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The Sales Leader's Guide to Sales Operations

Guest Author

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12 min

Inside this article:

What Is Sales Operations?

Why Is Sales Operations Important?

Sales Ops Challenges

What's the Tech Stack Used by Typical Sales Operations Teams?

How to Start a Sales Operations Team

Hiring a Sales Ops Team

Managing Your Sales Ops Team

Use Sales Operations to Drive Sales and Build Process

Build Your Dream Sales Operations Function

Sales Operations (sales ops) is a hot topic for sales leaders who want to increase win rates and improve customer experience. Consider these sales operations statistics:

  • The number of sales ops professionals worldwide increased by 38% between 2018 and 2020
  • 89% of sales professionals said sales ops plays an indispensable role in growing the business
  • Sales Operations increased 4.8x as fast as the sales function overall 
  • 49% of Sales Ops professionals say they are valued “just as much as sales professionals in my company” 

If you want to make your salespeople happier and more productive, then you should learn how sales operations can help you increase win rates and crush your revenue goal. In many ways, it’s the unsung hero of sales strategy that helps maximize pipeline velocity, take cold leads and turn them into hot leads, and optimize segmentation and scoring of leads.  In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about sales ops, including:

  • What sales operations is
  • Why you need sales ops
  • How to start a sales operations team

Let’s dive in!

What Is Sales Operations?

While the phrase “sales operations” is a bit of a catch-all, it generally refers to the processes and infrastructure that support the sales department.

According to WW Chee, author of The Sales Operations Handbook: A Primer on the Sales Operations Function:

“Xerox pioneered the role of sales operations in the 1970s and, since the turn of the 21st century, more and more organizations have implemented sales operations functions, including Microsoft, Google, LinkedIn, Samsung, Thomson Reuters and Verizon. However, with any nascent function there is confusion surrounding the role and purpose of sales operations and its place in the business organization.”

Let’s clear up some of that confusion shall we?

Sales operations encompasses all processes, duties, and responsibilities that help maximize efficiency in your company's sales team. The goal of a sales operations strategy is to help simplify and streamline the many moving pieces required for effective sales management. 

This may include reducing manual labor for rep activity reporting, offering automation for prospecting tasks like lead enrichment or email sequences, or helping coordinate efficient communication between sales reps and other departments in your organization.

Think of how your business would operate without an all-encompassing system to manage its various aspects—it would be chaotic! Sales operations aims to facilitate this chaos into an organized framework that can allow your team to thrive as they sell more products or services.

According to Gartner, “Sales operations is a strategic function charged with supporting, enabling and driving effective sales objectives, strategies and programs.”

You may be wondering: What's the difference between sales operations and sales management? And is there any difference between "sales operations manager" and just "sales manager"? 

Yes, but it's not so simple as defining what one role does versus another. Here are some distinctions that make this more clear:

Your sales ops manager oversees the processes, tools, and technologies that support the sales team. Image credit: HaMdieS TV

Your sales ops manager oversees the processes, tools, and technologies that support the sales team.Image credit: HaMdieS TV

Sales operations manager: The sales operations manager runs a function that’s responsible for the day-to-day activities that help a sales team run smoothly. They often fulfill administrative roles, such as record keeping and reporting, but also help with more strategic tasks like planning, analytics, and strategy.

Sales manager: Sales managers are charged with overseeing a team of reps. This means they're responsible for setting goals, tracking performance metrics like quota attainment, ensuring proper coaching, and keeping the pipeline full of qualified leads. While they do have a strong administrative role, they're also focused on coaching their salespeople to success.

When you hear someone referred to as a "sales manager," that's usually someone whose focus is more on the big picture — on making sure their team has all the resources they need to be successful. When you hear someone referred to as a "sales operations manager," they're probably taking care of more of the day-to-day tasks that keep a sales team running smoothly — not just focusing on what they want their reps to accomplish but how they'll get there.

In small companies, sales managers are often the same people who oversee sales operations. Sometimes these roles are combined into one position, but they don't have to be. Even if they're not, they need to work closely together in order to deliver great results.

Why Is Sales Operations Important?

