Inside the Sales Enablement Challenges of the Airline Industry with Emily Bendorf

by Felix Krueger

Emily Bendorf has experienced firsthand what it means to manage sales enablement in a sector that had to be extremely smart about navigating the pandemic.

As a founding member of her sales name and team, she has built a function from scratch, building the infrastructure to support a sales team that has grown by over 500% over the last five years. 

Her career began working for a nonprofit organisation, Boys and Girls Club of America, an after-school program for kids in low-income communities. In that role, she worked with the sales team, and instead of selling a product, they were fundraising.

She worked in sales operations, and then ended up joining Southwest Airlines.

Southwest Airlines

Emily started at the company in a smaller department within the business department known as Culture Services. After doing that for a few years, she joined the commercial organisation in 2017 and was a founding member of the sales ops team. 

According to Emily, culture is literally what Southwest is all about. 

The company's been around for 50 years, and their logo is a heart, which symbolises the heart of Southwest Airlines: taking care of their people, taking care of their customers, and having a lot of fun along the way.

Their leadership has always invested in the culture, which is why they have an entire department dedicated to it.

Sales Enablement

Just like every industry, and every individual company, Southwest Airlines interprets and uses sales enablement in its own way.

Sales enablement is responsible for B2B customer engagements, and insights from customers. Using quantitative and qualitative surveying, they manage all communications for the sales team and B2B customers. They serve as the liaison between the sales and marketing departments, which means they partner really closely with marketing and the rest of sales operations first.

They also have a division over organisational health, which includes training development, onboarding, and other things of that nature.

For a long time, their bread and butter has been the leisure airline industry, focused on vacation and travel. Within the last five years or so, they’ve grown a team that's focused on business travel, not just for the business traveler, but also the person at a company who manages travel for that company, and travel agencies/industry partners who manage the backend (tracking budgeting, travel programs, etc.).

External Adjustments

Since the pandemic started, the dynamic has changed quite a bit. Across the travel industry in general, it hasn't necessarily been an easy time, especially trying to manage the audience that caters towards business travel. 

Many companies had travel bans or restrictions in place where their employees weren't allowed to travel, and others simply had to make cuts due to budget changes. Individuals and industries alike have been impacted by the pandemic.

Emily and her team tried to find creative, new ways to work with their customers, while also being respectful of the reality of the situation. They implemented a lot of new, virtual channels of communication. For the first time, they started using a virtual event platform.

They hadn't used webinars or town halls in the past very regularly, they didn’t use a B2B email tool: most of their email marketing was direct to travellers. They implemented some new capabilities to get updates out to customers. Even though information was changing rapidly, they recognised that their audience really needed to know about changes as soon as possible- ideally before the general public so they would have answers and solutions for their travellers before they started asking questions.

With both of those new resources in place, they were able to provide more timelines and business updates.

Despite it being a wild year, Southwest has actually expanded its footprint in the United States quite a bit, and they’ve been excited to be able to share some positive news, despite everything over the past year.

Internal Adjustments

When you have the ability to plan an event virtually, it's not only saving on costs because of the logistics, but people need a lot less notice to clear their calendar to be there.

In terms of getting an executive presence, that team was right down the hall, so they were able to have their customers hear directly from the president and ask him questions. The headliners were a real draw for customers, but what kept them engaged was the fact that they were willing to be transparent, and provide the updates that they were looking for.

As a team, they’ve definitely encountered challenges simply because, in some cases, they’re playing catch up.

For years, other airlines in the US with large sales teams had the chance to explore all of the avenues Southwest wasn’t able to. Their team has grown exponentially just in the last four or five years, and they were even able to launch a new brand, new products, and new technologies. While all of these things were good things, anytime you introduce a lot of change all at once, that can create challenges in itself, even though the end result is working towards your goal.

When it comes to tools and resources, they’re always looking to tweak and improve their services. Their source of truth for all things, data communications, even content, is Salesforce.

In the last few years, they’ve added several new elements to their Salesforce platform. While everyone's tech-stack could continue to grow, they’ve been very strategic about the other tools they’ve added to their Salesforce platform, so that it continues to be the source of truth for their sales team, for their sales ops team, for their data teams and for their customers.

Their biggest challenge as a sales enablement team is to keep up. They don't always have the bandwidth or the resources to prioritise everything, so they have to focus on the things that drive the biggest impact.

Interdepartmental Collaboration

Since Emily’s sales enablement is a pretty lean team, they have a lead over each of those functions within sales enablement and then ladder up to a group responsible for operations.

Their biggest partner, cross-functional support group, or “sister group”, is the marketing team. They have a group within marketing that's dedicated to help build the sales enablement marketing strategy, and the marketing execution for their group.

While the marketing department’s content is a bit more focused on campaigning, lead generation, the company’s online presence, and directing the loyalty programs, the sales enablement team is more responsible for sales content, collateral, personalised banner ads, invitations, and things that go directly to the account. 

Personalisation vs Scaling

Emily doesn’t believe her team has struck the perfect balance yet, but they use a few different resources, both from in-house and partnerships.

They try their best to create collateral that can be templatised and then customised by members of their Customer Success team. 

While there hasn’t been huge changes since the pandemic, the resources are mostly digital:  JPEGs, PDFs, one-pagers, etc. Emily looks forward to getting to a place where everything is a bit more tech savvy and interactive, but often what her team has found the most effective is those tried and true tools, even though they're not printed out and on the table for someone to pick up.

Sharing information in a brochure format over email is still pretty effective for their clients and their team. 

The Future for Southwest

Now that vaccines are in full swing, the situation in the US seems to be improving quite rapidly.

Emily believes Southwest is coming out of this pandemic even stronger and better prepared to keep their customers and network strong. 

Everyone is looking forward to offices reopening, which is directly tied to travel bans lifting and business getting back on the road. There's a lot of schools of thought on how fast business travel will bounce back, but Emily’s personal opinion is that once your competitor is traveling and getting face to face meetings, then your company is going to start encouraging that too.

A term that Emily and her team has been using a lot lately is “cautiously optimistic”, which seems like a safe and healthy attitude to have during the post-pandemic transition.

It seems safe to say that there's a guaranteed growth period coming up for many industries in some shape or form, it's just a matter of when, and how big the growth will be.

Starting Out with Sales Enablement

Emily believes the number one thing to do is to hire the right people: people who are flexible, adaptable, and dependable. This is vital, because especially in the beginning when you're growing your team, sales enablement is asked to wear a lot of different hats and do a lot of different things. 

As you're just getting started, you will probably be working with a relatively small team, so just hiring people who are ready and motivated by that environment will bring a lot to the table.

For more from Emily Bendorf, you can connect with her on LinkedIn. For more content like this, head over to the State of Sales Enablement podcast
Connect with Felix Krueger on social media:

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Emily Bendorf, Podcast, sales enablement


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