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Sales Engagement – The Definitive Guide

Sales engagement, interactions between sales reps and buyers or customers, is overwhelmingly named by sales leaders as their top priority. They are focused on the quality and volume of sales reps’ engagement with buyers 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.

Over the last few years, technology vendors have responded to this interest by creating applications that enable sellers to deliver high-quality sales engagement at scale. Until now, a handful of startups have played an outsized role in developing innovative products and driving adoption, primarily with early adopter sales organizations. In fact, sales engagement technology has become table stakes for sales teams in the technology industry.

At TOPO, we believe that sales engagement is having its breakout moment right now as evidenced by three market dynamics:

  1. Sales engagement technology is spreading from sales development to the entire sales organization.
  2. More traditional sales organizations (not just early adopters) are evaluating and purchasing technology to support their sales engagement efforts.
  3. 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. Sales engagement technology enables sales departments to efficiently deliver high quality interactions with prospects and customers at scale.

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

The CRM is fundamentally an internal application that houses and organizes data. Until the recent 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 standalone 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.

  1. ChannelsChannels are the sales delivery mechanisms for engaging with prospects and customers. They include a number of sales engagement technologies, such as dialers, texting, sales email, video, web conferencing, direct mail, chat, LinkedIn, other social media, and more.
  2. Content and messaging recommendations—This technology makes real-time recommendations accessible to reps during execution. For example, email templates or presentations 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 in this subcategory is included with sales enablement applications that provide solutions for onboarding and training.
  3. OptimizationOptimization provides in-depth analysis of sales engagement execution, followed, in some cases, by data-driven automated suggestions. Technologies include conversation and meeting intelligence, both of which record and analyze the conversations.
  4. Sales activity automation—We can now automate data collection from various sales engagement activities. Technologies include activity logging (commonly found as features in other technologies versus standalone) and voice assistants. 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.
  5. 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.

Until now, 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 in order to schedule qualified meetings for sales. For world-class sales development teams, the sales engagement platform has become table stakes.

Because of this, TOPO 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:

  1. Sellers spend all day in the sales engagement platformsTOPO analysts estimate that the top sales engagement platforms are getting 60%+ daily active users (DAUs). DAUs 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 10-20% DAUs. The takeaway 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.
  2. Sales engagement platforms are rep-centric—The reason reps spend all day in the sales engagement platform is that it provides value to them. Whereas updating the CRM is viewed as a chore, reps clearly prefer to open their sales engagement platforms. They can communicate with customers and get instant gratification with the results (email replies, forwards, opens).
  3. 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 are going to be sent (for example, on day 1, 3, 7, and 14). Everything else (phone, social, etc.) is set up to support the email campaign.
  4. Multichannel, multitouch campaigns dominate—According to the TOPO SDR Benchmark Report, 80% of world-class SDR teams use at least three channels and deliver at least 15.5 touches per contact. These touches are organized into touch patterns that specify the touches, when the touches are delivered, and the messaging for each. Sales engagement platforms allow organizations to build, execute, and evaluate these touch patterns. The alternative is the cumbersome process of creating tasks in the CRM or, worse, relying on sales to manage the touches on their own.
  5. 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) while the touch pattern to the executive might be a 6-8 touch campaign focused on the strategic value of the solution and might include a direct mail send, 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 use that to improve effectiveness across the board, from current reps to onboarding.
  6. 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 it fails to deliver, it is changed out immediately. Dialing out of the sales engagement platforms has worked. Customers have adopted the phone feature and kept it and the potential for sales engagement platforms as true multi-channel tools has been realized.
  7. Strong and growing partner ecosystems – Platform vendors do not have to directly support all the features required to round out the sales engagement platform, a robust partner channel is needed fill out the channels they don’t support directly like direct mail and chat and other key integrations, such as sales intelligence and conversational intelligence. The leading sales engagement 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 definition: “A single interface to efficiently plan, execute, track, measure, and optimize interactions between sales and customers across multiple touches and channels.”

  1. Single interface—Sales engagement platforms provide a single UI for sales reps to manage their engagement activities. This concept sounds simple and obvious, but previously, sales reps had to toggle between multiple tools and applications in their day-to-day process.
  2. 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.
  3. Plan—Touch pattern workflows can be designed to specify timing (when touches will happen), channels, and messaging. Multiple workflows can be created based on account or persona.  
  4. Execute—Touches can be executed directly from the platform via automated sends or a minimal number of clicks. 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.
  5. Track—All executed sales engagement activities are automatically logged in the CRM. Example: Email sends and phone calls are logged automatically into the CRM.
  6. Measure—To measure effectiveness, reporting and analytics are done on all sales engagement activity. Example: Analytics can be used to determine which touch patterns convert to connections, meetings, and revenue.
  7. Optimize—Messaging and activity levels must be analyzed and subsequently modified. Example: Email messaging and best practices that works for successful reps can be identified and used to coach underperforming reps.

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

Outreach and SalesLoft are the market leaders in sales engagement

Outreach and SalesLoft are the dominant players in the sales engagement platform market. TOPO estimates that at least one of these two vendors is considered in 85% of sales engagement application purchases.

Other vendors include:

  1. InsideSales has been around the longest (founded in 2004), received the most funding over that time (over $250mm), and was even considered a unicorn. After years of establishing the brand around being a phone system, they are now selling as a more of a well-rounded sales engagement platform.
  2. Groove is an emerging sales engagement platform in consideration cycles in the SMB/start-up market.
  3. Clearslide has a customer install base from their 9 years of doing business and are in some consideration cycles. Clearslide is part of Corel and with the hotness of the market may/will want to put resources into the go-to-market and product and compete.
  4. Email tools are just as likely to be considered when buyers are evaluating sales engagement platforms, including Cirrus Insight, Mixmax,ToutApp (now owned by Marketo), and Yesware.