Why is sales operations important? Here are a few reasons:

Price

It's expensive to hire new reps and get them up to speed on your product, structure, sales territories, and more. It's also expensive to lose good reps, like Account Executives, as they become frustrated with poor data quality or lack of productivity tools. So, it's important to invest in your current reps and keep them happy.

It costs far less to improve the experience for existing salespeople than it does hiring new ones in a constantly churning environment.

Sales Enablement

Sales operations is important for sales enablement. Sales reps need to be fully equipped with the best tools and processes in order to move deals through the sales cycle and hit quotas. Sales operations is responsible for ensuring that your sales reps have everything they need to be successful, including setting them up with training, giving them the right software tools, and providing effective coaching and feedback.

Operational Efficiency

Sales operations makes sure that the entire sales process is efficient. It maintains high-level sales metrics so it knows what processes do and don't work. If a certain step in the process isn't working well, it will identify and fix it so that your customers get a good experience every time they interact with your company.

Collaboration

Sales operations is a bridge between different parts of the organization. All too often, sales teams work in isolation from other parts of an organization — they're out there in the field selling, while product management, customer success, marketing and others all have their own goals and targets.

Sales operations acts as a liaison between these groups and ensures that everyone is aligned around common goals and metrics. Sales ops can also help eliminate "fiefdoms" — areas where each group is acting in its own best interest rather than everyone's best interest.

The Bottom-Line 

Sales Ops can have an outsized impact on top-line revenue performance, not just because they're responsible for ensuring reps have the tools they need.

Sales ops makes sure that the right information flows to the right people at the right time. In most organizations, data is scattered across multiple repositories — marketing automation systems, CRM applications, and spreadsheets galore.

Sales ops professionals gather this information and report it in a way that makes sense for different stakeholders within the organization. They also make sure that decision makers have ready access to dashboards showing key performance indicators (KPIs), which helps them get more revenue from the sales force. An effective sales ops team also helps sales leaders:

  • Decide where to focus their time and energy
  • Figure out which customers are most valuable
  • Clearly define the steps in their sales process
  • Improve the productivity of their sales team members

Sales Ops Challenges

Sales ops faces professionals have challenges ahead and will need the right tech stack and tools to face them. After all, sales ops team members are the unsung heroes of your sales process.  Just look at the data for proof:

  • Sales ops teams drive up to a 10% increase in sales productivity each year according to a survey conducted by McKinsey among 12,000 sales professionals.
  • The average Sales Operations professional is responsible for 9 out of the 14 key responsibilities typically assigned to Sales Operations — spanning the entire sales and sales planning cycle.
  • 75%+ of Sales Operations professionals are responsible for managing their organization’s sales and business development tools. This responsibility suggests that the large majority of Sales Operations pros are asked to develop growth strategies and monitor the sales team’s performance, which are extremely time-consuming tasks.
  • Two-thirds of survey participants are responsible for equally time-consuming tasks, such as forecasting business performance, identifying the TAM and ideal customer profile, and prioritizing accounts and headcount planning. (Source)

As you can see, sales ops can be a major force multiplier for your sales team. 

They are the ones with the data to make sure you're not wasting time and resources. But most people don't realize the full value sales ops delivers, or have a full understanding of how they work.

Perhaps this is why we’ve seen explosive growth in the field of sales ops. In the last few years, it seems everyone is interested in the adoption of sales ops teams at companies of all sizes — even small businesses are hiring sales ops pros to support their teams.

Bradley Gray, Director of Business Development at Enterprise Holdings said:

“I think the growth stems from at least two areas. The first is the amount of readily available data for businesses coupled with the number of data providers in this space. Second, with the proliferation of data, you need Sales Operations to synthesize that information to enable salespeople. Historically, salespeople were responsible for their own book of business. When you have a team that can help set the target for sales to do what they do best, the sky is the limit.”

Unfortunately, many sales operations teams are fighting an uphill battle. They're saddled with manual, outdated processes that result in working overtime to deliver actionable insights.

In fact, 33% of Sales Ops professionals said their sales planning processes — like identifying high opportunity accounts, territory planning, lead validation/routing, and customer/market segmentation — aren’t primarily led by data-driven inputs.

