongside a new strategy to drive the same results. Within 30 days we had totally shifted the sales strategy for that team. 9 months later we had caught-up on the original plan and hit company targets.
As a sales enablement leader you need to work hand in hand with sales ops. It’s not you showing up and going “We need to measure all things like this.” First, you go, and you listen and you observe. Again, if you’re a startup, or a scale-up, or a very established company, you don’t measure things the same way. Go to your sales leaders and understand what their metrics are, how they’re being measured, and what they’re pushing to the team because you want to be super aligned with that. If there are gaps, and you need some extra reports in order to get visibility, discuss it with them, and agree on the metrics together.
RB: So first of all, be honest about what the data is actually saying. Two, get in there, listen, observe, understand how that business captures data, how it works, their idiosyncrasies, if you like. Then, number three is look at what level and depth of reporting do we need to expose the information we need at a granular enough level so that the coaching is actually tailored and relevant?
CG: Absolutely. My strategic plan is very, very simple, which makes it clear in terms of implementation and agile if we need to change direction. Enablement initiatives are split under 3 priorities: foundations, ad-hoc and continuous learning. Within each of these we consider the tools & processes needed, the mindset and behaviours driving effectiveness, and the competencies required for the job. Foundations are what you need as a sales enablement function in order to be effective, like a LMS to facilitate learning at scale, a Sales onboarding programme, a Sales Methodology to align best practice and coaching efforts, an intelligent content management system to access material easily, a CRM, and sales dashboards.
You’ve got the ad-hoc initiatives, which address recent changes, for example COVID-19 or new product launches. And then there’s the continuous enablement which is based around continuous development.
It is easy to miss the foundational enablement and “assume” reps already know or do this. You need to know how to run effective sales engagements, you need to understand how to handle objections, how to put a proposal together. You also need Salesforce training to manage your pipeline efficiently, understand data, create reports and read your dashboard.
RB: Yes, that is interesting and I think that’s a massive bit that people miss out. I think people won’t take reps on how, “This is how Salesforce works. This is how you do a discovery call. This is how you handle objections. This is how you close.” I think very rarely, people are saying, “Oh, and by the way, here’s best practice and how you use your own data to plan your own business, make it consistent, understand what’s going to happen in the future and why, et cetera.” I think that’s the bit that’s always missing.
CG: Confused customers don’t buy and confused salespeople don’t sell. A customer that is overwhelmed with information because the rep just goes on and on is not going to buy. Gartner issued a report in January, highlighting that buyers are being overwhelmed with information which leads to a status quo with no decision being made and “good enough” becoming the standard. A consultative sales methodology is key to avoiding this scenario.
Salespeople who don’t have visibility on how they can make money are unlikely to hit their target. Forecasting is always positioned from a sales leadership perspective as reporting numbers to the board. But for you, as a sales rep, if you forecast accurately, you’re going to know how much money you’re going to make, rather than actually hide yourself behind opportunities that are not going to happen. If you are honest with your data then you can plan and take action soon enough to be able to change the predicted outcome. If you have clarity on where you are with your opportunities, you make the right decision, and you get your results.
RB: If we look at what enablement is, everywhere across the sales funnel right to the close, that’s basically involved in how the seller, the human, behaves?
CG: There are three keys to successful sales. That’s not me who says that by the way, it’s from SBR Consulting, a brilliant consultancy company I’ve worked with.
RB: Most of the information you pass on, you’ve learned somewhere, so I’m all right with that.
CG: Great. There are the skills and the competencies you have. A skill could be listening, a competency could be consultative selling. You then have the systems and the tools you use. If you don’t have a CRM for example, you’re likely to get overwhelmed with information and miss call backs or opportunities. If you don’t have an account development plan or territory plan, so a process to be able to actually understand where your money is going to come from this year, it’s going to be difficult for you to hit target, even with the right skills and competencies.
The final element is mindset and motivation. The way you think (what you tell yourself) affects your attitude and behaviour, which in turn affect the result that you get. I constantly have people saying, “Oh my God, I had a terrible call, can you listen to it?” I’m listening to it, and I’m asking them, “Can you listen to it again?” The first thing that comes back is, “Oh, actually, it wasn’t that bad.” So get out of your head, it does impact your attitude and your behaviour. Another example is when people negotiate against themselves. “Mrs Customer we usually charge 50K but I can get it cheaper if you’d like?”.
Some of the work we do is purely on unconscious communication, the way we filter information and how it affects our perception. At the end of the day, a sale is something that happens between human beings. Understanding where push back is coming from, being able to flex and adapt to other people’s model of the world and preferred communication style is all going to make the sales process easier and lead to a better customer experience. We need to get to a point where we are comfortable saying “Look, maybe we are the right partner for you, or maybe we’re not. That’s completely fine, but let’s have that conversation and be able to understand what we can and can’t do for you.”
