Sales Operations 101

Scale up your sales processes with data-driven decision-making.

Imagine a team of astronauts who just successfully touched down on the moon. They didn’t get there on their own. The mission control team on the ground supported them every step of the way, ensuring the rocket took off and landed smoothly. They strategized, analyzed, and trained to make it all possible.

That’s what sales operations does for sales. Sales ops professionals equip sales teams with the tools and processes they need to shoot for the stars.

J. Patrick Kelly, who founded the first sales operations team at Xerox, described the nascent field as taking care of “all the nasty number things that you don’t want to do, but need to do to make a great sales force.”

Fast-forward nearly 50 years, the role is as vital as it ever was, but still difficult to precisely define. Sales leaders might find themselves asking: What is sales ops? How does it help me make more strategic choices? Scale my processes better? Get my product to market faster? What exactly is the return on investment? Look no further than this sales operations guide.

 

What is sales operations?

The modern definition of sales ops is more than just number crunching, even though that’s a big part of it. Sales operations is a strategic team that focuses on improving efficiency and increasing productivity, which in turn drives revenue. If you want repeatable and predictable growth, then you need the secret sauce that sales ops offers.

We’ll dive deep into what sales ops can do for you below, but four goals most ops teams share include:

  • Improving the sales process
  • Identifying and mitigating risks in your sales forecast
  • Recruiting and training talent
  • Cementing your annual sales plan

In our most recent State of Sales report, a whopping 89% of 6,000 sales professionals surveyed said that sales ops plays an undeniable part in the growth of their businesses. Sales ops helps the sales team operate as it should. It brings a method to the madness of selling. It provides the “why” to the sales team’s “what.”

What is sales operations responsible for?

The day-to-day activities of a sales ops team can vary slightly depending on the industry or company size. The main throughline is they allow sales reps to sell more effectively. The below tasks are typically at the top of the to-do list for a sales ops leader.

Identifying sales trends: Sales ops teams analyze data to understand what's working and what's not across the entire organization. They're also looking for best practices that they can scale. For example, maybe a rep in Florida is crushing their quota each month. Sales ops would interview the individual and find out that they use a specific sequence of outreach to move deals along. Sales ops would then bake that into the overall sales process.

Sales ops makes data and insights actionable for sales reps. AI helps them do this. For example, the Opportunity and Account Insights features of Sales Cloud’s Einstein measure opportunity engagement and external news to ensure reps don’t miss important business developments. Customers and prospects are increasingly savvy about the market, and they expect sales reps to be “data-rich” in their approach. Relationship selling, which focuses on the interaction between the seller and the buyer, is out. Insights selling, which is based on strategy, research and experience, is in.

Sales reps need to be armed with the best selling motion — like when to reach out, how to reach out, and what to say to move the deal forward. That is where sales ops experts, your friendly neighborhood data wizards, come in. They’ll use internal data like pipeline performance along with external data such as competitor research to draw conclusions about future goals.

You might see reps on the West Coast are overperforming. Now you need to do a qualitative analysis to figure out how to replicate and scale those successes.”

Jason Perocho, Senior Director, Product Marketing, Sales Cloud

Strategizing the annual sales plan: The goal of sales planning is to optimize sales resources to maximize revenue. Annual planning drives revenue by helping the team to be strategic about how it allocates finite headcount and resources. Careful long-term planning from day one prevents mid-quarter disruptions like reassignments or remapping and ensures your sales superstars don’t lose momentum. Sales operations helps to distill KPIs and plan for the unexpected.

Though it’s called annual planning, sales operations knows a good sales plan looks further down the road. Preparing for the next five or 10 years impacts what you do in the next 12 months. Sales planning efficiently carves up the customer base by industry, account size, sales cycle, and geography. Through this segmentation, a company is able to align its resources with a go-to-market strategy.

Territory planning is a crucial part of this. Who is going to sell what, and where will they sell it? More importantly, what metrics do you use to ensure that your sales reps are meeting or exceeding expectations? This is where territory-planning comes in. Sales ops leaders have a bird’s-eye view of the health of the business and work closely with the head of sales to make recommendations. They’ll look at what opportunities for deals are present, and then make sure those territories get assigned to the right person. If there are too many reps in one territory or not enough, then sales ops will implement a territory rebalancing. Teams can use modeling tools like Salesforce Maps to streamline and automate this process.