And 89% of Sales Ops professionals agree that “planning more frequently in a world that is in constant flux would help set their sales team up for greater success, which in turn may have positive downstream effects on the business as a whole”. At the same time, 35% say they plan quarterly or even less frequently than that.

Many sales ops pros are struggling with growing pains as they face several key challenges, among them:

  • A lack of adequate resources.
  • More frequent planning cycles.
  • Recruiting and retaining talent.
  • Finding accurate, easy-to-access data.

Sales ops professionals work hand in hand with Sales Leadership to smooth the sales process by removing inefficiencies and optimizing the sales function to make sure the organization’s sales strategy is being executed successfully. 

Sales operations teams must be empowered to deliver the right information that frees up their time to do what they do best: drive more revenue for the company. Sales operations teams can build a foundation for success when they are equipped with tools that provide them with the right data at the right time. The good news is that technology can help sales ops professionals create a revenue machine by automating and optimizing the most complex parts of the sales cycle.

What's the Tech Stack Used by Typical Sales Operations Teams?

It varies depending on the company, but there's one thing that always holds true: spreadsheets are not enough. You need modern tools like CRM and marketing automation software that integrate with each other to help your business run smoothly.

According to Carolyn Choo, Senior Product Marketing Manager at LinkedIn:

“At a high level, sales enablement software is technology that’s designed to help the sales team sell more effectively. Sales organizations enable their sellers by equipping them with the resources — such as tools, technology, training, and content —  they need to excel. Ideally, effective sales enablement removes barriers in the sales process.

Given this broad range, there are literally hundreds of sales enablement software vendors that specialize in everything from lead qualification to content sharing to prospect tracking. The most familiar categories of sales enablement software are sales acceleration (e.g., SalesLoft and Outreach); customer relationship management (e.g., Microsoft and Salesforce); and sales intelligence (LinkedIn Sales Navigator).”

Although the sheer number of sales tools make it challenging to decide which ones are best for your organization, you'll likely need one from each of the following six categories:

Data shows 67% of sales teams use between 4 and 10 digital selling tools as part of their sales tech stacks. The same report shares what sales teams report as the biggest drawbacks of digital selling tools and software:

  • 45% say low team-wide adoption
  • 39% say high cost of the software
  • 32% say long training time

For a deeper dive into sales tools, check out our blog, The Best Sales Tools Every Team Should Be Using. And to see a power dialer software that makes sales outreach more profitable, click here.

How to Start a Sales Operations Team

A sales operations team is essentially an internal consulting team that helps develop and implement systems and processes that increase your company's revenue. It's a helpful function whether you focus on inbound sales or outbound sales, inside sales or outside sales. Let's take a look at how to start a sales operations team from scratch.

Your sales operations team is only as effective as the people on it, so be sure to invest in the right talent and retain them once you've found them. This means investing in processes for hiring and interviewing candidates, managing and retaining high performers, providing constructive feedback to underperformers, and documenting everything as you go.

Here are a few best practices:

Build a Business Case for Sales Operations

You need to fully understand how your company currently measures performance and what kind of systems are in place before you can go about making significant changes. A good starting point is to look at current processes, workflows and policies, then identify opportunities to make things more efficient and effective.

Ensure Buy-In From Senior Leaders

Building support from senior leadership is key to getting your team up and running. To do this effectively, you need to demonstrate how a sales operations function can make money for the business. After all, any new project or initiative requires funding — both in terms of time and resources — so it's important for decision-makers to clearly understand its potential benefits and impact on the bottom line.

Build a Hiring Infrastructure

Your sales ops team should follow a standardized recruitment process, benefit from hiring top performers who have proven themselves elsewhere (whether internally or externally), and establish an onboarding process that helps new hires quickly become acclimated.

Manage Performance Consistently

Your company should have standards of conduct and performance across departments, which your managers need to communicate effectively with their direct reports during regular check-ins (think weekly one-on-ones). These meetings can address expectations for personal growth along with corresponding training opportunities like professional development classes or mentorship programs.

Performance reviews should happen at least annually, but ideally biannually; these discussions are for calibrating against overall goals and objectives set forth by management (or vice versa) and should be documented accordingly.

