Is Sales Enablement Making Salespeople Stupid? Auto-Pilot Versus Strategic Thinking

It’s conference season. I’m back from our Miller Heiman Client Summit in Denver, the Sales Force Productivity Conference in Atlanta and Dreamforce in San Francisco. In Atlanta, Bob Kelley, chairman of the Sales Management Association, invited me to attend a panel discussion with the provocative headline, “Is sales enablement making salespeople stupid?” Without hesitating, I accepted the invitation. I love controversial and thought-provoking topics, and that’s one of those.

This blog post will be the first blog post of a series to cover the questions we discussed on this panel with Joe Gustavson, CEO and Founder Brainshark, and Joe Gruttadauria, VP Worldwide Sales at QStream, led by Bob Kelley. I will share my perspective, based on my experience and based on the latest research we have done at the MHI Research Institute. And please – feel free to chime in and share your thoughts!

Before we start this “after panel blog post series,” let me quickly define what we are talking about, as we did in Atlanta. We define sales enablement as a cross-functional discipline to drive sales performance and sales force transformation. Therefore, sales force enablement equips salespeople with all relevant skills and competencies, and provides content, messages and strategies for every stage of the entire customer’s journey, tailored to different buyer roles, with the aim of generating more valuable conversations and developing more and better business. Additionally, sales force enablement provides coaching guidelines for frontline sales managers to reinforce the enablement approach systematically.

Today, we discuss the first question of the panel.

Are reps relying too much on the organization to get things right at the expense of strategic thinking?

This question touches one of the most essential issues regarding sales enablement: How much can sales enablement ever prepare for salespeople and what will always be each salesperson’s responsibility to adjust, tailor or customize? The degree of what can be prepared in a “ready to use” way is very different in transactional and complex selling environments. In theory (and it happens in practice), selling situations can be scripted. But put yourself in your buyer’s shoes: Who wants to talk to a person who sounds like a robot that has learned the text? If this idea was successful, we wouldn’t need salespeople in the first place. We could record the message beforehand.

What happens in reality, salespeople in transactional sales environments have become an endangered species. Buyers can find what they need online, and make their purchases online. But in complex selling environments where various different stakeholders from different levels and functions are involved in buying decisions, conversations don’t follow a script. Critical, strategic thinking and adaptive competencies are key elements for sales success. Mapping a provider’s capabilities to the customer’s context and to their concepts requires a thoughtful, strategic and tailored approach.

Sales force enablement, set up the right way, provides content and messaging tailored along the entire customer’s journey and tailored to different buyer roles. Ideally, training on selling competencies and “how to use content assets” is provided as well. But tools and training do not equip salespeople to function on auto-pilot. They must always be responsive to the customer’s specific situation and the stakeholders’ different concepts about how to approach that specific situation.

Every customer makes every decision differently, every time, so there is always a need to adjust, to customize and to tailor content, messages and strategies. Examples include adjusting the content wording to fit the customer’s terminology, and helping the customer clarify or even redefine the objectives and desired results they want to achieve. Sales force enablement can only design content and messages for pre-defined buying situations and buyer roles. Mapping to the real buying situations and mapping to the real buyers, the individuals – that makes the difference. That requires adaptive competencies, and that is always a sales professional’s responsibility. That’s living a customer core approach.

Now, sales methodologies come into play. They guide salespeople to create and manage opportunities, and they help them prepare conversations in a structured way and to develop deal strategies by analyzing and synthesizing all different aspects of situational knowledge. Sales methodologies are based on principles and values. They explain the process behind sequences of activities and force salespeople to think strategically about how to approach a specific opportunity. World-class sales force enablement teams connect the dots between content, training and sales methodologies.

Once the dots have been connected – in other words, once sales enablement has done its job –each salesperson must make effective use of the content, training, etc. This is the route to sales success. Applying sales enablement services effectively requires a certain level of adaptive competencies. It requires the ability to adapt quickly to a new, changing or complex situation. Sales force enablement can also help with adaptive competencies as part of training.

But sales force enablement is not responsible for sales professionals’ ability to think critically and strategically. In complex sales, critical and strategic thinking can never be replaced by sales enablement.

There are no shortcuts to success.


Related blog posts:

Sales Force Enablement – See you in Atlanta, Sept 17

Enabling Principles To Develop Salespeople’s Adaptive Skills

Sales Enablement: Customer Core Framework to Provide Perspectives



  1. I blogged on this four years ago, and sadly, we have not made as much progress as we could have. The terrible statistics from multiple sources still show Sales people as poor at offering their Customers Value.
    Sales Enablement is NOT the problem,
    but it still has difficulty with being the solution!

    Thanks for raising this IMPORTANT issue to the Sales Table, Tamara. Sales Leaders, and Sales Managers will have to address this issue in 2015, or risk dire consequences.

  2. In complex sales (like in Corporate Banking eg.) sales reps have to be equiped for each issue they are discussing with their clients with a proper sales choreography. If not only the very best sales reps are capable of building a compelling sales story that can interest the client. These choreography are built in workshops with marketeers, productspecialists and sales people. Each choreography consists of warmers, insights, business cases, similar stories and differentiations. The task of the individual salesrep who uses those story lines is to choose witch elements of the choreography fits with the situation of the individual client and in this way personalise the story line.

    So I fully agree with you.

    • Thanks for your comment, Henk! I love the term “choreographie” and how you designed it that salespeople are enabled to create their own authentic approach, which is tailored to the customer’s context and people’s concepts, based on the provided core messages.


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