Professional crew teams have coxswains -- team members who sit in the stern of the boat, help steer its path, and direct the rhythm of the rowers. You might have a group of incredible athletes, but without a coxswain, they won’t move as quickly, powerfully, or efficiently.

The sales operations professional is like the coxswain for salespeople.

Patrick Kelly, who led Xerox’s first sales operations group, describes the role as “all the nasty number things that you don’t want to do, but need to do to make a great sales force.”

In this guide, you'll get an introduction to sales operations and how to build your own team (or make your existing one stronger).

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Table of contents:

What does Sales Operations do?

Sales Ops reduces friction in the sales process so salespeople are more productive and successful. This department handles everything from lead management, sales and revenue strategy, territory structuring and alignment, process optimization, compensation plans, sales automation and CRM systems and processes, hiring and training, and data analytics, modeling, to reporting.

Sales Ops vs. sales enablement

Sales Enablement is also working to improve sales productivity and boost revenue, so do you need both?

The short answer is: Yes.

“I think of Sales Enablement as a component of Sales Ops,” says HubSpot VP of sales operations and strategy Channing Ferrer. “Sales Operations analyzes the data and makes decisions, and Sales Enablement helps roll out those decisions.”

For example, Ferrer explains, the sales ops team might determine your salespeople are moving too quickly through the discovery stage of the sales process -- and that’s hurting close rates. Consequently, Enablement would create sales training to help reps run a better discovery.

It’s also worth noting that Sales Enablement is usually more active earlier in the buyer’s journey, concentrating its energy on training and prospect education. Sales Operations, meanwhile, deals more with the negotiation and closing stages, along with high-level things like territory design and sales compensation.

To make sure your sales ops and enablement teams are complementing -- not conflicting with -- each other, create a clear division of labor. Each department should have separate goals, deliverables, and key metrics.

Periodically, ask both teams to sit down and discuss their ongoing projects to ensure they’re not duplicating efforts.

Sales ops best practices

Because sales ops is such a new function, getting and keeping everyone on the same page is crucial. Write a mission statement defining your objectives and purpose, then share it company-wide.

Consistently check in with Sales Enablement, Marketing, and Sales to see whether you’re tackling the right work, addressing the important issues, and not redoing anything that’s already been done. You should also hold periodic meetings.

“Have weekly meetings between your heads of Marketing Operations, Demand Generation, Sales Ops, and Sales Enablement,” Ferrer advises. “There are a lot of lever within sales and marketing ops that shift on a weekly or even daily basis. To ensure alignment, you want constant communication.”

Make sure Sales Ops is led by a vice president, director, or manager. This professional should report to the president, CEO, or COO -- or, alternatively, a high-level sales leader. It’s important sales ops has a relatively direct line to the executives.

Ferrer recommends having Sales Operations belong to Sales rather than Marketing.

“Although Sales Ops and Marketing work closely together, it’s critical that Sales Ops really understands the overall sales strategy,” he says. “They need to be in the same department.”

Sales Operations team structure

With so many complex -- and critical -- responsibilities, forming the right team can make or break Sales Operation’s impact.

According to an HBR article, “Why Sales Ops Is So Hard to Get Right,” its competencies can be put in two buckets: Tactical/support and strategic/design.

Take a potential Sales Ops project: Setting up and administering the company’s CRM. This calls for technical expertise, so the authors recommend finding employees who “have a strong operational mindset, are passionate about quality control and efficiency, are technically adept, and generally like structured work, even if it’s repetitive.”

But if the sales ops team is optimizing the stages of your sales process, you’ll need people who are skilled in seeing patterns in data and devising out-of-the-box solutions -- “individuals with strong creative and problem-solving skills, and project management and collaborative abilities,” the authors explain.

The takeaway: If you want to build a strong sales ops department, make sure you’re hiring people in both buckets.

Types of Sales Operations jobs

Sales Operations Representative: This is an entry-level sales operations role. The rep should have 0-2 years of experience, excellent attention to detail, technical aptitude, strong communication skills, and a familiarity with (or willingness to learn) marketing and sales automation.

Sales Operations Analyst: This position requires more experience -- typically, at least three years in a sales operations role. The analyst must be able to work across functions, including product, marketing, analytics, engineering, etc. Problem-solving skills and a proactive work ethic are important, as well as data modeling, data mining, and data quality management experience. An advanced knowledge of Excel and business intelligence tools will also be extremely valuable.

Senior Sales Operations Analyst: This position calls for four-plus years’ experience. A senior analyst should be well-versed in CRMs, business intelligence platforms, data modeling, and Excel. In addition, they must have fantastic interpersonal and leadership skills and the ability to work with sales executives.

Manager of Sales Operations: A sales ops manager supervises a team of sales operations specialists. For this reason, leadership experience and sales operations knowledge is ideal. An ideal candidate has five-plus years of experience. They should understand sales methodologies, what drives sales behavior, and how sales processes work. They should also be skilled in data modeling and analytics.

VP of Sales Operations (or Senior Director of Sales Operations): This person will manage a team and work closely with senior leadership. They should have at least 10 years’ experience in sales enablement and several successful leadership roles. An MBA or Masters in a technical field is usually required. This person must understand how to use a CRM and sales automation tools and have the ability to develop complex financial and operational models using spreadsheets and database software. Presentation and communication skills are also critical.

Sales ops final tips

Make it mandatory for members of your sales ops team to shadow salespeople once per quarter. This gives them the chance to witness first-hand the common challenges in sales, as well as see the impact their work can have. It also allows the two departments to forge a stronger connection.

Try to automate as much as possible for salespeople. Not only do tedious manual processes take time away from selling, they’re also bad for morale and lead to expensive mistakes.

On a related note, use as many tools as you need -- and no more. Technology can dramatically boost your sales team's efficiency, but not if they're toggling between 20-plus tools. Don't add a new one to their stack until you've figured out exactly what role it will play in their sales process and made sure they can easily and quickly implement and use it. If you force a cumbersome or overly complex toolkit on your reps, they'll simply refuse to adopt it.

Continually innovate. A sales process should always be in flux as you learn new things about your prospects and customers, the market changes, and your products evolve. Of course, you don't want to change it so frequently your salespeople get whiplash, but you should be making constant tweaks and updates to help them get the best results possible.

Sales operations is a critical piece of the puzzle. Follow these tips to guide your sales team to success. 

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Originally published Aug 11, 2017 6:30:00 AM, updated December 06 2018


Sales Operations