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Sales Enablement Voices: Jim Ninivaggi on the Future of Enablement [Q&A]

Sep 19th, 2018

Anyone working in sales enablement knows just how quickly the function has been growing. At Brainshark, we know that keeping up with the changing landscape can feel pretty daunting for busy practitioners.

That’s why we’re launching a Q&A series to help you do just that, by spotlighting prominent voices and thought-leaders throughout the sales enablement community.

We begin with Brainshark’s own Chief Readiness Officer, Jim Ninivaggi, whose deep knowledge of the sales enablement space helps us shape and execute our sales readiness strategy every day. He has more than 30 years of B2B sales experience, including nearly 6 years leading the sales enablement research practice at SiriusDecisions.

Below, Ninivaggi discusses the key trends affecting sales enablement, its future, and the skills today’s enablement leaders need to be successful.

How has sales enablement evolved since you began working in the space?

When I started the sales enablement practice at SiriusDecisions a little over 8 years ago, fewer than 30% of companies had a sales enablement function. It was still very new. If they did have a function, it was probably in marketing. The big problem enablement was looking to solve was sales content management – the classic issue of marketing creating all this great content, but reps struggling to find the content. They were overwhelmed with the number of documents available to them. That was the genesis: making sure reps have the right asset, at the right time, to engage clients effectively.

Eventually companies realized that content, while important, is not enough. A great presentation does not make a great salesperson. There was the realization that reps had to have the right knowledge and skills to present and share that content with buyers in a meaningful way. 

It became more focused on what used to be called sales effectiveness or sales training – areas like onboarding, transformation and introducing new sales methodologies. There was a shift more toward having a sales enablement function, and also seeing that function start to report into sales.

The real force of change was the recognition that sales enablement should be under sales. We want to make sure it’s an integration point between sales and marketing, so it needs to report into sales.

What skills do sales enablement leaders need to be successful in the role today?

You must be able to delegate. That might be the most important skill. If you don’t learn to delegate to your team, not just within your function but outside your function, it makes it hard to be anything other than a tactical executor.

You need to be able to prioritize. That was a skill I had to learn.

There are 100 things you want to do as a sales enablement leader, and there are another 100 that other people want you to do.

You spend a week in the field with reps and say, ‘Our salespeople need negotiation skills.’ The next week it’s, ‘Our salespeople need presentation skills.’ You can get overwhelmed. You can’t do everything at once. You can’t boil the ocean. Most sales functions are resource-constrained. Even if we’re well-staffed – and we are at Brainshark, because we believe in sales readiness – you still have to prioritize. Focus on those things that will get the biggest bang for your buck in boosting productivity.

You need to be a great communicator. Having strong speaking skills, writing skills, learning and design skills for content creation, and technology platform skills are super important. You have to be a really good strategic orchestrator. You have to be an extension of product marketing and demand creation. Sales enablement becomes the central convergence and integration point for marketing, sales and product in many cases. You need to be something of a chameleon and be able to work with those teams, while never forgetting that your two most important constituents are your salespeople and your customers.

What’s one piece of advice you would share with fellow sales enablement leaders?

Get out of your ivory tower. Sales enablement and readiness shouldn’t be theoretical. It should be practical and based on real data. Get out and observe salespeople as often as you can. Talk to prospects and buyers as often as you can.

I’m very attuned to asking, ‘Is there something we could’ve done differently in the sales process that may have changed the outcome of that deal?’ Is there something I can duplicate for the deals we’re winning? Too often enablement leaders go from symptom to problem. They might notice that deals at the end of the pipeline aren’t closing as fast as they should, then meet assuming they need to do negotiation skills training.

We need to do more diagnosing before we prescribe. Ask salespeople ‘why do you think this is happening?’ before you decide to take action. Make your decisions based on data and observation.

Get on the road. You’ve got to be out there with your salespeople. Typically, at headquarters there’s a group of reps you can observe. You need to travel to understand the challenges on the West Coast and in the Midwest, for instance. Sometimes reps are reluctant to bring somebody on a call. It’s a little awkward sometimes. They might feel like they’re being judged. But you have to work with your sales leader. If you’re asking me to help an athlete or musician, and if I can’t see them play or perform, I can’t figure out how to make them better.

Where do you see sales enablement trending? What’s on your radar?

It will continue to be more focused on sales readiness. I know that’s a self-serving answer, but if I was not working for Brainshark, I would answer it the same way.

The desired result hasn’t changed since I was selling. You want your sales organization to maximize every interaction and leave that buyer feeling positive about that salesperson, that company, your products. Will they buy from us? You hope so, but you also hope they walk away from us saying, ‘That was a professional salesperson.’

How we get reps ready for that buyer interaction has changed. Years ago, you’d be in classrooms for days doing role plays. The future of enablement will be leveraging AI to create simulated environments where salespeople practice through a simulated sales call. We could ask reps what they would do next in a given situation.

The world of selling has changed, but it’s still about two human beings communicating effectively. The expectations of buyers are even higher. They expect salespeople to come with answers, new ideas, and already knowing what’s happening in that particular business. They want someone who will ask intelligent questions and get them to think.

Our job as enablement leaders is to ensure that the next generation of salespeople are that much more knowledgeable and skillful in the craft of selling.

As a sales enablement leader, what has been your biggest accomplishment to date?

We revamped our onboarding process. It was a recognition that we have a great tool, which we use to onboard our salespeople, but we weren’t optimizing our tool. It was an ‘a-ha’ moment where, like every sales enablement leader, I’m focused on getting our new hires productive as quickly as possible. Productivity only happens from activity. I can’t close my first deal if I don’t know how to do my first sales or prospecting or demo call. We’ve adopted an agile approach to onboarding, where we focus on the critical activities a salesperson needs to demonstrate proficiency in.

We’ve built out a series of learning sprints for the salespeople. They learn about our corporate story. They learn how to do an elevator pitch. They learn about our product and how to do a quick product overview. It’s fairly accelerated, all video-based content delivered via Brainshark. It can be consumed on mobile devices, and every sprint ends with assessment and certification.

We’ve noticed huge reduction in time to first activities. Our average time to first activity is 14 days. We’ve seen great contribution from our new hire class in the first half of the year, because we got them productive quickly. It’s a great story for our product, because our product can track where our new hires are in relation to the sprints. Our new hires go out and talk about how they were onboarded at Brainshark, and how we used our tool to get them ready.

What’s one piece of media you’re consuming for fun, and why?

I am reading Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo Da Vinci biography. I’m just awed by Da Vinci. In his lifetime, he didn’t consider himself an artist; he considered himself an architect and an engineer. He spent every waking minute of his life thinking about why things were the way they were, and then figuring it out. It’s a great reminder to stay curious and answer the “why” instead of simply asking “why?”

Is your sales onboarding process too slow? Download our exclusive eBook to learn how to apply agile development principles to your new hire training today!