Mike Kunkle’s new book (his first), The Building Blocks of Sales Enablement, brings a systems-thinking approach to sales enablement. Regular readers will know my love of systems thinking in organizational learning.
The work of Peter Senge hugely inspires me (check out my summary of his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline). He calls systems thinking “the conceptual cornerstone that underlies all five learning disciplines.”
Systems thinking may hold the answer to a holy grail problem most sales enablement professionals must solve: how to unify knowledge across functions and fields within a sales operation.
Kunkle’s book lays out a framework for achieving this. This essay will do two things:
- Summarize his approach as a jumping-off point for you to buy the book and dive in further.
- Tie his framework into our frameworks for learning culture to give you an added lens for implementing his ideas.
The Building Blocks
Kunkle begins the book by advocating for a formal approach combined with systems thinking: to me, this is intentionality. As Reid Hoffman wrote, “I believe that individuals who’ve developed habits that make learning central to how they interact with the world are more likely to learn more than those who don’t embrace learning so intentionally.”
With this intentional mindset, we can introduce the building blocks.
Let’s explore the highlights of each block as we work towards weaving them together in a cohesive approach to sales enablement.
Shifting to a buyer-centric perspective is a central theme for sales enablement in this book. It makes sense that the first building block is about understanding your buyer deeply. Kunkle shares helpful prompts for gaining this understanding, and my favorite is undoubtedly COIN-OP:
- C/O: What challenges do they face, or what opportunities might they capitalize on?
- I: What are the risks and impacts of the status quo? What happens if buyers fail to address the challenges or capitalize on the opportunities?
- N: Based on these assessments, what are their needs and wants (relative to the problems you can solve)?
- O/P: Because of the COIN, what are the outcomes they’ve set (or should set), and how do they prioritize their needs and desired outcomes? What are the upsides for them if they do succeed?
Kunkle advocates for patience as a “selling superpower.” Buyers have increasingly felt that average sales reps fall short of understanding their needs, so spending time in this building block is critical to demonstrate understanding and personalize sales conversations accordingly.
The cornerstone role of Cohort Learning Experiences in cultivating a culture of continuous learning presents an opportunity. Would your sales force develop a habit of meeting regularly to share their understanding of buyers? Do you think this would help them uncover nuances in relationships they wouldn’t otherwise pick up?
Finally, Kunkle borrows from Six Sigma to make a compelling case for expanding your research and intentionally documenting “exit criteria” for your buyers. The “things each buyer needs to see, hear, feel, understand and believe in each stage of their purchase pursuit before they’ll feel comfortable moving forward with you.”
Going through this process of developing buyer acumen allows reps to do the following for every buyer:
- Uncover, clarify, meet and confirm acceptance of exit criteria.
- Personalize messaging effectively.
This is where the next building block comes in.
Buyer Engagement Content
Buyer engagement content is different from prospecting content. We’re referring here to the content used in opportunity management to meet the exit criteria of the buyer and move them through your sales process. Kunkle provides a list of types of content and how you might use it (and track it, importantly) to deliver relevant, personalized information to move a buyer closer to a purchase.
The next building block addresses the internal content you need.
Sales Support Content
Sales support content is performance support and includes the sales playbooks, materials, and tools you provide to enable your sales team while they are selling. Kunkle reminds us not to overcomplicate support content. We shouldn’t use this content to re-teach concepts. Instead, the goal should be to “offer reminders and provide a form or guide to help reps complete a task more easily.” The rest of the chapter offers helpful breakdowns of the different types of sales support content. With this in place, it’s time to build your sales team.
“Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.” – Jim Collins, in Good to Great.
Kunkle leans into systems heavily in this building block, sharing his system developed over years of practical experience. He goes into detail in each of the areas in the diagram below, sharing practical advice for working with recruiting, writing job descriptions, conducting interviews, and assessing skill/will fit.
In this building block, Mike Kunkle introduces one of my favorite concepts from the book: “Top-Producer Analysis” (check out his SlideShare). This work comes to the fore in a big way in the next building block, one near and dear to my heart.
“Sales enablement is not just training!”
The chapter starts with this battle cry. Nevertheless, training is a massive component of the overall role of sales enablement, so this is a big building block.
