Sales operations full guide: the key to breakthrough revenue growth

Develop the coxswain for your sales team

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Sales operations isn’t new.

Per Neil Rackham, author of Spin Selling, sales ops was born at the Xerox headquarters sometime in the 1970s to manage forecasting, territory design, and strategic planning.

Or put another way, to handle the behind-the-scenes work no one wants to do, but is essential for the sales team’s success.

40+ years on, this once thankless job now fuels breakthrough growth. According to LinkedIn, sales operations is now one of the fastest-growing roles in sales.

And the Salesforce 4th State of Sales report found that 85% of sales pros believe sales ops has become much more strategic in recent years, while roughly 90% say ops teams play a key role in driving growth.

But what exactly is sales operations—and why should you care? Below I’ll explain what sales ops is, why it’s so important, and what you can do to level up your ops game ASAP.

What is sales operations?

“Sales operations” is a set of activities, processes, and functions within a sales organization that help reps drive predictable wins.

The goal of sales ops is twofold. It’s about helping the sales team close more deals in less time and ensuring that reps deliver those results in a way that aligns with the organization’s big-picture strategy and objectives.

Sales ops is a strategic function that works behind the scenes to optimize the sales process. They enable sellers to spend less time on analyzing sales data or performing admin tasks and more time interacting with buyers.

What is the difference between sales enablement and sales operations?

Sales operations and sales enablement are often confused for one another. And while there is some overlap, it’s important to understand that the two concepts are not one and the same.

The sales enablement and sales operations teams share a common goal: increasing sales efficiency and profitability. Yet, each team plays a different role when it comes to achieving that goal.

The sales enablement team works with salespeople. They’re involved in training, performance reports, and bringing reps up to speed when it comes to engaging with new tools, tech, and products.
Anything that helps sellers improve interactions with buyers–learning, training, content, etc.

The sales operations team is more of a logistics function–they work behind the scenes to support the sales team from a technical and analytical standpoint.

What is sales operations responsible for?

So, we’ve defined sales operations in a broader sense—the team orchestrating sales efforts from behind-the-scenes so reps can move through the sales process more efficiently and effectively.

But what does that look like day-to-day? It… depends.

While there’s no definitive list of sales ops responsibilities, here are some examples of tasks that typically fall to the ops team:

  • Sales & revenue strategy
  • Data management & analysis
  • Reviewing and selecting the tools in the sales stack
  • Go-to-market plans
  • Process optimization
  • Lead management
  • Growth forecasting
  • Territory mapping

While sales ops’ responsibilities vary by organization and cover an expansive list of potential tasks, there are a couple of trends within that list.

For one, sales ops is largely about being data-driven. In a recent interview, Shirin Sharif, Head of Sales Ops & Strategy at AWS told LinkedIn that “everyone in sales ops uses data.”

She explains that these days, the interview process is all about the candidate’s ability to manipulate data and their process for extracting insights from that data.

It doesn’t matter if you’re mapping territories, setting quotas, or optimizing your tech stack, everything sales ops does hinges on that ability to analyze data, interpret findings, and leverage those insights to deliver the desired outcome.

Why has the sales operation role increased in importance?

Unlike, say, sales enablement or RevOps, sales operations is old–making its sudden influence in the sales org all the more surprising.

Miller Heiman Group’s Seleste Lunsford argues that sales ops’ longevity may be one of the forces behind its meteoric rise.
Though the increasing pressures of digital transformation, exploding data sets, and COVID are also at play.

She explains that roughly two-thirds of companies already have a dedicated ops team. But advancing technologies and more access to sales data and AI/ML have unlocked more opportunities for ops to drive growth.

The other key factor at play here is the fact that customer expectations and journeys have changed.

According to Salesforce, 78% of customers expect consistent interactions across departments. In other words, there needs to be a cohesive through line between direct conversations with reps and customer service teams, the content on your website, and so on.

A 2019 DemandBase survey found that 97% of B2B buyers want content that speaks directly to their company’s needs.

And ZenDesk’s 2021 Sales Trends Report revealed that 50% of sales leaders say today’s buyers are more informed and 32% want reps to understand the complete context on their business and the problems they’re trying to solve.

For sales operations, these trends point toward a need to collaborate more closely with sales, but also executive teams, marketing, and customer service.

The Salesforce report also found that 48% of sales ops teams have ramped up their involvement in managing cross-functional work streams to bridge gaps in the customer experience.

