What Recent Acquisitions Can Tell Us About the Future of Selling Technology

A revolution in sales analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) is converging the sales enablement, readiness, and engagement software categories in ways that will make front-line selling faster, simpler, and more consistent. As evidence of this, 80 of the top 100 solutions identified as leading the transformation of the commercial model by the Revenue Enablement Institute are enabled by advanced analytics, AI, and Machine Learning.

Individually, these solutions are automating and enabling critical aspects of the commercial model – from resource allocation to sales training, account management, pricing, proposal writing and performance measurement.  Collectively, they are fast becoming the core components of a “Revenue Operating System” that turns legacy investments in CRM, digital marketing infrastructure, and the customer data they create into selling outcomes that grow revenues, enterprise value, and profits. This foreshadows a “Copernican revolution” in sales technology where the lines between traditional software categories blur to truly support the selling process and transform selling to become more data driven, digital and measurable.

The convergence has been brought to a tipping point with the introduction of AI in sales, combined with the dramatic shift to virtual selling, and the emergence of massive new customer engagement, activity, and conversational intelligence data sets. In the past few years, an explosion in sales engagement data has become available to analytics teams from first party website, email, calendar, recorded sales conversations, contactless selling platforms in addition to third party sources. And AI is increasingly being used to mine all this data to help reps make better decisions and help managers to evaluate training needs, selling priorities, and seller performance.

In the short term this “Copernican revolution” is forcing business leaders to reimagine their technology stacks and go-to-market models around platforms that aggregate, orchestrate, and deploy customer engagement data rather than CRM as an administrative system of record. This process will be painful but necessary because the commercial technology portfolio of most B2B firms have grown to exceed 20 independent solutions and the revenue teams that must use them on a daily basis are dealing with too many disconnected “panes of glass” and “tool fatigue”.  “We’re living through an interesting phase right now where we have a lot of disparate systems in the commercial technology ecosystem,” according to Greg Munster, the VP of Global Sales Operations at Canonical in a recent panel on Revenue Operations. “It’s making things complicated for the customers, for internal sellers, and the operations and enablement executives who manage those systems.”

This revolution will also spark a wave of consolidation, mergers, and acquisitions in the sales and marketing technology sectors.  One immediate area you can see this happening is the rapid convergence of sales enablement (sales guidance), sales readiness (sales training), and sales engagement (aka data-driven selling for lack of a better description).

For example, the recent acquisition of Lessonly by Seismic is just another piece of evidence that this convergence of enablement, readiness and engagement is happening now. After years of trying to connect the dots between sales enablement and engagement with partnerships with market leaders like Brainshark, Seismic is now acquiring Lessonly – a training and coaching solution. The company has invested over $420 million in paid in capital – recently raising a G round –  to create what they are calling the most powerful and comprehensive enablement platform on the market today. 

It’s definitely a step in the right direction. There is no good reason these need to be separate solutions from a day-to-day sales workflow and seller experience perspective. But Seismic is not alone in trying to combine enablement, readiness, and engagement into something more useful and valuable for revenue teams. In the last 24 months, most of the legacy sales enablement firms rooted in managing selling content and digital assets like Highspot, Showpad, and BigTinCan have been developing, acquiring, and partnering with sales training and development solutions to combine sales readiness with traditional sales enablement.

For example, less than a week after the Seismic Announcement, another sales enablement platform BigTinCan acquired sales readiness leader Brainshark after buying Voicevibes, an AI-powered coaching platform in January of this year. Showpad acquired learncore – a sales training and video coaching software solution – several years ago.  

And while acquisitions make a big splash, Highspot has been putting its $400 million in capital to work building out a similar set of sales enablement and readiness capabilities organically. This may be the smarter if somewhat less sexy path that acquiring disparate solutions – particularly from a usability, seller experience and simplification standpoint – where the company gets good grades from sales leaders.

A big underlying reason these sales enablement and readiness players are moving in the same direction is because they fundamentally support the same selling workflow and run on the same content and data.

  • Over the last decade these capabilities have expanded and overlapped because they support the same core day-to-day selling activities – target, prioritize, prepare, engage, follow up, report, and repeat.
  • These platforms also use the same content – sales playbooks, training content, product content, and selling content – to prepare for meetings, practice the skills needed on the call, and communicate with the clients before, during and after calls.
  • And they also increasingly use the same data to run – all three activities are informed by customer engagement and seller activity data.  Much of this data is now drawn from actual presentations and conversations – via call recordings or practice demo presentations by reps.

