Published: August 22, 2017
Sales operations have emerged as a crucial part of any company's sales organization over the last decade or two.
The sales technology firm Ambition.com's blog defines sales operations succinctly:
"Broadly speaking, sales operations is the setting of sales targets, territories and forecasts using data-backed insights. Increasing numbers of companies are staking a profound new interest in sales operations. Numbers of functional sales operations departments in companies around the globe are on the rise. Once almost exclusively outsourced to consultants, internal sales operations specialists are now in high demand. "
Sales operations comprises several functions within a company, including such activities as sales planning, compensation, forecasting and territory design, according to the Harvard Business Review.
The Rise of Sales Operations
Xerox created the very first sales operations group back in the 1970s to handle "all the nasty number things that you don’t want to do, but need to do to make a great sales force," Xerox group leader J. Patrick Kelly said, according to the HBR.
With the rise of data-driven sales processes, sales operations have increased in importance among companies that engage in B2B sales and other sales activities. Five trends have fueled the rise of sales operations teams, Ambition.com said:
- Enterprise Technology: That includes the widespread use of software-as-a-service, or SaaS, tools; customer relation management, or CRM, systems; marketing automation platforms; even such enterprise communication apps as Slack. "Many enterprises now have a dedicated tech interloper on their sales team: the director of sales operations," Ambition.com said.
- Data Analytics: "Enterprise technologies source the data that fuels sales operations, but that data first must be transformed into something digestible, accomplished via data analytics. The better the analytics, the more capacity sales operations has to make accurate, powerful data-driven decisions."
- Inside Sales: Companies are moving away from a field sales model. "This makes processes, key performance metrics and benchmarks simultaneously easier and more critical to define and track. ... The prototypical inside sales model places heavy focus on the repeatable activities (outbound dials, emails, leads touched and so forth) in its sales process. That makes the data much less unwieldy, and the path from activities to objectives much easier to track."
- Millennials: Companies have turned to the younger generation for recruitment into their sales organizations. Such new employees have less professional experience, smaller salary requirements and an affinity for technology, and more time must be invested in training and onboarding. "The emergence of millennials brings a new crop of employees to the sales force, ones more inclined to be readily accepting of technological approaches to tracking and driving performance."
- Sales-Marketing Alignment: "Tethering sales and marketing often involves fusing different technology systems (ex. Salesforce and Pardot) and using data as the arbiter of best ways that marketing can impact sales and vice versa."
What is a Sales Operations Team's Mission Statement?
"Perhaps the biggest challenge for sales ops leaders is delivering a huge diversity of work, while operating in a constantly changing business and technology environment," the Harvard Business Review said.
Software company tenfold's blog added: "The main function of the sales operations team is to smoothen the sales process—reduce any friction and incorporate itself to the organization so as to ensure the execution of the sales strategy. ... To ensure excellence, sales operations needs to monitor approaches, programs and content based on what is in line with the needs of sales people and the sales organization’s overall strategy."
Sales operations teams handle both strategic and tactical functions in support of a business' overall sales process. KnowledgeTree offered this breakdown of sales operations' strategic functions:
Assessment of the Go-to-Market Model: This cross-functional strategic question involves product, marketing and sales leadership.
Evaluation of Sales Methodologies: Sales operations can help determine which methodology matches a company's strategy.
Analysis of Sales Metrics: Sales operations is crucial in spotting trends in a company's data that are critical for deciding how to adjust the sales organization strategy and go-to-market model.
Forecasting: Sales operations plays an instrumental role in producing and assessing a company's reports and analytics, using data and predictive models to take an active role in predicting what will result in more successful sales.
Tactical responsibilities can include territory planning, deal routing, account assignment, team design, proposal and contract management, contract governance, compensation optimization and administration, forecasting reporting and accuracy maintenance, systems and data management (CRM, CPQ, SPM) and performance analysis related to all of the above, according to Highspot.com.