Develop Your Teammates' Skill Sets 

This can be a challenge for any sales leader. Many managers have never had to develop their own skills as managers, let alone as executives. To make matters worse, there is no single, standard process for developing the skills needed to run an effective sales operations team. It's important that everyone on the team understands how to build reports, create dashboards and track KPIs. They’ll also need to understand everything from lead routing to data quality management and even building custom solutions for your other departments.

Your sales ops team will need to understand how to optimize the entire sales process from start to finish — from prospecting to outreach and communication, from lead management and tracking to sales forecasting and reporting.

Hiring a Sales Ops Team

The sales ops team is responsible for managing the B2C or B2B sales process from top to bottom. This includes tasks such as creating marketing leads, evaluating sales trends, calculating sales quota and forecasting future sales to ensure the company meets its business goals.

When you're hiring for sales operations, you need to understand the sales process and how your team fits into it. Sales operations is a term that covers a lot of different roles, and the responsibilities associated with each role can vary depending on the organization.

Hiring a sales ops team is a serious endeavor. This team is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the company makes money and stays in business. To hire the right people, follow these steps:

Step 1: Identify the Sales Operations Role(s) You Need to Hire 

 Hiring a sales operations leader is just the beginning. What about all the other sales operations roles that need to be filled? For instance, your team may include one or more of the following roles: sales operations manager, sales operations specialists, sales operations rep, senior sales operations analyst, sales operations analyst.

Example of Sales Operations Team Structure. Image credit: HubSpot, Inc.

Step 2: Create an Accurate Job Description

The first step in recruiting and hiring sales reps is to define the job description. We recommend creating a job description that includes all of the tasks that need to be completed by someone in this role. 

Then, create a list of qualifications for each position so you can begin narrowing down candidates based on their experience and skillset. To get the most out of your sales operations team, you must first be clear about what you expect from them. Think of a job description as a contract between you and potential candidates. It outlines what they are expected to do in their role, their responsibilities and expectations.

Job descriptions can also be used as a tool to filter applicants who will not fit into your company's culture or meet your needs. The more detailed you are about your expectations, the easier it will be to find Sales Development Representatives and Account Executives that match what you're looking for.

Step 3: Know Where to Look for Candidates

 It's important to know where you'll find quality candidates. You can post on general job boards like Indeed or Monster, but there are also some specialty sites where you can find qualified candidates faster like SalesTrax and SalesGravy. For example, if you need to staff for a startup or tech company,  you may want to take a look at sales ops candidates on Built In.

Step 4: Recruit and Interview Candidates

 Interviewers should ask candidates about their experience building out teams and what type of team they would build for your company. They should also get a sense of how well candidates understand the product, space and market dynamics. Case in point: It's important that the head of sales operations has robust people skills, as well as strong analytical skills and strategic thinking abilities. That means you’ll want to make sure your interview process is screening for these attributes. 

Step 5: Onboard and Train the New Sales Ops Team Member

 Once the new sales ops team member is hired, he or she should get a detailed job description (as should each new team member). It’s important to define clear goals and KPIs for each role so that new hires know what is expected of them. This will help to motivate your sales team.

Step 6: Continually Assess and Improve Your Sales Ops System

 Sales ops is a constantly moving target. Your team is always getting new sales tools, leads, training, products, and services. And the world around you is changing too — competitors may be offering new features or pricing structures, or there may be changes in technology that impacts your business one way or another. You need to constantly reevaluate what you are doing so you can stay ahead of the curve.

Unfortunately, many sales organizations neglect their sales ops systems after implementation. Sales ops teams become overly focused on day-to-day tasks and stop thinking strategically about what the system is doing for the organization.

  • Your sales operations manager should understand data and be extremely detail-oriented, but also have the capacity to think strategically.
  • Determining your team size and structure is important before hiring sales ops people: for example, some companies hire a mix of experienced and entry-level sales ops hires.
  • Hiring a person with experience in CRM systems is important, as well as someone who’s familiar with all the tools you use.
  • Sales ops people should have an understanding of what it takes to acquire customers, and be able to talk about pricing models and how prices are determined.

