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The Next Step for Sales Operations: Earning Its Place at the Table

With change happening at breakneck speed, organizational culture is continually evolving to serve the increasingly complex nature of business. Adaptability is becoming a must. Sales Operations is one of the key functions pressed to implement change in a faster-moving, sometimes unpredictable environment. This positioning has led Sales Operations to become more visible across the organization and aspire for a place at the decision-makers’ table.

As in the dining room, so in the conference room: inviting someone new to the table changes the conversation — and puts a lot of pressure on the newcomer to confirm that they belong. If Sales Ops is to claim a permanent seat, it will need to get involved in shaping expectations and assert its evolving value within the company by supporting other key functions and driving change. Ultimately, it will be called upon to prove itself worthy in two essential ways:

1. by showing that it can be a strategic partner, not just a tactical player; and

2. by acting as a highly performing function at all times and for all internal customers.

But stepping into a strategic role is no simple endeavor for anybody. It poses particular challenges to Sales Operations, which will need to continue completing tactical tasks as it starts contributing to the attainment of strategic corporate goals.

Sales Operations as a Strategic Partner

Most studies estimate that roughly 90% of Sales Ops’ work is tactical: leveraging experience and data to manage day-to-day activities; creating elaborate reports; and performing other recurring tasks that support and compel salespeople to…well…sell. Though critical to the business, the routine nature of this work has prevented the group from focusing on and reaching its full potential. It’s also led people to wrongly perceive Sales Ops as a dumping ground for administrative chores and anything-you-might-need sales support.

The strategic “face” of the Sales Operations function may not show itself as often as the tactical one, but seeing the potential there, and tapping into it, can become the secret ingredient for the success of the sales organization. Many people in Sales Operations possess the finely tuned, detail-oriented observation skills that, when combined with an analytical mindset, give them an edge: their firsthand, hands-on experience filtering through enormous amounts of data to pinpoint what really matters to the company can bring game-changing strength to their insights.

If heard, the voice of Sales Ops can increase the organization’s ability to make decisions quickly, predict outcomes, and analyze buying patterns. In addition, its many internal customers and its visibility within the company positions Sales Operations to lead change, not simply support it.

Immersing themselves in the everyday responsibilities and staying involved in the work of other departments has proved to be fertile ground for people in Sales Ops. To begin with, they know everything about the best tools available. Dig deeper and it will become clear that those who walk in Sales Ops’ shoes understand the value of close collaboration and can manage the flawless execution of processes. By leveraging its know-how in predictive analytics, and by enabling it to participate as a proactive player in designing long-term plans and strategies, the entire sales organization can reap the benefits of Sales Ops’ experience and take the function’s contribution to the next level.

Interdependent, Not Oppositional

The Sales Operations function of tomorrow can gain more authority as a strategic partner in the organization by leveraging its insights to drive sales results. Tactical excellence and the impeccable execution of everyday tasks can lay the foundation for consistently asking the right questions and ensuring forecast success.

I want to emphasize that tactical and strategic, as I’m using these terms, aren’t opposites of each other. They’re interdependent; frequently, they overlap. For this exact reason, many people struggle to precisely compartmentalize the strategic and the tactical. But lift them out of their boxes, and the connections become visible; for instance, observing and reporting, so crucial to making steady tactical moves, are also fundamental to sound strategic thought.

Too often in big business, the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing: I have seen “strategy teams” design seemingly flawless plans that – once rolled out – failed because the underlying assumptions were incorrect. In these cases, the strategy teams simply neglected to ask the tactical teams if the numbers they based their forecasts upon were right. What Sales Ops potentially offers is both tactical excellence and visionary planning.

Even though most companies are aware of the benefits of a highly performing Sales Operations function, very few succeed in making the most of it. Numbers prove the point: even the top-performing companies only demonstrate best practices in 60% of identified Sales Operations capabilities (McKinsey). When understood and employed with a long-term vision, Sales Operations can bring the company closer to meeting major strategic goals.

5 Features of a Top-Performing Sales Operations Function

  1. Alignment with the other key functions in the company. Sales Operations needs to act as a trusted advisor to the Sales function, yielding intelligent insights, not just delivering data reports. Also, Sales Operations needs to be in sync with the Marketing and Product teams, as well as Customer Satisfaction, and constantly ask for feedback from these internal customers.
  2. Proper staffing. Sales Operations functions are frequently understaffed for both strategic and tactical work. This seemingly cost-saving approach might lead, in the end, to high expenses for the company, as it jeopardizes the success of essential activities in the sales organization. Needless to say, talent retention also becomes problematic.
  3. Fast time-to-value. Top-performing companies need standardized, automated business processes. They need to achieve the best results in the shortest time possible.
  4. Continuity/sustainability. Leaders need to stop thinking of Sales Operations as a department that will simply fix functional problems. Best-in-class companies leverage track record/data and streamline Sales Operations processes to achieve continuous improvements in key metrics.
  5. Scalability. Sales Operations needs to be flexible and adapt to requirements related to new markets, data variety, volume, and velocity, providing enterprise-wide collaboration and planning. For example, in the case of mergers and acquisitions.

Attitude as a Key Element in Establishing Sales Operations’ Added Value

Today, Sales Operations’ place in the organization is, in many cases, not predefined; its charter is in flux. Defining it may come down to attitude: what kind of player do you want your Sales Operations team to be? Ultimately, the stance that Sales Operations takes– and the endorsement it receives from top management – will determine whether or not it can go beyond reacting to change and implementing tactical tasks.

If you are a Sales Operations leader, are you comfortable with your department as an operational center, or do you aim to become a strategic partner to the sales organization? How much attention does senior leadership pay to your positioning in the company? If it’s not as much as you’d like, what can you do to consolidate their buy-in? How can you increase your contribution to the company’s performance? Are you confident enough to respond, “not now,” “no,” or “it’s not a priority” when asked to execute on a goal that’s simply not worth your time? Can your staff question the effects of changes they are expected to implement, or do they simply comply with functional requirements? Do you keep up with industry trends and market predictions (2 – 4 years out) and introduce them into your conversations with other business leaders?

The answers to these questions, and many similar ones, will define your attitude towards strategic thinking and the position of Sales Ops in the company.

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Mihai Popoaca

Senior Vice President, Professional Services

Mihai has more than 17 years of experience delivering business results for clients, with a focus on ongoing, successful relationship management through the design and implementation of dynamic sales performance systems. He currently leads Optymyze’s Professional Services organization globally and provides the overall direction of the organization’s growth initiatives.

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