What Did Sales Organizations Do BSE (Before Sales Enablement)?


By Jim Ninivaggi

Prior to joining Brainshark, I had the good fortune to launch and run the sales enablement practice at research/advisory firm SiriusDecisions. Unlike other functions (such as marketing and finance) that have been around for decades, the sales enablement function is relatively new and still evolving. One of the most common questions I received as an analyst was, “What exactly is sales enablement?”

About six months ago, I was rummaging around an antiques store in Lee, Massachusetts (nerd alert – I collect vintage lunch boxes from the 1970s – anyone remember The Partridge Family?), when I came across a Coca-Cola sales training guide from 1940. I had to have it.

The guide actually had been designed to help sales managers enable their reps. The thick, three-ring binder contains 18 sections, with each section focusing on a particular topic (planned call, safe driving, etc.). There are also step-by-step instructions on how the manager should run the training workshop for each topic. The manager was expected to conduct one workshop per week over an 18-week period. Each class had its own “multimedia” content – managers were instructed to show specific reel-to-reel films and/or play specific vinyl albums as part of the workshop.

For a sales enablement analyst, this was an amazing find! And it dawned on me as I perused its pages – this was how companies did “sales enablement” 76 years ago. The era: BSE (Before Sales Enablement).

Of course, they didn’t call it “sales enablement” back then, but the desired outcome was the same: that a Coca-Cola salesperson would show up at a grocery or general store with the skills, knowledge, and assets to make the most of that interaction and have the kind of sales conversations Coca-Cola wanted them to have.

That mission – ensuring reps are equipped to maximize every client interaction – has not changed, but a lot of other things have. These changes have necessitated the creation of the sales enablement function. For example:

  • The pace of change in both sales and business, and the level of complexity, keep accelerating. In 1940, Coca-Cola salespeople had to be experts in only one product. Today, they need to know dozens – with new products being launched every month.

    Across the B2B marketplace, salespeople are selling in a world where new competitors can quickly grab market share, product portfolios are constantly innovating, and buyers are much more informed and savvy.

  • In 1940, the sales conversation was likely face-to-face. Today’s sales enablement leaders must ensure their reps are capable of having the right type of conversations across a number of communication vehicles, including social, phone, Web conference, and email (I’m always shocked by how few companies do any sales enablement focused on email selling).
  • The amount of data, information, and analytics available to reps today is staggering.  Reps need help leveraging analytics to better target buyers who may be in – or just ready to enter – a decision process.

    In preparing for their calls, reps have vast amounts of information (via the Web, social, and third-party data aggregators). Sales enablement must help reps by working with marketing and sales operations to deliver data and analytics that reps can easily digest and leverage. Enablement must also work with reps to conduct research – and, more importantly, use that insight to create and articulate value.

  • Back in the ’40s, all the content and assets (product brochures, signage, etc.) a Coca-Cola seller needed could fit in the trunk of their car. Today, they’d need a VERY big trunk!

    Today’s salesperson is inundated with content from various groups in marketing and sales – often with thousands of pieces of content to choose from. It’s simply overwhelming reps who like content that is tried and true. Sales enablement must work with marketing to help tag and organize content so reps can easily get to the best content and tools.

Looking back, where the folks at Coca-Cola were ahead of most companies today is in their efforts around sales-manager enablement. Unlike what we see today, where managers are often overlooked when it comes to enablement efforts, Coca-Cola used them as “agents of enablement.” They realized, by empowering their managers to play the critical roles of trainer and coach, they would benefit from not only economies of scale (it’s easier to enable 50 managers than 250 reps) but also from the “stickiness” of the enablement – as managers were able to be better coaches and hold their reps accountable to execute at the level expected.

While I’m obviously not advocating we go back to the days of BSE (with three-ring binders, vinyl albums, and reel-to-reel films), there are certainly lessons we can take from the past to move the sales enablement function to the future.

JimNinivaggiJim Ninivaggi has more than 30 years of B2B sales productivity expertise. He is senior vice president of strategic partnerships at Brainshark, a leading sales enablement company, helping shape and execute Brainshark’s partner strategy. Jim previously headed the sales enablement research practice at SiriusDecisions, where he provided clients with data, insight, and thought leadership to maximize sales effectiveness and accelerate revenues. He has also held various positions in sales, ranging from individual contributor to sales management and sales leadership. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNinivaggi.

2 Replies to “What Did Sales Organizations Do BSE (Before Sales Enablement)?”

  1. Hi Jim: I enjoyed reading your blog. I have an old sales book that I regularly use and often quote in my blogs and articles, Salesmanship and Business Efficiency, by James Samuel Knox. It was first published in 1912, and my edition carries a 1922 copyright. There’s an interesting section about how to judge a buyer’s character by the shape of his nose (note: all of the third-person pronouns in this book are masculine). But beside that, much of what he wrote about is pretty timeless. We’d all do well to follow his admonitions about honesty and integrity. That seems to have gotten lost to “make your number, no matter what.”

  2. From one nerd to another, this is spot on, Jim. There are so many great themes in here.

    1) The more things change, the more they stay the same. I love Coke’s focus on driving the training, knowledge sustainment, skill transfer through managers, with coaching to mastery on the other side. It’s a little harder today for managers to be the primary trainer, but without their involvement in sustainment, transfer, and coaching, change rarely occurs.

    2) The best of the past often gets lost in the desire to create new futures, and we should pay attention and evolve what worked – a complete revolution is rarely the answer. How did we ever get away from such great practices? I know some still do this, but it seems like so few.

    3) Sales Manager Enablement is a key sales performance lever and needs more attention today. I (and others like you and Tamara Schenk) have been talking specifically about this for a while, but it’s still like watching a glacier crawl by.

    Anyway, great post. Stay the course. (Bad pun fully intended.)


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