Managing Your Sales Ops Team

Sales is a dynamic, ever-changing environment that requires flexibility, creativity and collaboration. However, as the sales leader, you must set the tone for your organization and make sure your team is guided by a clear vision, goals and action plan.

You should be striving to create an operations team that does the heavy lifting for you. This means your sales ops team should be gathering data to provide insights for your sales managers, so they can make informed decisions.

The most effective way to accomplish this is by building out playbooks and processes for each step of a customer’s journey throughout their buyer's journey and your sales cycle. Your sales ops team will then analyze the data and provide next steps on how each rep can improve their performance at each stage of the buying journey and ideally guide them towards closing more deals.

In many companies, the sales ops function begins with an individual who manages a system and its data. The role may then expand to include sales enablement responsibilities. As the company grows, other responsibilities are added, including territory design and management and compensation administration.

The Sales Operations team is tasked with ensuring that the systems that support the sales organization are as automated as possible and are always working in concert to ensure salespeople have access to the information they need quickly and easily.

Sales ops is the glue that holds the sales function together, ensuring that all processes are filled with accuracy and efficiency. A well-managed sales ops team can reduce operational friction to create a more productive sales process.

Here are seven tips for managing your sales ops team:

1. Align with the Overall Organization

This is one of the main reasons companies have sales ops teams in the first place — to make sure that everyone is working together toward the same goals. Of course, you can't do this without a clear picture of those goals and what success looks like for your company. Communication between sales ops and senior leadership is critical — at all times, but especially when there are changes in direction or strategy.

2. Set Clear Objectives for the Team

The first step in managing your sales operations team is to understand what it does, what its goals are, and how those goals fit into the larger picture. To get started, sit down with each member of your team to identify their objectives and then use those objectives to establish key performance indicators (KPIs).

 Make sure everyone understands what they're supposed to be doing and how they contribute to the overall goal so they know what success looks like and can act accordingly. For example, if your company wants to increase win rates, it might make sense to hire an engineer who can ensure that the software is ready for demos or have a rep shadow someone else for a few weeks until he or she gets up to speed on a new product feature.

3. Assign First-Level Ownership of Tools

Make sure someone on your team is in charge of each tool and understands how it works with all the others. Sales ops is responsible for implementing new tools and making sure they’re being used correctly. To make sure each tool gets attention, assign one person as the owner for that tool. 

Make sure that the owner has regular check-ins with sales ops to ensure things are running smoothly and report any issues that come up along the way. For example, one rep owns the CRM. Another owns the company’s email client, while another owns LinkedIn Sales Navigator. This approach allows reps to specialize in these tools and become the resident expert on how to use them effectively. It also allows them to customize the tools to meet the needs of their teammates.

4. Make Sure Reps Have Access to Key Data

 Reps need access to data on territories, accounts, and opportunities. That information does them no good if it's siloed in different systems and departments. Sales ops teams can help by making sure that data is available wherever it's needed — including on mobile devices. 

A great example: If a rep needs to know how many meetings they've had this month with deals that are in the pipeline, they shouldn't have to ask the sales ops manager or dig into one system after another. They should be able to track that themselves on their own dashboard.

5. Enable Managers Through Coaching and Training

 Once you've established KPIs for each member of your team, it's time to create a training plan that focuses on helping them achieve those goals. Make sure your training plan includes a mix of formal classroom style training sessions and informal one-on-one meetings where employees can ask questions and get help working through specific problems they're experiencing.

6. Establish a Cadence of Reviews and Quarterly Planning

To stay on top of the process, it helps to hold regular meetings to review progress on your OKRs, as well as quarterly planning sessions. The exact format of these meetings can vary from company to company, but the general purpose is to reflect on what’s been accomplished and set new objectives for the future. Regular meetings with your team will keep everyone focused on their goals and ensure that they have all the resources they need to succeed.

7. Be Aware of Timing

 Sales operations managers are responsible for a wide range of tasks, from ensuring the sales team has everything they need to be effective to maintaining systems that track sales activity. As a result, it can be hard for these professionals to know how to prioritize their time and resources.

Managing a sales ops team is challenging. But with the right tools and processes in place, your sales ops team can be an integral part of your company's success.