The chapter is chock-full of practical advice for setting up a sales training system. The advice on learning design resonated with me, as our Cohort Learning Experiences achieve all of these:
- Chunk, sequence, and layer content and assess frequently.
- Separate knowledge and skill and blend the content, combining asynchronous learning with synchronous, virtual instructor-led training for classroom skills-based training.
- Use as many simulations as possible to model the real world (my note: no need to get fancy here either, dialogue is often the perfect form of simulation).
- Be sure to use evidence-based and performance-based instructional systems design or hire someone else (we can help).
Let’s get into Top-Producer Analysis (TPA) while talking about training.
TPA helps identify what to train on.
Kunkle recommends this approach:
- Identify the top producers in your sales team (his SlideShare has guidance).
- Examine what they do compared to other reps in your company to identify buyer-centric best practices. Focus on the tasks. Capture the workflow.
- Document the difficulty, importance, and frequency of their selling behaviors.
- Adjust your sales competencies to align with your discovery work.
- Build continue-start-stop lists based on your analysis – what should other performers continue to do, start doing, or stop doing based on top producers?
- Build training for the repeatable, replicable skills you identify.
The book goes into more detail on this, so I highly recommend getting a copy, even if only for this.
Sales training is ultimately a change management initiative. Having a plan helps get everyone aligned. Another thing that helps integrate learning is sales coaching, the next building block.
Kunkle writes, “Sales managers encourage their reps to take responsibility for their growth by helping them determine areas of development, create action plans, and take steps to improve their performance.”
Coaching is also a critical component of the Continuous Learning Systems we create for clients. I particularly liked the ROAM model, which comprises the following steps:
- RO: compare results versus objectives to determine where to focus
- A: review the activities a rep is performing
- M: review the sales methodology used for the buyer-facing activities.
Sales coaching is one of the more comprehensive chapters of the book, and it closes out with specific guidance on how to conduct coaching.
Sales process refers to the stages through which a sale progresses. The core insight is to map your sales process to the customer lifecycle you uncover in the Buyer Acumen building block. You can see a template for this in the image from earlier.
Kunkle does a good job breaking down the customer lifecycle and suggesting specific tactics for types of selling (think insight selling, problem-based selling, or positioning against competitors) that are more effective at each stage.
He ends it off with four considerations I immediately highlighted:
- Desired outcomes and exit criteria may vary by buyer.
- Buying and sales processes may not be linear.
- Reps should maintain forward momentum by building trust.
- New entrants on the buyer side, outcomes, or exit criteria will continually change.
The sales process is different from sales methodology, which is the subject of the next building block.
The core idea of this building block is “to have a proven methodology and playbook in place across the entire customer lifecycle.” However, here’s the challenge: it can’t be so complete or detailed that no one can learn, retain or use it. Kunkle recommends keeping the Pareto Principle in mind: 80% of the results usually come from 20% of people’s activities and tasks. Cohort Learning Experiences are perfect for this since that 20%, the cream of differentiating behaviors that lead to top production can be discussed and distributed across all the learners participating in the experience.
The chapter starts with a helpful map of sales methodology:
- Research and prepare for prospect buyers within a target account.
- Structure and execute that prospecting approach, using the research in a conversational framework.
- Open meetings effectively and run them well.
- Conduct discovery to uncover compelling problems you can solve or opportunities you can enable.
- Qualify an opportunity to gauge whether you have need and solution alignment, whether you’re talking to the right decision-makers, and whether those buyers want to and can purchase.
- Resolve buyer concerns in a buyer-centric way.
- Make effective presentations and personalize solution messaging by buyers.
- Effectively conduct a quarterly business review (QBR) with a current account.
- Correctly set objectives and develop account plans to help you achieve them while more effectively serving your accounts.
You’ll also find a treasure chest of skills you want your salespeople to have.
Sales Analytics and Metrics
Once you have the preceding building blocks in place, it’s essential to measure your results. Kunkle includes helpful lead and lagging indicators. My favorite insight was tracking which buyer personas or buying roles were involved in each opportunity, allowing you to correlate with conversion and win rates.
Are you wondering how much to track?
