Sales Operations: What it is and Best Practices
A crucial part of a live performance happens behind the scenes. The word of the stage manager, the sound crew, the costume designer, and many other roles shape what happens on stage and bring writing to life. In a sales organization, there’s a set of activities that occurs behind the curtain to help sales organization run effectively, efficiently, and in support of business strategies and objectives. Without sales operations, the show would certainly not go on!
The work of sales ops often goes unnoticed. The team doesn’t ring the bell after closing a deal. They’re not whale hunters nor create popular marketing content. Instead, their efforts optimize the sales process, remove friction, and free up salespeople’s time so they can do what they do best: connect with prospects, book meetings, and land deals. The ops team provides the bedrock foundation for sales.
In this article, you’ll get an introduction to sales operations and why it’s an essential function to the art and craft of selling.
What is Sales Operations?
Sales operations refers to the role, processes, and activities that support and reduce friction in the sales process, so salespeople are more productive and successful.
This unit is in charge of analyzing and optimizing the sales process by using data to provide strategic insight, best practices to guide training, and technology to drive performance.
Ultimately, sales operations should do one thing: help salespeople close more deals, faster.
Table of contents
- The importance of sales operations
- Sales operations vs. sales enablement
- Functions of the sales operations unit
- Best practices
1. The importance of sales operations
If a certain trillion-dollar dollar company is said to be at the intersection of technology and humanities, the sales ops unit is an entity at the intersection of system, science, and best practices. Sales ops builds out data-driven processes and workflows that set up salespeople for success. The efficient execution of a sales process can make all the difference between a sales team that flourishes and one that tanks.
A sales operations manager assumes many of the administrative and operational loads required to run a sales organization. As today’s sales organization are increasingly reliant on data and technology, someone must organize the “chaos”. In many businesses, it’s only natural sales ops takes ownership of the administration of the sales tech stack, in particular, the CRM.
Sales ops activities don’t directly involve buyer-seller interactions but have a direct impact. By continuously optimizing the sales process through data and tools, sales ops free sales reps’ time so they can focus on selling and equips them to sell as efficiently as possible.
2. Sales operations vs. sales enablement
Sales operations and sales enablement work towards the common goal: improve performance and sales results. Both terms are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are many clear distinctions between the two.
A more recent term in the sales glossary, sales enablement refers to the process within a sales organization of providing the sales team with the tools, resources, and training the need to close more deals. A sales playbook is one of the most common and effective sales enablement resources.
In contrast, sales operations focuses on top-level activities like strategy, reporting, processes, or quota management. So while sales enablement supports the sales reps in the front lines through learning and content, sales ops is focused more on making the process itself more efficient through data, tools, and optimized workflow.
Different sides of the same coin, sales enablement is a component of sales operations.
Four core functions of a sales operations team
In a nutshell, sales ops is about optimizing the sales process to drive the results and grow the business. This unit aims to support salespeople by assuming a variety of functions that free up salespeople’s time, remove friction, and drive performance.
Once mainly number crunchers, sales ops professionals are now charged with handling an array of behind-the-scenes activities and tasks. Here are the four core functions that your sales ops team needs to lead to driving efficiency and, in turn, help salespeople close deals faster.
1. Reporting: Selection of key sales metrics
Sales ops leaders are data junkies. Numbers crunchers by nature that can interpret, manipulate, and explain all the data that the sales process generates. Sales ops monitor a variety of key sales metrics that provide insight on how to improve the hit rate and how to optimize the entire sales process. Metrics commonly used by many sales ops units can reveal bottlenecks, trends, and inefficiencies that, if timely corrected, can consistently improve the results of the entire organization in the long term.
Sales ops often follow metrics like pipeline efficiency, average sales cycle length, or lead response time, but whatever the selection is, these metrics should always inform strategy. For example, for a SaaS company, a high win rate won’t help if they can’t retain your customers. For sales ops, an elevated churn rate can be a red flag that indicates their salespeople need additional training on how to find and sign the right buyer or set the appropriate expectation for their buyers.
2. Sales enablement
Salespeople often encounter uncertainty. It may be budget cuts. Or it may be a buyer with the most outrages objections. Sales ops must work to reduce this uncertainty and give salespeople clear processes and routines to enable the reps to develop and excel in their jobs.
To do so, sales ops builds the foundation of the selling process, from managing the sales stack to creating workflows and playbooks. Some other tasks include coaching and mentoring, tools training, and enforcing the company’s sales methodology (making sure reps adhere to it).