Sales operations also plays a key role in the management of sales teams. Sales operations ideally takes charge of the following functions within a sales organization, according to tenfold:
Product training: "Choosing and calibrating product training programs that keep salespeople updated but still fast-moving. Product training is focused on the hard facts, nuts and bolts, on keeping your sales force abreast on the features and benefits of the products you sell."
Sales training: "Ensuring that best practices and methods are learned by the sales force. Sales training is focused on how the salesperson can relate the prospect’s situation to the product’s capabilities. It is less about the product but more about understanding prospects and their needs."
Market intelligence training: "Sales operations acts as the source of expert information on markets—from the supply of data to on-point analysis. ... In brief, market intelligence is the combination of competitor intelligence, product intelligence, market analysis and market research."
Sales mentoring. "Sales operations is in charge of formalizing and streamlining coaching of the sales force. This is not only to arrest inefficiencies but is put in place to ensure that the sales force talent is constantly developed."
Guided selling: "Sales operations is able to provide the sales organization guidance on which approach to take depending on the customer."
Onboarding: "Sales ops is in charge of formulating a winning onboarding program—from screening, headhunting, interviewing to hiring."
Sales Operations and Sales Team Structure
The Harvard Business Review cited a recent job posting for a leadership position in sales operations of a global healthcare company as an illustration of the duties a sales operations leader:
- Contribute to the one- and three-year business vision as a member of the executive leadership team.
- Evaluate sales force strategies, plans, goals and objectives.
- Contribute expertise to optimize sales force and territory sizing, structuring and alignment.
- Oversee sales performance analyses and reporting, territory alignment, and customer profiling and targeting activities.
- Administer quarterly sales incentive compensation plans and the goal setting process.
- Manage sales force automation and CRM systems and processes.
- Provide data, analyses, modeling and reporting to support sales force quarterly business reviews.
Sales operations plays a key role in how a business hires and organizes its sales team. KnowledgeTree breaks it down like this:
Hiring: "Sales operations should play a role in establishing hiring practices, evaluation tools and criteria that ensure that top-shelf performers come on board and want to stay."
Territories: "Sales operations plays an important role in balancing territories for fairness and maximum ‘exploitation’ of the opportunity."
Compensation: "A more complete approach is to look at ‘incentivization’. That is, how monetary, gifts, training, career progression, recognition and other tools can encourage positive actions that drive revenue. Sales operations often manages these programs and is generally involved in balancing pure compensation versus industry benchmarks."
Communications: "Sales operations should develop a communication calendar and tooling that helps communicate with reps in a low-impact way."
Sales Operations Best Practices
At their best, sales operations teams create and implement tools and processes that increase the performance of a business' sales organization, KnowledgeTree said. How do they do this? KnowledgeTree had these suggestions:
Outbound Communication: "Sales operations should investigate tools that push recommended scripts, guidance, emails and other content to sales people based on where a prospect is in the sales process."
Transaction Processing: "Sales operations can measure where bottlenecks occur in the selling process and correct them. Contracts taking too long to process? Look to contact management tools. Proposals not getting out on time? Proposal building software can help."
The CRM: "Sales operations is often tasked with the unpleasant task of compliance to ensure [CRM] usage. But a better approach is to look at how to sand down the edges and make usage more useful and friendly for sales reps — often by pushing relevant information, content, and tools to reps via the CRM."
Time Management: "Sales operations also should look at what interferes with a rep’s day and how to remove it. Travel and expense management consuming too much time? Get a technology that eliminates rote tasks."
Sales Tooling: "Sales operations should pioneer the discovery and adoption of ... technologies to streamline sales processes."
If you’re a sales leader looking to get more efficient, consider these four sales operations tips for improvement (modified from an earlier LinkedIn blog post):
1. Diversify your sales team
Diversity on your team is a crucial asset for efficient sales operations. Sales leaders should cultivate teams with a wide range of specialties, interests, backgrounds and career goals. You don’t want all your team members attempting to solve a problem in the same way. The best results often come from combining a range of perspectives to consider sales strategy from many points of view.
