What Is Sales Operations? A Complete Guide

Discover how sales ops leads to faster, smarter selling for your entire team.

June 28, 2022 | Time to read: 8 minutes

When J. Patrick Kelly invented sales operations at Xerox in the 1970s, he described it as “all the nasty number things you don’t want to do, but need to do to make a great sales force.”

Fast forward to today, and sales ops has gone from doing number things to doing all the things. Eighty-five percent of sales professionals agree that sales ops is more and more strategic, according to our “State of Sales” research report. Once the unsung hero, now sales ops is stepping into the spotlight — responsible for bringing data and technology to every corner of the sales process, so sales can do more with less.

It’s a lot. But help is on the way. Below we share how sales operations can thrive — not just survive — as its responsibilities grow. You’ll discover the secrets of a great sales ops team, and how to build one yourself.

What you’ll learn:

 

What is sales operations?

Sales operations uses systems and technology to ensure that sales teams reach their targets. Sales ops grounds this work in data — how many reps to hire, where to place them for the best coverage, and how to incentivize them to hit targets. The goals? Efficiency, excellence, and optimizing the sales process every day.

Why does sales operations matter?

The keyword of the day is efficiency — deepening business impact without spending more time and money. Sales ops makes this possible by supporting both sales leaders and sales reps with optimized technology that drives strategy and more productive work. Sales leaders get tools — like performance dashboards and automated forecasting — that support planning and key decisions. Sales reps get tools — like enablement and AI-powered recommendations — that make it easier and faster to sell.

The result is big, juicy revenue. In fact, companies with world-class sales operations teams see a leap of 20% to 30% in sales productivity, according to McKinsey.

It’s all about taming the wild, wild west of sales. Imagine that dusty scene where sales reps argue over accounts, drown in administrative tasks, shoot from the hip in every sales conversation, and improvise about what to do next. Meanwhile, sales leaders can’t find the data they need to set confident targets — and find pipeline blockages that put these targets risk.

With sales operations, improvisation gives way to data-proven action, improving the return on time and energy investment across the sales team. In the section below, we share how.

 
 
 
 

What does a sales operations team do?

At a high level, sales operations works to create predictable revenue by streamlining the sales process with best practices and automation. Then, sales ops leads analyze data from sales teams to uncover insights and create reports that help guide sales strategy.

Here are the key tasks of sales ops teams in more detail:

🕝 Make the sales process more efficient.

The average sales rep spends just one-third of their time selling. The vision of sales operations is to take manual work off of the sales rep’s plate, so they can focus all their time on selling. For example, weaving automation into customer relationship management (CRM) software can take care of data entry like logging sales calls. Artificial intelligence (AI) can also help sales reps pinpoint the hottest prospects in a mountain of leads so they can reach out to the most important ones.

🏆 Find and scale best practices.

Sales ops teams spend a lot of their time identifying what is and isn’t working in the sales process. When they see trends or behaviors that result in more efficient selling, they can turn these into best practices for the entire sales team, shortening the sales cycle.

For example, you might zero in on a rep who’s crushing their quota and determine that it’s because of a specific outreach cadence — the order and timing of steps that the sales rep goes through to move prospects through the sales pipeline. Sales ops would then bake that sequence into the overall sales process to improve team performance and help new hires hit quota faster.

🎯 Report on sales performance.

You can’t grow what you don’t know. Sales ops goes from data to insights, building the information center that sales teams depend on to make critical decisions. They create assessments of likely sales performance, like forecasts. They also report on metrics — everything from the big picture of business health (like revenue) all the way down to deep-dive metrics on sales activity (like the number of customer objections that were missed).

Sales operations then flags problem areas and recommends next steps, so sales leaders can course-correct to hit targets.

 

Set aggressive sales forecasts — and hit them.

Good forecasting predicts growth. Great forecasting creates it. Discover how to increase forecast accuracy by up to 50% using this step-by-step blueprint.

🌍 Lead sales planning.

Sales ops works with sales leaders to lay out the vision and strategy for the next several years. Then, they work to achieve it one year at a time. They do this through strategic planning, which falls into four buckets:

  • Territory planning makes sure the right reps are assigned to the right territories to hit targets.
  • Capacity planning determines whether to hire more people to hit sales goals, and if so, how many. 
  • Quota planning sets expectations for sales rep performance, based on forecast targets. 
  • Compensation planning incentivizes the right behaviors for sales reps to hit their goals.

What are the roles and responsibilities of a sales operations team?

Sales operations teams can be as small as one person or encompass dozens of experts. To structure your team for success, start by bringing in a generalist who can handle core sales ops functions, especially sales process improvements and technology management. Then add new roles as you grow, from leadership who can scale the team to specialists like data analysts.