3. Implementation and optimization of the sales process
If business-to-business sales were a video game, sales ops would write the walkthrough guide. The sales ops unit owns the task of building, analyzing, and tuning the sales process to improve conversions, shortening sales cycles, and maximizing sales wins. This often includes building and maintaining a healthy sales pipeline.
Consider a typical sales ops project. As administrators of the CRM and other sales tools, ops can look into ways of eliminating time-consuming tasks like manually entering information the CRM. With regular data enrichment, the CRM can integrate missing company data such as firmographic, technographic, and signal data, to the contacts in your database.
4. Strategy and planning
Thanks to their data analysis capabilities, sales ops has a key role in establishing a sales strategy and setting future sales goals. The team often takes an advisory role to the head of sales as they can provide big-picture insights on the regarding the sales process.
Sales ops can also work with marketing to fine-tune brand messaging and content. Such collaboration bridges the gap between sales and marketing (hello, smarketing!) and serves both teams in two key areas: a) funnel structure development, and b) content development.
Sales operations: Best practices
The team structure of a sales ops unit comes in all shapes and colors. While sales ops has become an integral part of the sales organization, variations in terms of structure, role, and implementation exist across businesses and industries. Smaller companies might simply promote a seasoned business development manager. In contrast, a large organization will likely set up a team with technical specialists, sales effectiveness managers, and a sales operations manager.
Whatever its size, follow these best practices to ensure your sales ops unit runs like a well-oiled machine.
1. Determine and understand the relevant KPIs
A good sales ops leader eats numbers for breakfast. Luckily, in sales, there’s no shortage of metrics and KPIs to track. The challenge, though, is to measure the most meaningful ones for the business.
The dashboard of a sales ops manager features big-picture metrics such as average contract value, sales cycles, and hit rate. These metrics are shared across the organization, but it’s part of what sales ops does to dig deeper into the nitty-gritty details.
For example. The sales team knows their hit rate – but can they tell at which stage of the sales process they are losing most of the deals? And why? The sales team also certainly knows how much they sold last month – but do they know from which revenue segment the most lucrative customers come from? Here’s where Sales Ops step in. They must have the capacity to have an overview of the whole sales process to give answers to those questions. Once this is understood, it is possible to tweak and tune the entire process.
Important: Break the numbers down and examine them with a magnifying glass. Deep dive into your process and the performance of the team to identify the areas where they shine and the spots that could stand to improve.
2. Identify trends before they get out of control
Once you have a detailed view of the performance of your team, you want to uncover trends that help understands the shortcoming and bottlenecks of your sales process. What is preventing your sales reps from hitting quota? The conversion rate dropped in the last week. Why?
Because they have a holistic view of the whole sales process, successful sales ops can anticipate trends early enough, so they can avoid severe underperformance of the sales team for a long time.
3. Stop handling all quick fixes like fire drills
Sales is a fast-paced world, and often, there are more problems than time to fix them. Rushing from task to task and implementing quick fixes invariably derails a good routine and process. Serious problem-solving quickly degenerates into quick-and-dirty patching.
Chronic firefighting consumes sales ops’ resources. Instead of having quick fixes, identify the real problem: where is the sales process leaking? It is the sustainable long-term fixes that eliminate underlying issues that have the most significant impact on the success of the entire sales team.
Important: Work on fixing real problems instead of doing unsustainable quick fixes. Don’t let nice-to-have quick fixes take your focus from what really brings success to the sales team and the deals rolling in.
4. Take on an advisory role to the head of sales
A necessity for a successful sales ops unit to be possible is strong collaboration between the head of sales and the sales ops manager. Acting as “chief of staff”, a sales ops manager has to learn to think like the head of sales to propose the solutions that will help the sales team implement long-term fixes.
5. Make sure your data is accurate and up-to-date
The work of sales ops amounts to nothing without accurate, fresh, and reliable data. In many organizations, sales ops acts as the administrator of most of the sales tools, including the CRM. As a result, you need to make sure everyone uses the CRM correctly and inputs all the relevant information. Establish clear rules and guidelines so everyone in the company uses the CRM in the same way.
Just remember that no matter what, the data in your CRM decays at breakneck speed. Businesses are in constant flux, and people change jobs, making your data stale and inaccurate. Any organization that works with a CRM wants to establish year-around data cleaning activities to fix the data decay problem and open the door to additional data points and richer insights.
By leveraging data, insight, and technology, sales operations is now a critical piece of sales organizations of any size. Yes, indeed, the work of these departments goes largely unnoticed in day-to-day life, but in the long run, sales ops supports almost everything the sales teams do. Want to make sure your reps are making the most of your time? Sales ops has an answer to that.