Sales operations challenges

As sales operations becomes more strategic, teams face their fair share of challenges. Here are some of the most common:

  • Changing business & tech landscape. Keeping up with the rapid pace of change is one of the biggest challenges ops teams deal with on the regular. As companies grow, change, or, you know, pivot in response to a global pandemic, sales ops teams must be ready to respond and bring everyone up to speed.
  • Bad data & old technology. Inaccurate or incomplete data sets can undermine sales ops’ performance–and by extension, prevent the entire company from reaching its goals. Outdated tech has a similar effect. It prevents teams from understanding and operationalizing data and it slows them down—reps end up making mistakes, performing double work, and losing hours to admin tasks that can easily be automated.
  • No formal sales process/strategy. In another recent post, we compare sales operations and planning to the strategy a football team might use to prepare to win the big game. While much of the strategy is centered around being “agile” or “adaptive,” teams need a strong foundation of proven “plays,” clearly-defined steps, and clarity around goals, roles, & responsibilities.
  • Lack of support from the top. Many organizations make the mistake of viewing sales operations as a cost-center. That means, sales ops may not get the resources they need to support sellers—and in many cases, struggle to get the leadership team to champion (or even approve) new strategies or recommendations.
  • Poor organizational alignment. These days, the sales operations team is responsible for making sure that all departments—not just the sales team—are equipped to support the sales process and provide a consistent buyer experience. This problem is amplified when teams are spread across different geographic locations–whether you’re operating across multiple global offices or navigating the challenges of remote work.

How to build a winning sales operation strategy?

Like sales operations in general, defining what it takes to build a strategy that drives meaningful growth isn’t exactly easy. As a result, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Gartner offers up a basic framework you can use to start building a roadmap:

1. Define your goals. What are you hoping to achieve?

2. Diagnose current state: Review, assess and map the existing sales organization, including talent, resources, technology, collateral, etc.

3. Develop a strategy: Optimize sales enablement strategy to equip the sales force with the collateral, tools and technologies needed to sell more effectively and efficiently.

4. Execute and drive change: Implement more efficient processes, talent, technology and techniques for enhanced efficiencies and continually drive business conversations around the importance of an optimized sales operation.

Now, how you “fill in the blanks” depends on your business goals, team dynamics, sales ops maturity, and so on. That said, here are some general best practices that you can incorporate into your game plan.

1. Establish a formal charter

Here’s the thing: even though we talk about pivoting the strategy in real-time or meeting the buyer where they are right now, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to “wing it.”

If anything, the complex, fast-paced nature of the modern sales landscape means good documentation is more important than ever.

Essentially, a charter helps you set a standard for compensation plans, territories, and measuring rep performance.

It can be used to facilitate support from executive leadership, internal stakeholders, and external partners. It also ensures that teams across all departments and locations are on the same page in terms of communications, sales tactics, and the big-picture plan.

2. Implement a “dynamic” sales process

Sales expert Elisabeth Marino told Smartsheet sales orgs should continuously refine their approach to keep up with changing market conditions, buyer expectations, and an ever-evolving tech stack.

What that means is, ops teams must take a page out of the software development playbook and embrace agile processes focused on continuous improvement.

At the same time, sales teams don’t have the flexibility to experiment too much during buyer interactions. Trying something new could cost you the deal.

Instead, the Miller Heiman Group recommends creating dynamic processes. They define “dynamic” as being agile enough to adapt strategies in real-time via analytics/guided selling tools, yet structured enough to ensure reps apply proven best practices on the job.

Essentially, it allows sales organizations to make faster, smarter decisions using real-time data.

The firm found that applying a dynamic approach to forecasting alone led to 7% higher close rates on forecasted deals compared to organizations using random or static processes.

3. Focus on cross-functional alignment

Sales ops isn’t responsible for running the coaching program or acting as the de-facto champion for driving cultural change.

The ops team sits at the center of all these cross-functional efforts.
And essentially serve as this bridge between IT, the C-suite, product & marketing teams, and of course, the sales & service reps working the front lines.

But it’s also about making sure all teams are aligned around the same goals, working from the same data, and following the same best practices.

Sales operations ensures all “revenue-influencing players” function as a unified front. And, as customer journeys become longer and more complex, sales operations can no longer be outsourced to sales managers, marketing teams, and the C-suite–orgs need a dedicated full-time team.

4. Prioritize customer retention

Building on this idea of creating alignment to better serve the customer, it’s also important to keep nurturing relationships way beyond the close.

We often talk about “closing the deal” as if it’s some sort of finish line for sales reps. But the reality is, closing the deal marks the beginning of the relationship between a company and its clients.

Yes, it’s on sales ops teams to help sellers find the best leads and move them through the pipeline at warp speed. But, it’s also their job to ensure that customers stick around for the long-haul by continuing to help them solve problems and act on opportunities.

