Sales Operations: What, Who, When, Why

Sales operations positions are exploding in popularity. According to the 2018 Sales Operations Optimization Study conducted by CSO Insights, nearly 64% of surveyed companies have a dedicated sales operations team whose top concern is delivering key decision-making data to executives.

But what is sales operations? What does sales operations do? What kind of skills does a sales operations specialist need?

Our friend Mads Frederiksen, the Head of Strategy at Templafy, helps us answer these questions and more while spicing this piece up with his insight as someone actually in sales operations.

What is Sales Operations?

CSO Insights states sales operations is  “…a strategic function, designed to provide a platform for sales productivity and performance by providing integrated methods, processes, tools, technologies and analytics for the entire sales force and senior executives.”

But…if you ask Mads…he has a different answer.

“Let me start by saying I don’t think that anyone should try to make one single definition of sales ops because it depends entirely on what you want out of it.”

“Sales operations can span from helping to onboard sales reps to use the systems correctly like Outreach, Salesforce, Salesloft, etc… It can also be a much more analytical role who is providing all the reporting to the C-level while ensuring they have the right systems in place to capture the data they need and want.”

Essentially, sales operations identifies areas to improve efficiencies in the sales process and uses a variety of technical skills, problem solving and strategic thinking to best serve the sales organization.

What does sales operations do?

Sales operations equips sales managers with the best tools for their team to streamline the selling process. This includes supporting important functions such as having the right dashboards put in place to effectively measure sales progress and helping to build forecasting models to set sales targets for individual reps.

As Mads mentions, “What sales operations does depends mostly on how a company decides they want to structure the analytical side of their business.”

In some cases, sales operations can also play a role in implementing or maintaining tools that help the sales team follow an established sales process. The end goal is providing the sales team with tactical solutions to help them do their best such as sales triggers to remind them of what actions they need to take throughout the customer journey, training reinforcement, pre-call preparation and a variety of other tools.

Who Specializes in Sales Operations?

To become specialized in sales operations, an individual must possess a certain set of skills. A sales operations specialist today should be able to:

  • Understand the entire sales process from prospecting to closed opportunity and upsell
  • Work within a complex CRM system such as Salesforce, bonus points if they are a Salesforce Certified Administrator
  • Follow key trends in the market, including the competitive landscape
  • Provide expert advice on different technologies for sales operations and enablement
  • Use data to identify the impact of decisions to the sales organization structure

Payscale.com provides a few additional tasks that a sales operations specialist is usually responsible for, including the ability to:

  • Gather data and conduct analysis of company sales and profitability
  • Develop methods for measuring company sales performance
  • Evaluate sales processes, programs, and systems to minimize costs and improve customer satisfaction
  • Facilitate sharing of reports and sales data between sales, marketing, and other departments

Mads breaks down the skills of a sales operations team into three buckets: hard skills, soft skills, and strategic skills.

You will need someone on the team who has Salesforce or other hands-on sales tool experience. The technical hire is also typically a spreadsheet beast who can crunch numbers.

The soft skill side of the sales operations comes from being able to train individual team members and hold them accountable to the operations and processes that were set in stone. This is also about listening to your team and understanding their problems.

And while thinking strategically and being able to connect the dots doesn’t seem like a skillset on its own, it definitely is when it comes to sales operations. For example, if you introduce a new commission model, how will that have derivative effects down the road? The sales operations team is tasked with answering these questions…and so much more.

Mads breaks down the skills of a sales operations team.

“Sales operations has to have all three of the buckets we talked about. You have to have someone who can do the heavy lifting in Salesforce and in Excel. You have to have someone who can listen to the reps — what are their problems and how can we solve them? How can we make their lives incrementally better each week? Then you need someone who can answer “how do we overall prioritize” and understand the down-the-stream impacts of seemingly small changes.”

The Different Types of Sales Operations Titles

Several sales operations titles are making their way onto company organization charts. One of them is a Sales Operation Manager.

A Sales Operation Manager oversees the entire sales ops function, but has a strong background in traditional sales techniques as well as in analytics. They typically have between 5 to 15 years of experience. Several organizations opt to hiring a sales operations manager as a starting point into sales ops. Because they have years of experience working in the industry and have used several tools in the past, they make the best candidate to take on the sales ops job in both a tactical and strategic way.

A Sales Operation Analyst usually supports the sales operation manager. The Society for Human Resources Management (or SHRM) describes this role as someone with typically 3 to 5 years of experience and that is “…responsible for managing the field sales incentive compensation process, analyzing sales force realignment requests, acting as liaison on sales automation issues, developing distribution capability for promotional materials, designing and maintaining sales reports, and evaluating third-party solutions for appropriate sales operations functions.”

Of course, like any sales role, titles like “Sales Operations Specialist” or “SalesOps Director” will appear. They’re very similar to the above roles with nuances typically found from organization to organization.  

When Should You Hire a Sales Operations Specialist?

“Management needs to inherently have an understanding of the key functions of sales operations way before you have an official sales operations team. Sales operations is about frameworks. It’s about building out sustainable frameworks for thinking and acting. That’s something that should be in place from day one — typically by the CEO or COO.”

While you should always be thinking of sales operations, you don’t necessarily need a sales operation hire until you can’t scale.

“Eventually you need people who can ensure the day-to-day processes are being followed and optimized, and that’s when you should formally introduce sales operations…To give you a more concrete answer, I would say by the time you get to a sales team of 15, both AEs and BDRs, you should look to hire that real initial sales operations role”

There are generally four reasons that could dictate when should you hire a sales operations specialist.

First is that your company is growing like crazy. If you need help in scaling sales processes and have better visibility into the decisions you make to continue towards a healthy growth path, it might mean you need someone dedicated to sales ops.

A second reason why you might need to hire a sales operations or sales ops specialist is due to major shifts in the organization. A sales operations function would be able to help in streamlining onboarding of new employees to ensure that the technologies and tools in place are put to optimal use.

Third is to bring back control to the numerous tools you might have in place. Sales ops would help reign in the various cogs in the sales technology wheel and seek out opportunities to integrate and simplify.

Lastly, we’ve all heard of marketing and sales alignment and a sales operations specialist is the perfect liaison to drive this initiative. Service level agreements or SLAs can be easily enforced and your sales ops specialist will be able to show you how to use tools that give a clear view of actions taken during your sales process to make improvements.

Why You Should Hire for Sales Operations

Take a look at a snapshot of the current sales technology ecosystem.

Source: ChiefMartec.com

ChiefMartech found 490 solutions to add under the Sales Automation, Enablement & Intelligence category. And what’s hard to tell is represented are other tools exist that help with sales productivity management and help reduce the administrative burden on sellers. Imagine having to not only manage a growing and dynamic sales team, but also trying to navigate this complicated ecosystem.

Does Your Organization Need Sales Operations?

Determining whether your organization needs sales operations depends on several factors. Rapid growth and significant changes to your sales organization structure are major indicators that a sales operations function might be needed to help you scale.

If you’re in high-touch, complex, B2B sales, sales operations will become a critical part of scaling and structuring your organization. Sales operations at your organization will differ from Mads over at Templafy. He even says that his organization does things a little bit differently… But don’t we all?

Whether you need a Salesforce rockstar or someone who can train and ensure BDR and AE success, understanding the what, who, when, and why of sales operations is critical.

Thanks again to Mads Frederiksen at Templafy for chiming in on all things sales operations to make this piece really sing! Connect with him on LinkedIn if you have questions about anything we discussed in this piece.

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