To that end, sales leaders should seek out such diversity when making new hires to their teams. Additionally, personnel should be developed and managed in ways that allow them to build specialties and make unique contributions to the team. As long as everyone remains focused on the same goals, your operations are sure to benefit.
2. Document roles and responsibilities
Sales operations and sales enablement may be two different teams with their own respective goals, but the actions of one can affect the other. Coordination is key to creating efficient operations. The best way to do this is by documenting roles and responsibilities, which outlines the role each group plays, as well as any instances where these responsibilities may overlap.
Through this document, operations and enablement can each establish their own goals and KPIs and communicate this to the other side of the sales divide. By adhering to the documented roles and responsibilities and using it to clarify inter-team communications, operations can better prioritize their resources and focus on meeting their most pressing responsibilities.
3. Resolve turf wars by using social proximity
Typically, sales territories have been determined according to geographic proximity: Sales teams focus on nearby prospects. In recent years, however, sales teams have begun shifting toward social proximity as a tool for dividing up sales territories
Instead of using location, social proximity assigns salespeople to prospects based on their social closeness: How well they are connected, or how closely their social networks are aligned. By targeting prospects with team members owning the strongest personal connection, sales operations is able to leverage these relationships to conduct personalized outreach, which will boost conversion rates. LinkedIn can be a great resource when assigning by social proximity, letting sales teams view connections and degrees of familiarity for any professional contact.
4. Invest in the right gear
The right tools and equipment can make all the difference. Today’s high-performing sales teams take advantage of social selling tools to streamline sales operations while creating new efficiencies. LinkedIn also offers valuable integrations with external sales solutions that help identify prospects, generate leads, and manage existing relationships while offering data-driven insights to improve your current strategy.
Sales leaders should always be on the lookout for new tools, platforms, and partnerships that can make their teams more productive and cost-effective.
For more tips on improving sales operations, check out The Sales Rep’s Checklist.
A Last Word on Sales Operations
Marketing guru Bob Bacon offered these thoughts on the difference between sales and sales operations:
"The difference between sales and sales operations is clearly confusing to those outside of the sales profession, but I suspect it is not entirely clear to a few of us here as well. I can’t tell you how many times I get calls from sales recruiters who after looking at my job title on LinkedIn—VP of Sales Operations—ask me if I would be interested in a sales management role.
"I always explain that my role is as staff to sales and that they are probably looking for a quota-carrying sales leader that manages other quota-carrying sales resources. While that seems to clarify the difference for the recruiters, I’ve had conversations with sales managers who don’t agree that managing quota-carrying resources is the primary differentiator. I am hopeful that some readers of this article will reply with their perspective on the distinction between sales and sales operations. ...
"I believe the comprehensive list of sales operations tasks on my home page are required to run any size sales organization, large or small. If you’re the sales leader at a startup company hiring your first individual contributor, you need to figure out how to train them, incentivize them, provide appropriate tools to help them sell, determine their territory, determine their quotas, answer procedural questions, facilitate incoming orders and analyze their sales effectiveness. ...
"The responsibilities of a sales operations role are a subset of the sales leader’s role. ... Second, the reason sales operations responsibilities vary so widely by company is because the tasks included in that subset are at the discretion of the sales leader.
"In the last few years the role of sales operations has matured, and you will find sales ops practitioners more established and disciplined in focus, capabilities and sales 2.0 tools. They will expect to be responsible for more of the tasks cited by CEB and—for the sales leader willing to share some of that load with the right individual—the result should be a more scalable, effective team with higher revenue attainment."
More from around the web:
- Understanding the Role of Sales Operations - Selling Power
- Why Sales Ops Is So Hard to Get Right - Harvard Business Review
- How to Define Clear Roles for Sales Operations and Sales Enablement - HighSpot