Because sales operations is such a data-driven role, ops teams are uniquely positioned to support retention efforts.

For example, they can use customer data to improve ongoing training efforts, demo strategies, communications, contract negotiations, and so on—ensuring better post-close outcomes.

5. Help business leaders become data-driven power users

Today’s teams must keep up with a sales tech landscape that can literally change overnight. That means, orgs not only must anticipate trends but understand how to implement new tools to prevent that dreaded disconnect between sales reps and sales tools.

Sales operations teams are instrumental when it comes to helping leadership teams and sales managers overcome the problem of being “data-rich, but insight poor.”

How to build your sales ops tech stack

Again, we’ll bring up the frustrating reality of sales ops: there’s no definitive list of tools an organization should invest in.

Your tech stack, like your workflows and sales process should be as unique as your business and aim to make things easier for sales leaders, reps, and buyers.

Still, there are a few essentials every organization needs to be successful. I’d recommend covering the following bases, then adding “niche-specific” solutions based on your core business model.

  • Customer relationship management (CRM). The CRM is the foundation of any sales stack. It’s where you manage and store contact information, track opportunities, ID sales opportunities, and so on. Salesforce is probably the best-known CRM but there are plenty of quality alternatives including Pipedrive, Salesflare, Copper, Spotio, and Nutshell.
  • Pipeline & team analytics. You’ll want to make sure you have complete visibility into what’s happening inside your organization. This is key to understanding pipeline health, spotting at-risk deals, and developing a sales coaching strategy that drives predictable wins.
  • Business intelligence & predictive analytics. Predictive sales analytics are a powerful tool for understanding what buyers are looking for, while business intelligence platforms help you understand the forces shaping buyer expectations. Both are essential for developing and refining the sales process, forecasting, and more. Examples include: Tableau, ZoomInfo, Salesforce’s Einstein, Owler.
  • Prescriptive analytics/guided selling. Prescriptive insights help reps get better results on the front lines and allow managers and coaches spot opportunities for improvement. For example, in Revenue Grid, guided selling features like automated nurture campaigns, deal guidance, and revenue signals.
  • Communication tools. Look for tools that can do double (or triple) duty.
    For example, our Revenue Inbox tool automatically captures all data related to pipeline, prospects, and account and syncs those insights back to Salesforce.
  • Sales enablement/engagement software. Sales enablement & engagement tools cover everything from sales acceleration (Outreach, SalesLoft) to learning management systems (Brainshark, MindTickle) and sales presentations (Highspot, Showpad, Seismic). Revenue Grid falls into the enablement category, as well, with automations and insights that streamline the sales process.

How do you measure the success of sales operations?

The sales operations metrics you choose to measure depend on your business goals, sales cycle, and a whole range of other factors.

That said, here are some common examples you might use to measure the impact of your ops strategy:

  • Quota attainment rate. Percentage of reps that meet or exceed targets within a specific timeframe.
  • Pipeline value. Estimated value of the total number of deals in the pipeline during a specific timeframe.
  • Average win rate. Percentage of won deals compared to the percentage of opportunities that were lost.
  • Average deal size. Average value of deals a team or individual rep manages at any given time.
  • Average sales cycle length. How long it takes for sellers to close a deal.
  • Forecasting accuracy. Percentage of predicted forecasts that match actual results.
  • Lead response time. Average time it takes for leads to respond to a call-to-action, pitch, or other form of communication.
  • Pipeline efficiency. How effective individual sellers are at managing their pipelines.
  • Time spent selling. Amount of time reps spend on sales activities vs. admin tasks, training, meetings, etc.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg, but the point is, there are many ways to measure the success of your sales operations strategy. The key is making sure that you focus on the metrics that align with a specific goal and answer a specific question (we cover this in more detail in a previous post on setting SMART goals).

For example, time spent selling can help you understand how reps are spending their time–which in turn, can help you figure out what tasks need to be automated, eliminated, or outsourced to increase that rate.

Quota attainment rates can help you understand whether your targets are realistic or if you need to rethink your approach to training, hiring, or sharing information.

Final thoughts

The fate of future sales operations teams lies with the forces shaping the competitive landscape and raising buyer expectations.

So, what’s on the horizon for this fast-growing role? On the surface, a lot more of the same.

Digital transformation wages on and sales organizations are under even more pressure to evolve their strategy in real-time.

Ops teams (and entire companies) must become data-driven–like right now–not only to remain competitive, but as a layer of protection against whatever challenge this wild decade throws at us next.

Want more tips for powering up the future salesforce? Check out our research on emerging tactics for winning the sales cycle — for this final stretch of 2021 and beyond.