Sales ops people are always leveraging all that delicious data stored in your CRM and translating it for sales reps and leadership.

How Businesses Segment Sales Territories

Improving business processes: In 2018, the average sales rep only spent one-third of their time selling. Housekeeping duties like manual data entry and cementing quotes or contracts can slowly eat up a sales rep’s day, keeping them from what they do best.

Sales ops folks remove roadblocks so reps can focus on selling. One aspect of this is automation and optimization. Sales ops works with your reps to implement the tools and tricks they need to stay laser-focused on driving revenue. Their goal is to stop your reps from entering meaningless data, duplicative data, or data that could be drawn from elsewhere.

Sales ops allows you to get more predictive in the sales process in order to stay competitive. You get to make an educated approach instead of throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks.”

 

Tools like High Velocity Sales ensure your reps don’t spend a lot of time choosing which prospect to prioritize. Tools like Sales Cloud automatically log call outcomes into your CRM. And Configure, Price, and Quote (CPQ) supplies templates for quotes and contracts that are easy to configure based on the customer’s needs.

Digital transformation, a term tossed around often, means leveraging the benefits of technology to make the sales process as simple as possible. It’s sales ops’ responsibility to design solutions that help everyone work better together.

Producing a sales forecast: You want the forecast to be as accurate as possible. A sales forecast allows you to spot potential problems earlier rather than when it’s too late to change course. Forecasts are also scalable: You can create overarching ones for yearly goals, but you can also make them more applicable to your business model by creating them for team-specific KPIs like annual recurring revenue.

Forecasting sets the tone for the rest of the sales strategy, and sales ops is the owner of this process. It refers to the method of predicting future sales revenue for next month or next quarter or next year. Forecasts anticipate how much money the team can expect to bring into the business and when it will happen. And no, there’s no crystal ball involved. It’s based on hard data and insights.

Sales ops will often develop a forecasted range that showcases the worst-case scenario, the best-case scenario, and the most realistic. Information such as sales quotas, CRM data, and sales motions are all rolled into the forecasting process. For an in-depth guide to building a sales forecast, check out this resource.

It’s good to refer to the forecast and update it regularly, as it can be derailed by hires, fires, territory shifts, economic conditions, industry changes, and other factors you can’t always foresee.

In the future, we’ll continue to see more sales ops professionals promoted into leadership roles and seated at the table with executives.”

 

Onboarding sales talent: When a new sales representative starts at a company, sales ops professionals get them up to speed quickly with training and mentoring. A slow ramp time for new hires can hurt a company’s bottom line by decreasing productivity.

The worst thing that can happen: A salesperson is hired and is not able to close deals. It's a wasted headcount and investment and leaves a hole in your sales coverage. Time that reps spend learning or relearning the sales process is time wasted. Sales ops wants reps reaching that first sale as soon as possible.

The sales ops department gets reps plugged into not only the company’s culture, but also the CRM and other tools in that company’s tech stack. This is accomplished with coaching programs and written reference guides that help standardize the onboarding for all new hires. By ensuring the rep knows the product inside out, sales ops helps to guarantee the rep has all the knowledge they require to effectively sell that product.

 
 

How do you build a sales operations team?

To accomplish all of the above, you need to have the right team structure. The number of sales ops heroes you want depends on your company’s needs, so these roles won’t exist at every company. An enterprise-level or commercial-level organization might have a full-fledged department of sales ops experts while a small business or a startup might just have one lone ranger keeping their processes flowing.

Director of sales operations/vice president of sales operations: At the top of the chain of command, the sales ops leader oversees the sales operations department (in situations where the business has an entire department dedicated to sales ops), and works closely with the vice president of sales and other senior leadership to optimize the overall growth of the company. They have a thorough understanding of sales processes and software.

Sales operations manager: This role might be synonymous with the one above depending on company size, but the sales operations manager also supervises sales ops reps and makes sure the sales team is getting what they need to succeed.

Sales operations analyst: An analyst lives in spreadsheets and in the CRM. They distill information from various sources to make smart recommendations. This person is good at creating actionable reports and communicating complex data to other departments such as marketing, finance, product, and sales.