While all of the sales enablement players are acquiring the right capabilities and pointing their product roadmaps in the right direction, there is still a long way to go. “Most sales managers and performance professionals still feel their sales technology stacks are not effectively supporting remote selling in terms of providing visibility, engagement, speed, and sales rep productivity,” reports Jeff McKittrick, the Vice President of Sales Execution at WalkMe. “There is no practical reason for this. In my experience building digital sales platforms at WalkMe, Hitachi, and Cisco, sales training effectiveness and reinforcement can be significantly improved by giving sales reps the right tools, knowledge, and reinforcement at the right time in their sales context. The trick has always been management’s commitment to leveraging technology in the selling process by providing the right incentives, culture, and user experience to get salespeople to use these tools.”

So if what we are seeing represents incremental gains toward a greater end, where and when can growth leaders get the big transformational benefits of this Copernican Revolution in selling technology?  The real financial and performance benefits will come when all of the solutions in the commercial technology portfolio start to rotate around a single sun  – real time data-driven sales guidance and 1:1 coaching at scale.  Big financial rewards await the sales leaders who can knit together end-to-end platforms that effectively use AI and advanced analytics to deliver the speed, simplicity, and scalability to materially transform the economics of selling and radically improve the experience of sellers and customers. 

A Blueprint for Real Time Sales Guidance and 1:1 Training at Scale

The emergence of advanced analytics, AI, and Machine Learning (ML) – and the massive new sales engagement data sets to support them – represents the most significant opportunity to accelerate sales growth since the scale adoption of call centers (40 years ago), CRM (30 years ago), and digital channels (20 years ago) in sales. This has made the ability to capture and unify customer data and convert it into commercial insights that enable, optimize, and automate cross-functional sales, marketing, and service workflows a fundamental driver of growth and value creation. Turning that data into commercial insights that inform decisions, actions, and conversations at the “moments that matter” in the human selling process is critical to growth and value creation, according to the recently published report entitled Revenue Operations In The 21st Century Commercial Model.

Kirsten Paust, the VP of Fortive Business Systems reinforces this growing importance of advanced analytics in the commercial process. “More and more of our core commercialization processes are being supported by AI, insights and technology that enables our teams to get to insight and action faster,” according to Paust.

So what can growth leaders do to exploit the convergence of enablement, engagement and readiness in ways that improve their sales?  Senior growth leaders who want to deploy these technologies as a force multiplier to drive scalable, sustainable, profitable, and consistent revenue growth should focus on seven things in the next 18 months:

  1. Connecting the dots across the commercial technology portfolio – To stay ahead of the competition, a new generation of growth leaders (CXOs) are finding ways to connect the dots across their commercial technology portfolios to create technology ecosystems that better support the day to day selling process, integrated learning and development and data-driven sales guidance. These ecosystems combine sales enablement, readiness, and engagement into a single end-to-end platform to create a closed loop feedback system that integrates planning and prioritization before the sale, with action and engagement with the buyer, to reinforcement and coaching after the fact.
  1. Focus on insights – Turning customer engagement and seller activity data from across the sales and marketing ecosystem into insights that inform high value and complex selling interactions by sales, marketing, and CX teams. “Insights to me are incredibly important because we’re currently sitting on large amount of unstructured data that’s not being used in an optimal way,” says Wade Burgess, EVP Sales Americas at Rev.com. “I believe that access into customer insights and to be able to automate action against the opportunity they reveal  is going to be a key for us to be able to scale.”
  2. Make speed a priority – Do all these things faster – moving towards real time – at the moment that matters during the sales call to build buyer empathy, ask the right questions, start the right conversations, and demonstrate value.
  3. Keep it simple – Make things simpler by finding ways to reduce information overload, multi-tasking, and the number of “panes of glass” front line sales and service reps must use to do their jobs. “When it comes to sales technology, you don’t want “BMW Price and Performance” but rather “Apple Elegance and Simplicity,” according to Greg Munster, the VP of Global Sales Operations at Canonical. “Simplicity contributes to easy and natural user adoption that does not overwhelm sales reps and is sustained over time.”
  4. Make financial performance the goal – Provide “top down” strategic and financial criteria to operations and enablement leaders to ensure they evaluate, consolidate, and evolve their commercial technology roadmap in ways that generate more growth and profits from selling assets – which include data, technology, content, and owned selling channel infrastructure.
  5. Deploy Revenue Operations – Align sales training, enablement, and operations teams under one leader to make sure sales enablement, readiness, and engagement solutions are all supporting one selling motion concentrated at the moment that matters in the customer journey. “Sometimes you get Chief Client Officers that think in a silo, and they only consider their organization when they invest in sales technology rather than considering the entire enterprise and how it interlocks with other functional areas to make the entire process better,” says Jennifer Mauldin, President and Chief Customer Officer of Inmar Intelligence.
  6. Bet on a few platform partners for the long haul – Make smart bets on a handful of platform partners who have the vision, capabilities, resources and will to integrate the sales readiness, enablement, and engagement roadmap as outlined above for the long haul.
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