Sales Engagement: The Definitive Guide for Platform Selection

March 12, 2021

For world-class sales development teams, sales engagement platforms that efficiently deliver high-quality interactions have become table stakes.

The original version of this article, authored by Craig Rosenberg, was published by TOPO, now Gartner. 

Sales engagement is overwhelmingly named by sales leaders as their top priority. These interactions between sales reps and buyers/customers are focused on the quality and volume of activity as they look to drive higher conversion rates and larger average deal sizes.

Sales engagement is such a high priority that 90% of sales leaders plan to invest in technologies and methodologies to help their sellers engage effectively with prospects and customers.

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Until recently, only a handful of startups have played an outsized role in developing innovative products and driving adoption, primarily with early adopter sales organizations. However, over the past few years, sales development technology vendors and sales technology vendors have been creating applications that enable sellers to deliver high-quality sales engagement at scale. In fact, sales engagement technology has become table stakes for sales teams in the technology industry.

We believe this category is having its breakout moment as evidenced by three market dynamics:

  • Sales engagement technology is spreading from sales development to the entire sales organization.
  • More traditional sales organizations (not just early adopters) are evaluating and purchasing technology to support their sales activity efforts.
  • Large technology vendors, such as Salesforce, are entering the space with products such as the Einstein High Velocity Sales Cloud.

What is sales engagement?

Sales engagement consists of the various interactions (digital, in-person, phone and so on) that sellers have with prospects and customers. This technology enables sales departments to efficiently deliver high-quality interactions with prospects and customers at scale.

The following figure shows the major segments that make up the sales engagement technology stack. The most important part of the stack — the sales engagement platform — sits between the CRM and the rest of stack. It acts as the management console for the engagement process while sending activity data back to the CRM.

CRM is fundamentally an internal application that houses and organizes data. Until Salesforce’s announcement of the Einstein High Velocity Sales Cloud, the CRM vendors have not been perceived as sufficiently supporting sales engagement, thus requiring companies to invest in stand-alone sales engagement applications rather than using the CRM itself for these functions.

The sales engagement category consists of five key segments. Some of these are standalone tools or solutions while others are features of other applications.

  • Channels. Channels are the sales delivery mechanisms for engaging with prospects and customers. They include a number of technologies such as dialers, texting, sales email, video, web conferencing, direct mail, chat, LinkedIn, other social media and more.

  • Content and messaging recommendations. This technology makes real-time recommendations accessible to reps during execution. For example, email templates or presentation decks provide content that sellers should use. Real-time wikis might provide instant answers to buyers’ questions. Technologies include knowledge management and content management. Much of this functionality is included with sales enablement applications that provide solutions for onboarding and training.

  • Optimization. Optimization provides in-depth analysis of sales engagement execution, which can be followed by data-driven automated suggestions. Technologies include conversation and meeting intelligence, both of which record and analyze the conversations.

  • Sales activity automation. Sales activity automation is becoming more proactive by executing mundane activities without human intervention. For example, instead of sales reps sending their initial proposals to the finance team, the system may do this automatically.

  • Sales engagement platforms. These platforms serve as a single interface to plan, execute, track, measure and optimize interactions between sales teams and customers across multiple touches and channels. This kind of platform is the key driver of growth in the sales engagement technology market.

Sales engagement is really about the platforms

The sales engagement platform is a single interface to efficiently plan, execute, track, measure and optimize interactions between sales and customers across multiple touches and channels. As a segment, the sales engagement platform has seen the fastest growth rates of all the technology in the overall sales engagement category.

Three data points from the 2017 TOPO Sales Development Technology Benchmark Report highlight the importance of sales engagement platforms:

  • 87% of sales development organizations have adopted a sales engagement platform.
  • Sales engagement platforms are top-rated technology in terms of positive ROI.
  • 92% of sales development organizations rank sales engagement platforms as critical to their team’s success.

 

The explosive growth of sales engagement platforms can be attributed to their success with sales development organizations, the team responsible for prospecting or following up on leads to schedule qualified meetings for sales. For world-class sales development teams, the sales engagement platform has become table stakes.

Because of this, our analysts rank sales engagement platforms as a Level 1 technology (along with CRM, contact data and LinkedIn). Level 1 technologies are considered mandatory purchases for sales development teams of all sizes.

A number of key drivers have contributed to the rise of sales engagement platforms:

Sellers spend all day in the sales engagement platforms

Our analysts estimate that the top platforms are getting 60%+ daily active users. Daily active users are calculated by dividing the total number of users by the number that log in to the application and complete at least one action. 