Sales operations representative: A sales ops rep is an entry-level role that handles the day-to-day tasks of supporting the sales plan, such as updating reports.

Once I came into an operations role, it wasn’t just about me and my quota anymore. It was about how do I support the entire team at large and implement initiatives that have the most impact?”

 

What are the most important tools for a sales operations team?

Just as a wizard is nothing without their wand, a sales ops wiz can’t function without their arsenal of tools. This list of tools isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a good sampling of what sales ops people need in order to thrive in their roles.

CRM software: Everything a sales ops person does starts and ends with CRM analytics, from forecasting to prospecting. A company’s CRM, as well as the data-tracking tools that may stack on top of the CRM, drive much of what the organization does. The data always tells a story, and it's a sales ops leader’s job to listen to the data and interpret it for others.

Automation tools: Automation and optimization is a wide category that can encompass various stages of the selling process, from generating leads to researching prospects to producing quotes. Sales ops leaders know all the tricks to ensure that a sales rep’s day is used to maximum efficiency. Popular tools like Pardot or Configure, Price, and Quote work together to help sales reps perform at their best.

Communication software: Being able to communicate clearly is one of the most important soft skills a sales ops person can have. Software makes communication easier by syncing calendars, creating customized emails, and driving engagement. It can also analyze incoming data that provides sales with insights on how to improve their correspondence. Tools similar to Salesforce Inbox, Lightning Dialer, Einstein Call Coaching, or Cirrus Insight can take some of the heavy lifting off your hands.

How do you measure the success of sales operations?

How do you know if your organization is more effective with sales ops than without? You’ll see the needle move on the following metrics.

Average revenue per rep: The ultimate goal for everything that sales does is increasing revenue. For sales ops, this goal is distilled further into revenue per rep. If you see revenue per rep increase quarter over quarter or year over year, it shows that reps have completely bought into the system and are adequately trained. Your sales team is getting the extra boost it needs from your data wizards.

Average selling time of a sales rep: This is a popular KPI for sales operations and basically means how much time your sales rep is able to spend actually selling. Not leaving voicemails, logging call notes, attending company meetings, or manually retrieving prospect data. If your sales ops leader is improving and optimizing your internal processes, your reps should be spending more time talking to clients.

Forecast accuracy: Did your actual results or performance mirror the predictions made in the organization’s forecast? If the numbers are miles apart, that’s an indication of missing data or lack of analysis. A correlation between actual sales and the forecast, even with a margin or error, means your company is utilizing the CRM and other data tools correctly.

Average sales cycle length: This is the length of time that passes between when a sales rep opens up a line of communication with a prospect to when they finally close the deal. If you’re a sales leader, you want this number to shrink because your reps are locking down deals faster. If it increases or stagnates, that means your leads need to be prioritized better, your reps need more training, or you need to reexamine your pipeline.

Sales ops takes the process of scaling from an art to a science. Sales operations should be baked into how you do business.”

 

What is the future of sales operations?

For many companies, sales operations collaborates with more than just the sales department. To better reflect that cross-functional role, many in the industry are opting for the more all-encompassing term revenue operations.

Revenue operations aims to break down the silos that exist between sales, IT, product, marketing, and customer service. In a perfect organization, all these departments would holistically converge, with revenue ops serving as the central data hub. Whether you call it sales operations or revenue operations, the goal is to have your entire company working as one well-oiled machine.

 

Regardless of nomenclature, sales ops isn’t going anywhere. A quick LinkedIn search shows more than 3.6 million people with job titles for “sales operations.” Brad Smith, the CEO of Sonar and the Founder of the popular Wizard of Ops community, refers to the profession as one of “the fastest-growing and evolving roles in most organizations.”

“Sales ops used to be viewed as a tactical role. But as more companies focus on data-driven decision-making, executive teams are turning to sales ops,” Smith said. “In the future, we’ll continue to see more sales ops professionals promoted into leadership roles and seated at the table with executives.”

Organizations big and small are learning that in order to effectively scale, they need a robust sales operations crew manning their mission control. Understanding data is one small step, but understanding sales ops is one giant leap for your business.

 

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