Salesforce announced its sales engagement platform product: the Einstein High Velocity Sales Cloud. The announcement not only validates the sales engagement category, but with its mass distribution channel, promises to accelerate customer adoption of sales engagement platforms.

Salesforce’s solution includes a number of key features:

  1. A single UI for sales reps—The interface is intended to provide sales with everything they need on one screen.
  2. Sales cadence – The product includes functionality to prebuilt touch patterns.
  3. Click to call—This feature allows sales reps to dial directly from the interface which is standard in sales engagement platforms.
  4. Auto-logging of activities—Salesforce’s version of sales activity automation.
  5. List prioritization—Work queues will use machine learning to prioritize leads and suggest activities.

We believe that sales engagement will become a multi-billion dollar market thanks to a number of critical factors. The most important factor is that sellers (reps that close business versus just prospect) are starting to adopt sales engagement tools. Today, the technology has a relatively small footprint in sales, but that promises to change as the major SEPs 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:

  1. Sales prospecting—A strong use case is already established for prospecting.
  2. Engagement and productivity in the actual sales process (from the opening of a sales opportunity to close). 

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

    1. Note capture—With a sales engagement platform, reps can take notes directly in the platform, which automatically enters them into the CRM. The next step in note capture is to eliminate the writing and typing via transcription and, ultimately, voice assistants.
    2. Calendar booking and scheduling—Sales spends a significant amount of time booking meetings and managing calendars. A big advantage is not having to go back and forth between calendar and platform. Platforms integrate deeply with calendars to allow reps to send links to their prospects/customers.
    3. Integration with web conferencing—Web conferencing is the single most important engagement channel for sales reps. Today, most sales engagement platforms have web conferencing integrations to launch and log web conferences (without having  to go to another app). As these platforms go deeper into sales process engagement, TOPO anticipates more features around conferencing. One of those is conversational/meeting intelligence.
    4. 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.
  1. Next best actions (NBAs)—The ability for technology to make recommendations based on previous activity is the future of engagement. For example, when a product demo is completed, a system should recommend what to offer/what to 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 and the future. In the meantime, most platforms make recommendations which are lightweight but still valuable. The real impact will come in future iterations of the platform. (See below under “The market becomes exciting with the arrival of next-best action (the NBA)”.

Successful expansion into the sales market will open the enterprise market and allow the platforms to expand into new industries. Today, the sales engagement market has been concentrated in the tech industry. Other industries don’t have sales development, but they do have thousands of sales reps trying to engage with their customers.

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

  1. Engagement will expand beyond sales and SDR to all customer-facing organizationsFor example, optimizing the customer success/customer marketing process is becoming a strategic imperative for organizations. Customer success and account management have similar needs to sales development: the need to design, execute, and optimize their communications with customers at scale. Another example is marketing. One trend in the data has been customers seeing higher conversion rates from their sales engagement platform than their marketing sends. Buyers today want their engagement to be human. A seemingly personal webinar invite will convert better than a send from a general email address.
  2. 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 their web traffic, and sales wants another channel to engage. As chat continues to grow, its integration into the sales engagement platform is critical. For example, a chat session should trigger a new workflow, such as a new touch pattern or an update to the contact record. Today, chat is used as a one-to-one channel but soon chatbots will handle some of the engagement automatically.
  3. Orchestrated workflows between internal organizations create lock-in—While not entirely pain-free, organizations can and do 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,
  4. Voice assistants will have a significant impact on rep productivityThe 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.
  5. The focus of the market will move from volume to qualityThere are two parts to the sales engagement category: quantity and quality. Quantity is being being solved 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. Microsoft Dynamics is an example. The majority of the sales engagement narrative has been around the Salesforce ecosystem while Microsoft has been building features to enable sales to deliver valuable engagement. Their October 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.
  6. The market becomes exciting with the arrival of next-best action (the NBA)—Today, actions are based on static workflows or processes. The platforms will be able to expand their ability to make recommendations based on who the buyer is and their activity matched against the larger engagement data set and be able to provide credible recommendations..
  7. CRM as the “platform to platforms”There are many applications that are the preferred user interface for sales reps including Slack, email, Linkedin, etc. CRM vendors are allowing sales reps to work they prefer and are focused on owning the data. CRM will become the data repository for all engagement from marketing to sales to customer service to finance to 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 high quality engagement to customers at scale is the number one priority in sales organizations today. From a vendor perspective, we are seeing innovation and rapid adoption of sales engagement platforms as a fundamental, non-negotiable component of the sales tech stack. Sales engagement will continue to be a key area of focus for the TOPO analyst team.

About the Analyst:
Craig Rosenberg is the Chief Analyst and Co-founder of TOPO, a research and advisory firm that helps sales and marketing organizations adopt the patterns and plays used by the world’s fastest growing companies. Craig combines 15+ years of sales and marketing experience with TOPO’s high growth dataset to provide specific, actionable recommendations that drive predictable, scalable growth.  He and his team support over 200 companies, ranging from the largest technology companies in the world to early stage startups. 

Dan Gottlieb studies sales development teams as an Analyst in TOPO’s sales development practice. He’s spent more than 8 years inspiring sales development teams at dozens of high-growth B2B companies to evolve.  

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