Kunkle’s advice is to “establish a lot of measurement upfront to assess the current state, and then pare back over time once you know what’s not needed in the long term.”
Sales Technology and Tools
The most important advice for this building block is two-fold:
- Buyer beware – be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish and support and seek purposeful solutions rather than taking every vendor call.
- Fix process and workflow first – lean towards integrations and vendors who solve multiple problems versus a series of point solutions
Kunkle uses an interesting psychology theory to introduce this building block. Frederick Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory posits two types of factors linked to job satisfaction:
- Motivation factors that directly lead to job satisfaction (e.g., purpose, autonomy, mastery, etc.).
- Hygiene factors that cause dissatisfaction by their absence (e.g., salary, benefits, insurance, vacations, etc.).
Here’s the critical point: hygiene factors do not lead to more motivation. Only their absence leads to dissatisfaction. Relating this to compensation plans, Kunkle explains, “you may not always gain a lot from [a well-structured comp plan], but it will certainly hurt you to mess it up.”
He then shares a great story of how he helped develop a comp structure at a Fortune 25 financial services firm he worked for. This section will give you the exact questions they set about answering, the compensation elements they considered, and the plan they came up with.
Sales Manager Enablement
Front-line sales managers play a massive role in Kunkle’s overall system:
Essential skills an effective sales manager needs include:
- Setting expectations.
- Active listening.
- Leading meetings effectively.
- Sales performance management.
Kunkle’s Sales Management System is the most comprehensive system covered in the book and ties together many of the other building blocks covered.
I found it interesting to see elements of Cohort Learning Experiences pop up in some of the recommendations. Routines like a “recurring team meeting for sharing best practices” signify a strong Learning Culture.
There was also a helpful distinction between opportunity management and pipeline management.
Like systems thinking, communications and cross-functional collaboration are pervasive practices that underpin all building blocks.
There are several specific recommendations for the sales enablement function you might find helpful:
- Become a single point of contact for the sales force.
- Communicate with a regular cadence.
- Use a consistent, well-organized communications format.
- Store communications in a centralized place.
- Store information in an organized way that makes it easier for users to read and retain.
- Establish a cadence of meetings and contact with partners throughout the sales organization.
- Broaden the scope of communication to include stakeholders in marketing, product marketing, etc.
- Review collaboration efforts, progress reports, results, and issues and revise the plan.
You can achieve all these recommendations by installing a Continuous Learning System in your sales organization.
Sales Support Services
The final element of Kunkle’s framework includes all the possible ways you can support your sales team. The chapter contains a comprehensive list of types of support you can provide.
There is also a description of a type of support called a Deal Desk: a “group of internal experts who assemble to review and provide feedback on the pursuit of high-value sales opportunities.” Deal desks are an excellent theme for a Cohort Learning Experience. Picture this – your sales team gets to ‘pitch’ their opportunities in a group format and work together to architect a complex solution or construct a compelling proposal.
How To Get Started
Kunkle closes the book with practical advice for implementing his frameworks.
Here are some of my favorite pieces:
- Have patience – stay focused, trust the plan, and avoid “bright shiny objects.”
- Hold people accountable – sales enablement projects are change management initiatives in disguise. Foster a culture of accountability, coaching, and ongoing development.
- The map is not the territory – even though his frameworks (and our CLX frameworks, for that matter) are effective, they are not reality. As Kunkle says, “the work you do in bringing it to life… is the reality and where the magic happens.”
- “Investing time to better train, prepare, enable and empower front-line sales managers is one of the smartest investments a business can make.”
- The entire section on onboarding is excellent (chapter 17).
- Group salespeople by performance milestones. Someone who just made their first sale needs vastly different guidance from someone aiming for three successive months at quota. Consider designing your cohorts for Cohort Learning Experiences using these milestones, but ensure there are at least a handful of people with more experience in each cohort.
- “Tailor your conversations with your executive team and senior sales leaders to how they view the world… with some leaders; you need to focus on the outcomes they want, not the journey you’ll have to take to get there.”
If you’re in charge of enabling people tasked with sales, this book is guaranteed to have something to offer. As Kunkle points out, implementing a system like this doesn’t happen overnight. You may do a lot of these things well already. Buy this book and keep it handy to revisit your approach regularly.