Redefining Success in Sales Operations

Carrie Ward

When you hear ‘Sales Operations’ what do you think?  For many, some not-so-positive things come to mind:

Barrier

Back office

A pain in the #$@&%!, but needed

Big Brother

Dumping ground (usually said by a person in a sales operations role)

But in the last few years, some sales operations functions have done a 180. Gone is the in-the-weeds weenie just pulling gotcha reports to upset field sales. The best sales ops teams have evolved. They’re more dynamic and strategic. And they’re bringing the insights required to support the modern sales function.

Many organizations have even changed the name of this team. Sales operations may now be known as Sales Excellence, Sales Effectiveness, or Sales Strategy & Operations. The change goes beyond just a title or name. We’re also seeing a new profile of sales ops leaders who come with more than systems and reporting backgrounds.

Over the last few months, more than a few clients asked us to assess their sales operations teams. This has led us to reconsider modern sales ops leadership requirements. What are the leader mindsets and skillsets needed to thrive today?

We quickly realized that the sales operation job descriptions found in most companies are stale – or worse – flat-out wrong. In discussions with the best leaders we know, a more robust and sophisticated persona emerges. This new ‘recipe’ for effective sales ops leadership covers 6 must-have profile dimensions:

1. The Strategist: In some organizations, combining ‘strategy’ with ‘operations’ is completely contradictory. Strategy is the steering wheel and operations is the rear-view mirror. One thinks ahead while the other is monitoring the messes behind.

Apart from forecasting, sales operations traditionally takes a supporting, not a lead role in strategy. But modern sales ops leaders are critical components of all strategy conversations: account planning, segmentation, role definition, QBRs, tech stack, compensation, performance management. These leaders have a seat at the table. And they embrace accountability for sales strategy AND implementation.

Truth be told, this profile dimension is the biggest gap we see in most sales operations leaders.

2. The Facilitator: Leading sales organizations is getting harder. The number of internal stakeholders has exploded. Sales Operations can’t have a silo-ed or sales-only perspective.

The new sales ops leader is an organizational ambassador and connector across enablement, marketing, product, finance, HR, and IT. The more people, the more opinions! Sales ops leaders must see different perspectives and ensure all the right players are being heard. They must also filter through the nonsense to keep everyone focused on the goal of sales effectiveness.  

No longer a ‘yes person’, sales ops leaders should have a strong voice. And they can’t be afraid to use it to stop the BS and keep all the players working together and on the rails.

3. The Technologist: We can’t expect sales ops leaders to be CIOs. But they do need solid tech savvy. They should understand the leading tools and how they integrate into a company’s broader tech ecosystem. Most importantly, the leader must have a strong gut feel for when the field approaches technology overload. We observe a lot of eyerolls or grunts when yet another CRM plug-in is added. Actively managing technology before you hit the breaking point takes intuition and experience.

We recently worked with an ops leader in financial services to quantify how their reps actually spend their time. The goal was to free them from tactical and administrative tasks. We found too much time was wasted as reps navigated multiple platforms. Combining technology expertise with a change management approach, the leader revamped the entire sales tech stack. After one-month, non-selling time decreased dramatically, allowing more efficient territory assignments.

The ideal sales ops leader knows how to leverage technology to make better decisions that drive revenue and decrease cost-of-sales.

4. The Data Scientist: It’s hard to escape the need for reliable performance data. But basic reporting isn’t enough. Sales op leaders must interpret the data with a lens that supports strategic decisions. And this means looking at the data from multiple angles to find insights that go beyond the face values. Many times, this requires synthesizing data from multiple sources.

One operations team transformed a healthcare sales function by revamping the leadership cadence. This change was built on a new set of insight-based reporting. Short, to-the-point packets are distributed to sales leaders every Friday. These then drive action-oriented dialogue during Monday sales management huddles. Strong analytics creates the bridge between raw data and the actions that influence current month’s results.

New sales ops leaders can ensure data integrity while also pulling out action-oriented insights.

5. The Disruptor: Change is inevitable, but some folks adjust better and faster than others. To be effective, the sales operations leader must sometimes pull away from existing processes and cadences. They need a healthy skepticism about how things have historically been done. They must be comfortable evaluating new ideas and approaches.

In a large insurance company, legacy systems and processes bogged down sales productivity for many years. The company resisted change. But enter a seasoned sales operations leader. He spent his first year building a coalition and business case to digitally transform the operation. It was a massive undertaking given their size and scale. When the organization was ready, they were able to move forward with the change quickly. The sales operations leader had defined vision for change and the guided the path forward.

Effective sales ops leaders know that just because it’s been done one way for a long time doesn’t mean it’s the right way.

6. The Motivator: With so many changes, stakeholders, and initiatives, the sales operation leader will act like a ringmaster at times. Juggling competing needs and managing feedback from opinionated reps and leaders (including inevitable negative feedback) is draining. Budget and other resource constraints can compound the stress. It’s easy to get negative when you feel like a ‘dumping ground’ for internal initiatives. Sales ops leaders must be positive, yet realistic.

One client uses the image of the airport gate agent to describe his job. Those poor folks have to deal with a lot of chaos and unexpected changes, including mad or irrational passengers. It takes a special DNA makeup to listen to criticism, keep focused on the task, and motivate everyone around you.

Staying calm and rationale in today’s complex sales organization is a major task. The best sales ops leaders absorb the stressors for those around them.

Taking the Next Step

Like any recipe, you still need to creatively adapt this role based on company culture, existing systems/processes, and the overall team’s maturity. Once you lock down the recipe, finding the right candidate can be difficult. Rarely is one person a master of all of these areas. But this is where sales operations must include capabilities beyond those of the leader. On average, we see a 25:1 ratio of front-line sales rep to sales operation resource. A strong sales ops leader knows his/her strengths and can partner with their team and external resources to get the job done.     

Do you or your sales operations leader have the right ‘ingredients’? Contact us to learn more strategies for optimizing sales operations, including benchmarking your leader and function across emerging best practices.

Carrie Ward

Carrie Ward

Carrie is an experienced consultant specializing in sales analytics, organizational design, and sales process optimization. She is the co-author of The Sales Compensation Handbook as well as numerous sales research studies.