What is Sales Operations? – Functions & Processes

As sales organizations become more process-driven and scientific, sales operations have taken on a new level of importance. Matt Heinz calls them one of the most unsung heroes for sales organizations.

There are thousands of sales operations professionals in the US alone and the function has become increasingly common since Xerox pioneered the role in the 1970s. Despite that context, there’s a lack of clarity about ‘what is sales operations?’ and how it helps a go-to-market organization.

Let’s take a look at the common set of functions that sales operations teams are typically responsible for and how you can focus your team on what matters most to your own sales process needs. If the overarching aim of sales operations is to reduce friction in the sales process, then we realize that sales operations are a strategic function. Here are some key elements to consider:

Driving Sales Strategy

There’s a common misunderstanding that sales operations is purely about the tactical. It’s not. Yes, there are many programs and actions that are run by sales ops. But they all exist within a framework that many sales operations professionals create in their role as “chief of staff” for the chief revenue officer.

That setting of sales strategy includes a number of key elements:

  • Assessment of the Go-To-Market Model: This is a cross-functional strategic question that includes the product, marketing, and sales leadership. Sales operations’ experience in managing sales organizations provides a wealth of experience. Will the chosen model be too high-friction? Are buyers likely to be from a different target market or persona? Sales operations contribute to this discussion.
  • Evaluation of Sales Methodologies: Which sales methodology your company employs will be a factor in your solution, company maturity, and the market you serve. Evaluating which methodology is a match is a perfect match for sales operations. In their capacity for training and compliance, they’ve seen what methodologies work and fail, so they can recommend directions for sales leadership to adopt.
  • Analysis of Sales Metrics: Sales data is not only important for compensation and forecasting. It is critical for deciding how to adjust the sales organization and go-to-market model. Sales operations have their finger on the analytics pulse and can spot trends that lead to recommendations about how to adjust the sales strategy.
  • Forecasting: A sales team lives and dies by its ability to hit its numbers. And sales operations play an instrumental role in producing and assessing reports and analytics. Using data and predictive models can help sales operations take an active role in this strategic function by making predictions of what will close ever more accurate.

Sales Excellence

As sales moves toward more challenger and consultative-type sales it becomes more essential that sales people develop themselves. Sales have long since moved away from a transactional approach – that’s what e-commerce is for. So, sales people need to be constantly tuning their skills.

Sales operations plays a key role. Not simply in implementing programs to support sales excellence. But also to select and adjust approaches based on what supports your sales strategy. That could include:

  • Sales Training (Product): Sales people need to constantly improve their skills on your product offers. But a tidal wave of product data and roadmap information can be counterproductive – retention becomes a major problem. Sales operations can drive effective training programs that help sales people keep the information they get and turn it into value for prospects.
  • Sales Training (Methodology): Sharpening the axe also means becoming a better sales person, not just a product expert. Learning best practices and methodologies increases individual performance and also helps increase predictability in the funnel by identifying choke points for opportunities.
  • Sales Training (Market): I’m especially fond of this piece. Sales people need to bring value and even challenge their prospects. That means delivering insight into the market or information that helps a buyer make more informed decisions about their own business. Sales operations can help direct key information and training to reps to help them become the much sought after “trusted advisor”.
  • Sales Mentoring: Coaching and providing sales support is an important well to develop talent. But it too often is done on a one-off basis. But by formalizing a program, sales operations can help develop the next wave of experienced sales pros on your team.
  • Best Practices and Guided Selling: When teams adopt best practices they are up to twice as likely to hit their quotas. Sales operations should assess what works for sales teams and tune sales methodology through guided selling approaches. That helps even newer reps stay focused.
  • Onboarding: Speaking of new reps, a key metric for any sales operations professional is how quickly new sales people get to quota. That means developing an effective onboarding program that combines elements from the above sales excellence elements to turn new reps into great reps quickly.

Sales Team Organization

As with any team, its structure is a key determinant of its behavior. Sales operations have a key role to play in recommending organization and dynamics within a team and then acting on that.

  • Hiring: Who makes it through the doors and into your team will dramatically affect the performance of your organization. It can demotivate your top performers or it can lead to an all-star team. 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: The allocation of territories – by geo, zip code, vertical, and more – can have a major impact. Too many prospects in one territory can lead to demotivation for other territory reps and underachievement in the target-rich territory. Sales operations play an important role in balancing territories for fairness and maximum ‘exploitation’ of the opportunity.
  • Compensation: This one is actually mislabeled. 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 manage these programs and are generally involved in balancing pure compensation versus industry benchmarks. More on sales incentives is here in this post from Xactly.
  • Communications: An effective sales organization needs to share wins, best practices, and other news that help reinforce positive energy and winning ways. Sales operations should develop a communication calendar and tooling that helps communicate with reps in a low-impact way.

Team Efficiency and Execution

Team Efficiency and Execution

Sales teams only have so much time in their day. Any moment you can give back to them to focus on core selling is going to pay large dividends. Sales operations can have a major impact here by implementing tooling and processes that increase the performance of your sales organization.

  • Outbound Communication: If sales people aren’t effective at communicating with prospects they’ll never advance to close. 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: Friction in the sales process can dramatically slow any deal. Sales operations can measure where bottlenecks occur in the selling process and correct them. Are contracts taking too long to process? Look to contact management tools. Are proposals not getting out on time? Proposal building software can help.
  • The CRM: Ah, the CRM! Platforms like Salesforce.com are the hub of a sales person’s day. It’s generally the system of record and so data quality in the tool is critical. Sales operations is often tasked with the unpleasant task of compliance to ensure 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: Speaking of 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: There is a range of applications that make sales teams significantly more effective. From data quality and appending to email management tools. Sales operations should pioneer the discovery and adoption of these technologies to streamline sales processes. Providing these kinds of tools via sales operations is discussed by ZoomInfo here.

Sales operations rightly deserve a strategic seat in the sales organization. While not all of these categories will apply to your team, you should evaluate them versus your own team to see where you should focus your efforts.