In comparison, traditional enterprise software gets 10% to 20% daily active users. The take-away from this data is that sales engagement platforms are a preferred user interface (UI) for reps. With that kind of stickiness, vendors have been able to continually add features that traditionally reside in other applications and, as a result, the amount of rep activity continues to grow in the platform at the expense of these other applications, including the CRM.

Sales engagement platforms are rep-centric

The reason reps spend all day in these platforms is that it provides value to them. They can communicate with customers and get instant gratification with the results (e.g., email replies, forwards, opens).

Email is the core channel for communicating with prospects

The most popular sales engagement platforms are built around email capabilities. And in today’s digital world, sales communications center around email, which is the most efficient and effective method for connecting to prospects at scale. 

For example, outbound touch patterns are typically created around email sends. Touch-pattern design starts when the emails will be sent (for example, on days 1, 3, 7 and 14). Everything else is set up to support the email campaign.

Multichannel, multitouch campaigns dominate

According to the TOPO SDR Benchmark Report, 80% of world-class sales development representatives teams use at least three channels and deliver at least 15.5 touches per contact. These touches are organized into patterns that specify the touches, when they are delivered and the messaging for each. Sales engagement platforms allow organizations to build, execute and evaluate these touch patterns.

Outbound sales campaigns are personalized across multiple stakeholders

 Reaching out to prospects/customers is increasingly complex. Outbound communications are multithreaded, that is, reps need to reach the array of stakeholders involved in the purchase of their solution. The messaging and approach is differentiated based on the stakeholder. 

For example, the touch pattern to a manager-level prospect might be a 16-touch campaign focused on tactical challenges (such as the pains of managing a particular solution). Meanwhile, the touch pattern to an executive might be a six-touch campaign focused on the strategic value of the solution and include a direct mail price and an executive-to-executive email, followed by highly customized emails and calls. 

The best sales communications are complicated: multichannel, multitouch and individualized to the buyer. This approach requires automation not just to execute but also to use data to figure out what works and then to improve effectiveness across the board, from current reps to onboarding.

Integration of phone capabilities

Most sales engagement platform vendors started as sales email applications. More recently, many vendors have added dialing capabilities. 

The phone is a zero-tolerance channel

If the phone fails to deliver, it is changed out immediately. Dialing out of the sales engagement platforms has worked. Customers have adopted the phone feature, and the potential for sales engagement platforms as true multichannel tools has been realized.

Strong and growing partner ecosystems

Platform vendors do not have to directly support all the features required to round out the sales engagement platform. That’s why a robust partner is needed to fill out the channels they don’t support directly like direct mail, chat, and other key integrations such as sales intelligence and conversational intelligence. 

The leading platform vendors are successfully creating their partnership ecosystem, filling in the gaps and allowing sales to continue to use a single engagement interface.

Sales engagement platforms manage the entire engagement process

To understand what a sales engagement platform is, it’s helpful to break down the element.

  • Single interface. Sales engagement platforms provide a single UI for sales reps to manage their activities. This concept sounds obvious, but previously, sales reps had to toggle between multiple tools and applications in their day-to-day process.
  • Efficiency. Many of the functions supported by sales engagement platforms can be done without a platform. By bringing everything together and optimizing for velocity, sales can work faster than they ever have before.
  • Plan. Touch pattern workflows can be designed to specify timing, channels and messaging. Multiple workflows can be created based on account or persona. 
  • Execute. Touches can be executed directly from the platform via automated sends or a minimal number of clicks. For example, in a lead follow-up campaign, four templated emails are sent automatically via the platform over the course of 15 days or until that person responds.
  • Track. All executed sales activities are automatically logged in the CRM. For example, mail sends and phone calls are logged automatically into the CRM.
  • Measure. To measure effectiveness, reporting and analytics are done on all sales engagement activity. For example, analytics can be used to determine which touch patterns convert to connections, meetings and revenue.
  • Optimize. Messaging and activity levels must be analyzed and subsequently modified. For example, email messaging and best practices that work for successful reps can be identified and used to coach underperforming reps.

The following factors provide a significant upgrade from the status quo.

We believe sales engagement will become a multibillion-dollar market. Today, the technology has a relatively small footprint in sales, but that promises to change as sales engagement platforms continue to add features and functionality designed specifically for closing sales reps.

