by Roger Kay

What is a sales engagement platform anyway?

Sep 16, 2016
Business IntelligenceContent Management SystemsIT Leadership

A good one lets management bottle the alchemy of the best sales people and pass it around to the rest of the team.

In a world where everyone wants to be a platform, do we need yet another? It depends on who you are. For sales, marketing and customer success teams, having a solid platform to manage the customer engagement process from end to end can yield real dividends.

As it is, the marketing-sales conversion process is full of leaks. All kinds of stuff just doesn’t happen. According to a CSO Insights-Accenture study, 93 percent of companies close fewer sales than forecast. SiriusDecisions found that sales departments never use 65 percent of content created by marketing. Forrester notes that 90 percent of business-to-business sellers don’t use marketing content because it is irrelevant, outdated or difficult to customize. And sales reps then create their own content, which is often off message. And many other stats point to the same dilemma. Clearly, some people (maybe you) needs a sales engagement platform.

Many companies already have a customer relationship management (CRM) system, often, but also Microsoft Dynamics or others. The CRM acts as a data source, a central place to keep records of sales relationships.

Companies also rely on marketing automation platforms — such as Eloqua, Salesforce’s Marketing Cloud, Markets and others — to identify early customer interest, nurture it, and pass leads to sales personnel. These platforms are designed for large-scale outreach across multiple digital channels to prospects, scoring these potential customers, and then handing qualified leads off to sales teams.

But neither CRM nor marketing automation helps sales actually engage with prospects, a circumstance that led to the emergence of sales engagement platforms.

All right, then, how would you define a sales engagement platform? Well, it involves sales engagement and a platform, clearly. Sales engagement is more than just sales outreach (how many people sales teams are contacting). It also involves the quality of that outreach, the efficiency of prospecting activity, and the effectiveness of conversion efforts. Better sales engagement generates higher sales, a pretty straightforward correlation.

So, we can accept as a premise that sales engagement is good, and you want more of it. What does sales engagement look like? Well, when sales is engaged, a greater number of interactions occur between sales reps and customers. Those interactions are longer and may involve more people. They may be higher or lower level. They may be multi-channel (phone calls, email, online viewing, in person). But what really works is more subtle than that. Was it the pricing that appealed most, ease of transaction or use, feature set, payment terms, familiarity with the product or company, third party references? How can you know what works? Only with detailed information about the nature of the engagement.

In the past, sales has relied on alchemy and the elusive skill set of a master sales rep.   Somehow, Jane just brings them in. A closer look reveals that it’s often not just one master sales rep, but a small group of individuals, each of whom possesses knowledge about a different piece of the sales puzzle. For example, while Jane may be a master of relationships, John knows the product inside and out, and Peter understands the sales process better than anyone else. Part of sales engagement is figuring that alchemy out so it can be bottled and passed around to the rest of the team. So, what needs to be known?

For the most part, knowledge necessary to understand and make reasoned decisions about sales engagement is stored in disparate systems. There are lots of point tools that have a piece of this vital information, but not all of it. Sales professionals may find these tools confusing to work with because they often don’t connect with each other. Reps may find themselves juggling among as many as seven different tools to accomplish what should be simple tasks. In some cases, the cost of stitching together multiple point solutions may be excessive. Now, we bring on the dance of the platform.

In the abstract, a useful sales engagement platform would encompass content management (a set of easily accessible product and market information with flexibility to change its presentation), integrated communications methods (like phone, email, web conferencing, and messaging, with related feedback), engagement analytics (to help management and reps understand what is happening across the platform), and guided selling (to help reps figure out what to do next in the sales process). In addition, sales reps need to be able to use the platform wherever is most convenient — whether in email, from a window in the CRM system, or on a mobile app. Any company that has such a platform should be able to increase sales efficiency (more meetings and opportunities) as well as sales effectiveness (as measured by increased close rates and accelerated sales cycles).

Content management

Sales and marketing material needs constant management. Advanced sales engagement platforms organize their presentation formats as slideshows. It is useful to think of a unit of content as an individual slide, but it can be of any media type, including video and web (which looks like an ordinary slide but links to a dynamic web page). Everyone with proper credentials has access to this material, which can be shuffled like a card deck for customization. Moving things around, annotating them, changing them, yet preserving the originals, all these are basic functions of content management. Even more important is usage insights. The key metric is which slides were viewed by whom in what order and for how long. This metric allows sales and marketing, in near real time, to observe customer behavior, see where engagement is taking place, and adjust the campaign or message as needed.

These days, marketing needs to produce more content than ever before with shrinking budgets and to prove that content investments are producing improvements in sales metrics. It is critical for marketing to be able to measure what content sales is using and how effective it is in each context.

Integrated communications methods

Typically, sales people communicate with prospects and customers via phone, email, messaging, online tools and face-to-face encounters. Reps may also reach out via social media like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Each has its place in the mix, and a good rep manages the flow well. But something must capture the nature of all these engagements objectively and identify the right content for each of these conversations.

In a well designed sales engagement platform, content is tailored to the communication channel or channels the sales rep chooses, and emails or text alerts can be generated according to a trigger of some state, like the account’s reaching a particular sales stage.

Engagement analytics

All of this instrumented activity must feed back into a central repository, increasingly the CRM system. Analytics surface to the user via dashboards with activity logs and visual summaries. Sales sessions can be followed in real time and replayed later for coaching. Rather than relying on a rep’s estimate of close likelihood, sales management can see how opportunities are evolving based on actual sales involvement. Analytics can then drive a predictive model that points toward optimal sales resource allocation. This capability is key to accelerating the sales process.

Guided selling

A sales engagement platform generates customer engagement analytics, such as knowing the level of sales involvement, what content is being viewed or listened to, and for how long by whom. These insights, combined with CRM data (such as sales stage and closed status) and other sources, can be used to guide contextual recommendations for what the rep should do next (e.g., when to reach out, through which channel, what content to offer). Guided selling empowers sales leaders, letting them be more prescriptive and spread best practices across teams.

The sum of the parts

Taken together, these elements help management understand the nature of engagements between sales and end customers better. An advanced sales engagement platform lets a company supervise and guide these interactions through the integration of content management, communications, and analytics. In the best of cases, it will have smooth conduits, via open application programming interfaces (APIs), to existing infrastructure, key services such as CRM, and the marketing automation system.

Ease of use is critical to any sales engagement platform. If sales people can’t easily navigate and get value out of it, it won’t be adopted. The adoption of CRM systems was slowed far more than necessary by complexity, opacity and the lack of a clear reason for sales people to use them. And platform access must fit the behavior of salespeople, who are highly mobile and live in email and on their phones.

All this focus on sales engagement has drawn the tech industry’s attention. Aragon Research predicts that the market for sales engagement platforms will grow from $700 million to $5 billion in the next five years, and the market has attracted a number of players.

Along with ClearSlide, the originator in the space and the most complete platform, others have entered, including Infer, which does predictive forecasting; InsideSales, which has a platform focusing on predictive dialing and analytics; Hoopla, which specializes in gamification for salespeople; Leadspace, which concentrates on lead generation and account-based marketing; 6Sense Insights, which does analytics-based sales forecasting; and SalesPredict, which was bought by eBay in July. All have good analytics, but, other than ClearSlide, most are missing other engagement platform elements like integrated content and communications.

Of course, the big companies are all looking this market over, mulling decisions about whether to buy or build. And why shouldn’t they?

With a sales engagement platform, the sales person remains in control of the opportunity and how the engagement unfolds. At the same time, management can see what’s working and suggest corrections quickly. An integrated platform that orchestrates customer communications well can help move a deal forward.