Use Sales Operations to Drive Sales and Build Process

Building a sales operations team can help your company drive sales and build a better process for your reps. That's because sales ops teams have a hand in just about every aspect of your go-to-market strategy. Their responsibilities include:

  • Optimizing and maintaining sales processes and tools to help teams improve efficiency
  • Ensuring data quality for more accurate forecasting, reporting, and analytics
  • Evaluating and refining sales compensation plans to maximize performance

A sales operations team can transform your organization by helping you build scalable processes and systems that allow your reps to make more calls, close more deals, and make your entire sales organization more efficient. Sales ops can give your sales reps back the time they need to get in front of more customers.

Here are a few more ways a sales operations team can help your company drive sales and build a better process for your reps.

Hire Smarter

A sales operations team can help you hire smarter by leveraging data science to find the right candidates faster and with greater precision. By putting the right candidates at the top of your list, you’ll spend less time interviewing lackluster prospects and more time interviewing skilled candidates.

Sales Reporting

A sales operations team can use data from your CRM software to help you get a better handle on what's happening in your pipeline at any given time and provide forecasts on future revenue so you know what to expect down the road.

Improve Processes

A sales ops team can identify areas where your sales process is inefficient or ineffective and find ways to improve it. For example, they might point out that many leads aren't making it to the next step in your sales cycle because reps are not following up in a timely fashion. The team might suggest implementing a CRM or other tool to keep track of when reps should follow up and provide reminders when they don't.

Territory Planning

Sales ops can help with mapping out territories for optimal performance. Territory planning is about assigning a portion of your sales team’s potential customers to each salesperson or territory. This portion can be defined in a variety of ways, from allocating specific accounts to prioritizing areas based on the probability of closing high-value accounts. What matters is that your company has a clear and repeatable process for assigning territory, and that the methodology you use takes your business objectives into account. It allows you to assign the right number of reps to each territory, ensuring there's enough work for everyone without having too many people chasing the same opportunities.

Data Management

Sales ops teams specialize in analyzing data to find insights that the rest of the team might not have noticed. They can use those insights to make actionable recommendations, such as highlighting opportunities with existing prospects or identifying which accounts are most likely to convert.

Implementing Tech Tools and Systems

A sales ops team is fluent in Salesforce and other CRM software tools that make it easier to track customer interactions and manage leads. They also know how to implement marketing automation software, which makes it easier to scale up lead generation efforts without adding labor hours. And they know how to use third-party software tools to help improve processes, such as expense tracking for travel, contract generation or other tasks that used to fall on someone else’s plate.

A sales ops team puts structure in place around processes like pipeline management, territory management, reporting and more so that your growing sales team doesn’t lose focus.

An effective sales operations team stays on top of sales analytics. Image credit: Motion Pixels Studio

Build Your Dream Sales Operations Function

The function of a sales operations team is to bridge the gap between sales and other departments. They do this by providing support for the sales team through analysis, reporting, forecasting and process. Sales operations teams are an essential part of any company's sales strategy.

A sales ops team is responsible for the inner workings of a sales department. The sales ops team handles CRMs, dashboards, and other aspects of a sales team that keep it running smoothly.

Companies often have different names for the people who work in this position. Depending on the company, you might call them Sales Operations Specialists, Sales Operations Managers, or even Sales Strategy Analysts. It doesn’t matter what you call them—what matters is that they’re essential to your company’s success.

Sales Operations removes and streamlines all barriers between a sales team, their tools, and their customers. They also help companies strategically map their growth in line with their sales priorities.

If you're a sales manager and haven't yet embraced the concept of sales operations, there's no time like the present. By getting buy-in from your leadership team, finding smart ways to invest in technology, and developing the right processes, you can unlock new opportunities for your team while increasing revenue at the same time.

And, if the telephone is one of your team’s sales tools, PhoneBurner can help you too. Our easy-to-use platform can help sales professionals triple their prospecting productivity and have up to 4x more live conversations. If you want to learn how to help your reps be 400% more productive with PhoneBurner’s cold calling software—the #1 rated outbound dialer for 10+ years—get your free trial here, no credit card required.

This is a guest post by Anthony Sills, the Founder & Content Strategist at Professional Pen. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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