There are two key areas of the sales engagement platforms that resonate with sales:

  • Sales prospecting
  • Engagement and productivity in the actual sales process

The platforms are adding new features and filling gaps via partnerships to support engagement in the actual sales process. Some of these features include: 

  • Note capture. Reps can take notes directly in the platform, which automatically enters them into the CRM. The next step is to eliminate the writing and typing via transcription and voice assistants.
  • Calendar booking and scheduling. Sales spends a significant amount of time booking meetings and managing calendars. Platforms integrate deeply with calendars to allow reps to send links to their prospects/customers.
  • Integration with web conferencing. Web conferencing is the single most important engagement channel for sales reps. Most sales engagement platforms have web conferencing integrations to launch and log web conferences. As these platforms go deeper into sales process engagement, we anticipate more features around conferencing, such as conversational/meeting intelligence.
  • Conversational/meeting intelligence. A new set of applications has emerged that record and analyze live sales conversations. The ability to coach calls is essential to the platform’s ability to optimize. Two main strategies have emerged to support this process: Outreach has chosen to partner with conversational intelligence vendors while SalesLoft has added the functionality via its acquisition of Noteninja.

Next-best actions

Next-best actions is the ability for technology to make recommendations based on previous activity is the future of engagement. For example, when a product demonstration is completed, a system should recommend what to offer or do next based on analysis of the prospect’s previous activity, the conversation, and data from similar buyers and patterns. This is the promise of AI. The real impact will come in future iterations of the platform. 

In addition to expanding into the closing sales function, we forecast a number of other changes, including:

Engagement will expand beyond sales and SDR to all customer-facing organizations

Optimizing the customer success/customer marketing process is becoming a strategic imperative. Customer success and account management have similar needs to sales development such as the need to design, execute and optimize their communications with customers at scale.

One trend in the data has been customers seeing higher conversion rates from their sales engagement platform than their marketing sends. A seemingly personal webinar invite will convert better than a send from a general email address.

Chat will be the next mandatory sales engagement channel

The B2B chat market is seeing exponential growth led by one of the hottest vendors in martech/salestech: Drift. Marketing wants higher conversion from its web traffic, and sales wants another channel to engage. As chat continues to grow, its integration into the platform is critical. Today, it is used as a one-to-one channel but soon chatbots will handle some of the engagement automatically.

Orchestrated workflows between internal organizations create lock-in

While not entirely pain-free, organizations can switch prospecting tools, especially when they are used primarily for email prospecting. They become harder to rip out when the platforms start to integrate internal business processes. For example, the software might alert a security engineer to send a security document as a follow up from a sales presentation,

Voice assistants will have a significant impact on rep productivity

The biggest drain on sales rep productivity is clicking and typing. The promise of the voice assistant is to use voice to tackle the mundane tasks of updating the CRM, conversation transcription and proactive recommendations. Voice assistants are here now via Salesforce and Tact.ai. The technology is a work-in-progress — as it improves, sales reps will free up even more time to engage.

The focus of the market will move from volume to quality

There are two parts to the sales engagement category: quantity and quality. Quantity is being addressed today; quality will be next. 

The conversational and meeting intelligence markets are major steps in the right direction, but there is obviously a lot of potential, for example, with Microsoft Dynamics. The majority of the narrative has been around the Salesforce ecosystem while Microsoft has been building features to enable sales to deliver valuable engagement. Its Dynamics release will have conversational intelligence and notes analysis. It will also create talking points based on past interactions and will recommend when to reach back out and what to say.

The market becomes exciting with the arrival of next-best actions

Today, actions are based on static workflows or processes. The platforms will be able to expand their ability to make credible recommendations based on the buyer’s activity matched against the larger dataset.

CRM as the “platform to platforms”

There are many applications that are the preferred UIs for sales reps including Slack, email, LinkedIn, etc. CRM vendors are allowing sales reps to work as they prefer and are focused on owning the data. 

CRM will become the data repository for all activity — marketing, sales, customer service, finance, product — and provide the end-to-end visibility. Sales engagement platforms will continue to be a preferred UI, and this preference will only grow with added functionality and integrations.

The most dynamic market in sales technology

Given these dynamics, we expect to see accelerating growth in the sales engagement market. From an end-user perspective, delivering a high-quality experience to customers at scale is the No. 1 priority in sales organizations today. 

From a vendor perspective, we are seeing innovation and rapid adoption as a fundamental component of the sales tech stack. Sales engagement will continue to be a key area of focus for our analyst team.

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