RB: Just listening to you, what you’re also demonstrating is that sales enablement is a big responsibility. It’s a big job. It’s a big function within a business. It’s responsible for an awful lot. What’s probably happening in a lot of companies is that sales enablement is not being branded as such, and it’s kind of spread around; managers are coaching, sales ops are probably helping people drive some actions, marketing are doing something else. What would be your tip for a business that’s contemplating, taking the action of creating a sales enablement function? Where would they start with it? What would they try and focus on first?
CG: Start it, the sooner the better. I think people want to have a sales team that is “big enough”, whatever that means to them. By then they already have practice that is not best practice, and content disseminated everywhere or worse in people’s heads. Nothing wrong with people’s heads, it’s just not scalable. They often don’t really have one way to look at data. It can quickly mount to a messy system, which is always more challenging to fix rather than getting things right the first time.
As we discussed before there are great benefits of having the sales enablement function as close as possible to the sales operations function so that you can align your course of action. Quick business insights, top leaders buy-in, effective processes and data intelligence will ensure your sales enablement efforts are relevant, effective and sustainable.
I have two examples of companies that did not have sales enablement practice. One was over 5,000 employees. We rolled out Miller Heiman Sales Methodology globally across the globe. There were existing deal reviews called the “war room” twice a month, they’d ask three people in the organisation to bring a deal for other business functions like legal, marketing etc. to dissect and in principle to help with.
I quickly noticed that the sales people who volunteered often came with opportunities that were 90% won. There was absolutely zero value in bringing those in. But nobody would want to bring an opportunity that was sticky and risk being under fire. To support those tough but strategic opportunities we trained everyone to understand bluesheets, restructured those sessions around data, and scheduled 30min prep calls with each presenter to ensure readiness. Everybody came to the meeting prepared and with ideas on how to win. Within 20 minutes you could nail a new strategy that involved the whole team, capture the commitment of people saying, “We can help you with this, we can help you with that,” and create follow-up actions in Salesforce, making people accountable for what they promised in the room.
Suddenly you didn’t have the inertia you had before where it used to take up to two months to put a bid team together. This is horrendous when you’re a salesperson and you have to wait for that long. We went from that to five days, generating traction and accountability through Salesforce.
What can also happen if you don’t have the sales enablement function is the hire and fire strategy. If you don’t have sales enablement, you’re likely to have mixed results within your team. As a result you’re going to hire people, it’s not going to work, you’re going to fire them. You’re going to hire new people, it’s not going to work, you’re going to fire them as well.
First, you can’t grow like this, second, it’s costing you an absolute fortune, and third, your managers are going to run out of steam as they spend most of their time recruiting and firing people. They’re not going to hit target because of the ramp time, so there’s no way around it. If you want to build a successful sales practice, you need to factor in Sales Enablement.
The last point is the customer experience. Sales enablement again, is there for you to acquire, retain, and grow your customer base. Everything we do is aimed to provide the customer with a great sales experience. I think it’s CEB which has been bought by Gartner, that looked at the loyalty factor. They found that 53% of customers stay with the same company because of the sales experience. I can’t control the product as a salesperson, I can’t control the price, I can’t control the overall company brand.
Can I control the sales experience? Absolutely. So we make sure that it is positive, whether it’s a yes or a no.
RB: One thing I want to pick back up on was you mentioned a blue sheet, and actually one scenario I’m interested in, let’s say a lot of where we see enablement gaps is, you’ve got a sales operations team and there’s no sales enablement. The sales operations team is producing management information for the sales leadership, or even the salespeople or even anything else. There’s some sort of breakdown between the information being produced and it being received and actioned. I’m presuming for you, that would be a fantastic scenario where a blue sheet would align everyone and bring them together.
CG: Are you familiar with the blue sheet from Miller Heiman?
RB: No, I’m not.
CG: A blue sheet is a map of a particular opportunity, and you’re looking at different ingredients, which you identify as strengths or red flags. It forces you to be really honest and identify uncertainties, so that you can plan your best strategy. What you’re referring to is slightly different, isn’t it?
RB: My scenario, I gave you, that’s a prime example of where sales enablement fits, right? Because it turns that scenario, which is quite difficult into a very good one, by bringing everyone together and training them on how to use information and why, and thinking about what it’s helping them do and that kind of stuff.
CG: Yes. When there is no sales enablement, sales organisations rely on the sales managers to do the sales enablement work. The challenge is that it comes at a cost. Sales managers are overworked and may not be able to focus on their role as a sales leader. They may or may not have the understanding of adult learning to embed new practice and run effective sales enablement programmes.
With a sales enablement function you have someone who can translate that data into actionable actions and measure their effectiveness over time.