Let’s look at key roles that frame a successful sales ops team:

  • Vice president or director of sales operations: This role leads the department and partners with other leaders like the chief revenue officer and vice president of sales. They create higher-level strategies that drive efficiency, productivity, and top-line growth across the company. 
  • Sales operations manager: This role turns executive direction into reality using day-to-day processes and tools. They also focus on bringing the best out of their people by defining and implementing best practices. 
  • Sales operations representative: This role is entry level and handles day-to-day tasks like tracking the progress of goals, entering data, updating reports, and providing administrative support for sales reps. 
  • Sales operations analyst: This role leans on CRM software and other data sources to make recommendations for improvements and to create performance reports.

Ready to find talent? There’s plenty to be had. A quick LinkedIn search shows more than 3.3 million people with job titles for “sales operations.” But the best talent might actually be in your backyard. Start by looking internally at your sales reps in case any want to make the switch or at analysts in other domains (like data scientists or HR operations).

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

Sales operations tools begin with a CRM, which allows teams to manage the pipeline from a single source of truth. Sales ops may also rely on other purpose-built tools – like those that offer intelligent lead insights or sales planning capabilities. These tools can be built right into the CRM (what we do at Salesforce), or they can be integrated as stand-alone solutions.
Let's take a look at the most important tools for a sales ops team.

🔎 CRM Software

A CRM offers reps, managers, and leaders a single place to track deals in the sales pipeline and view reports on sales performance. It’s also where features like workflow automation and AI-driven deal insights can be used to improve selling efficiency and close rates.

Here are important CRM features in more detail:

  • Revenue intelligence uses AI to guide sellers to next steps (“This customer is ready for an upsell,” for example) and identifies red flags in the sales process, like a customer objection that was missed. 
  • Process automation reduces manual work and streamlines painful business processes. For example, automating finance approvals like deal discounts can help sales close deals faster. 
  • Dashboards and reports make it easier for sales ops to build reports without help from IT. This includes sales forecasting reports and sales dashboards that track team performance and key metrics.
 
 
 
 

📈 Sales Enablement Tools

A June 2022 Salesforce survey found that half of reps expect to primarily sell virtually moving forward, but only 29% say they're receiving the training they need. Sales enablement tools can help you onboard new reps faster with tools for coaching, step-by-step sales process guidance, and content and resources to help sellers move deals forward.

📍 Territory Planning Tools

A great sales territory plan can make your team more productive. It assigns the right reps to the right territories to make sure all your target markets are covered. Sales ops is responsible for making sure that territories are logical for the sales rep’s travel, and balanced across the team so everyone has a fair shot at hitting their numbers.
 

Maximize sales opportunities with better territory planning.

Learn how territory planning can help you design balanced territories in hours, not months.

Watch the demo and discover how to assess territory coverage, model possible scenarios, and deploy with ease.

To watch the demo and use our resource library, sign up now.
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How do you measure the success of sales operations?

To measure the success of sales ops, use sales reporting tools that show you the most important information at a glance — for example, the amount of revenue earned per rep and the speed of the sales cycle. When these are built into the CRM, you can dig in and take action on the fly.

Here are the most important metrics to watch out for:

  • Average quarterly revenue per rep: This metric describes how efficient a sales team is. To calculate the average revenue per sales rep, divide your total quarterly revenue by the number of sales reps. 
  • Average selling time of a sales rep: This metric is a marker for productivity. It measures how much time your sales rep spends selling versus non-selling tasks like logging call notes. A CRM can help calculate this metric by classifying and measuring customer-facing tasks on a sales rep’s calendar. 
  • Forecast accuracy: This is a critical metric that shows how well you tracked to the forecast you set. To calculate forecast accuracy, determine the percentage difference between your predicted revenue and actual revenue. 
  • 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 and when they finally close the deal. A CRM can track this for you. 
  • Win rate: This refers to how many customer deals you close. It’s a marker for how successful your sales enablement is: Effective onboarding and training means reps are likely to close deals faster. Calculate win rate by dividing the number of closed/won deals by the total number of opportunities in your pipeline.

Sales ops steps into the spotlight.

The focus of sales is shifting. It used to be about driving individual performance. Now it’s about driving the efficiency of the sales process itself. That’s a job for a sales ops, and it’s why their role keeps expanding, with no signs of slowing down. In fact, three out of four sales ops professionals told us they have new responsibilities at work (“State of Sales”).

At the end of the day, sales will always be about human connection: one rep talking to one customer. The job of sales ops is to use data, structure, and technology to keep the focus on this human element where it belongs — whether it’s by automating non-selling tasks or guiding sales reps through conversations with AI.

Sales keeps the lights on, it’s been said — and it’s true. But sales ops runs the wire.

 

More Resources

 
Blog Post
7 Sales Dashboards Every Leader Needs Right Now
Trailhead
Learn the Basics of Sales Ops
Demo
See How Sales Cloud Drives Efficient Selling
 
 

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