In October 2019, our team published its “Predictions 2020: B2B Marketing And Sales” report, and in late December we recorded a webinar: B2B Marketing And Sales Predictions 2020: A Conversation With The Analysts Who Made Them. In the waning hours of 2019, Caroline Robertson and I took the opportunity to double-click into our sales enablement predictions. What follows is a synopsis of our chat as we both wrapped 2019 business and prepared for the new decade.

This first prediction is almost counterintuitive. As business buyers continue to embrace digital routes and tools, they also now seek more interactions with their sales reps.

1. Sellers’ engagement will increase by 10% even as more transactions close digitally. Buyers consistently say they’re less interested in engaging with sellers than they are with peers and digital content. The percentage of global purchase influencers who say their primary transaction method is digital increased from 28% in 2018 to 31% in 2019. But 57% still make their initial technology purchase with a salesperson. And in 2018, the number of business buyers who say they find interacting with a rep superior to gathering information on their own increased by 5%. We believe this is a bellwether of sellers’ increasing value and predict their involvement in transactions of all types will increase as organizations weave digital tools (like sales enablement automation and eCommerce) into the sales motion.

CR: What are some of the underlying trends causing buyers to increase their interactions with sellers even as they conduct pre-purchase research and transact digitally?

MS: Buyers are people, and people crave human connections. I think in the past we over-indexed toward digital. Back in the day when we published “Death Of A (B2B) Salesman,” buyers wanted to purchase either online or offline. They wanted a frictionless exchange or a high-value interaction. Today, buyers want the best of both worlds, and as long as sellers aren’t pitching them on what they already know but are engaging with them in tailored, meaningful, and dynamic ways, buyers will want to engage with them and to gain more value from those interactions.

CR: What are some of the most innovative organizations doing to ensure their sellers can add value even as buyers are informed and educated even before their first interaction?

MS: The best organizations are doing a few interesting things. First of all, they’re arming their sellers with a modern enablement toolset, tools that drive better efficiencies, effectiveness, and better experiences for buyers. These tools help sellers deliver personalized experiences at scale, increase seller preparedness for each interaction, and capture and automate data collection. Second, they’re engaging a sales training and services provider — a partner that can help sellers and managers be more successful in a digital-first world. And, finally, they’re starting to think about how to organize and align sellers around buying motions or preferences versus meaningless virtual or actual boundaries.

CR: Twenty years ago, when Grainger launched the first significant online catalog, most reps viewed eCommerce as a threat rather than an ally; how do reps feel about eCommerce today?

MS: Well, it’s a different world today. The on-demand economy brought forth by Amazon and Uber has forever shaped how business buyers expect to interact with their suppliers and salespeople. But I would say salespeople are still pretty skeptical, particularly salespeople who work in relationship or high-touch businesses. But, increasingly, buyers are no longer loyal to a particular route but are rather loyal to experiences. And they’ll want to make different routes decisions at different times. So as we move forward, salespeople will need to view eCommerce as an ally, not as an enemy.

This next prediction has already generated a fair amount of controversy. But when you think about how much the sales enablement (SE) function has changed in the last few years, and how critical it will be in the future, it all makes sense.

2. Sales enablement will become a marketing responsibility for the majority of firms. Today, SE professionals primarily support direct sellers. So it’s not surprising that in 42% of B2B companies, the function reports to sales leadership and, in just 23%, to marketing leadership. But the organizations in which SE reports to marketing are exceeding revenue expectations more frequently. Gone are the days of the mid-funnel flip on lead ownership. Modern buyers engage a varied mix of digital and human assets at all stages of the buying journey. As B2B marketing begins to take on responsibility for architecting an engagement strategy for the entire buying journey, we expect that more than 50% of B2B organizations will realign the SE function to marketing.

CR: What can the CMO do to ensure that if sales enablement reports to marketing, the function/head of enablement will be successful?

MS: Well, this is probably one of the more controversial predictions we’ve made. And I won’t lie — it’s probably not going to be an easy transition. But it starts with your marketing and sales leaders having a great relationship. Because of the focus on the customer — the buyer, insights, and data, and the strategic nature of the function — it makes sense that sales enablement reports to the head of marketing. But I think it’s absolutely crucial that at the line or street level, your sales enablement practitioner has the highest degree of credibility with the sales organization and great relationships with individual sellers and managers. Putting the right person on point in this role will be crucial to success. Maybe that person has come up through the sales organization, was a seller or manager, or maybe they just “get it.” But they must have authentic empathy for what salespeople go through day to day.

CR: Today, there are over 7,400 jobs with sales enablement in the title on LinkedIn; what are the attributes and activities of the modern enablement professional?

MS: As we think about modern enablement encompassing so much more than just providing sellers with the right content to be delivered at the right point in the sales process, we’ve identified five critical competencies: strategy, process, insights, technology, and talent. So the person that you hire or put in charge of the function has to exhibit expertise in all these areas. You need someone who can sit down with your head of sales and HR and lead the discussion on how to reimagine sales talent profiles, or who can collaborate with your head of sales ops and redesign your sales process to a buying process, or someone who is willing to break some glass from time to time — someone who will attempt to break down any organizational silo that gets in the way of revenue.

CR: How much longer does enablement focus on just the direct sales force?

MS: Well, that’s really up to the buyers, isn’t it? Yesterday, buyers wanted to buy either online or offline; today, they want to buy both online and offline; and tomorrow, they will want to buy anywhere, anytime — independent of channel or touchpoint. So once we have a critical mass of buyers who are focused on experiences and choices versus routes, once those siloed routes to market completely blur, then enablement will have to expand to support partners and eCommerce.