The 2021 Guide to Sales Operations
How sales operations works and when B2B organizations should implement it
What is sales operations?
Sales operations as a discipline aims to systemize selling success. Yes, that’s an alliteration, but it’s also true.
Sales operations marries technical skills with the classic salesperson drive to win deals. It’s a hybrid discipline (and the nerdiest sales role, by far).
Sales operations managers and their teams have unique responsibilities that we’ll explore later in this post. Before we get there, let’s bring this concept down to earth with some anecdotal observations.
Sales operations success means not being satisfied with a single sale. It means always probing deeper and asking questions like, “How can we do this at 10x the scale, twice the speed, and half the cost?”
A desire for optimal efficiency drives sales operations professionals. They relentlessly study each step of the sales process at the most granular level. Their ultimate goal is to improve the flow of how the organization wins deals.
They’re obsessed with what makes a sale work. They intimately know all the disparate parts of how sales are won — from the most complex technology systems to interpersonal interactions with prospects.
A good sales operations professional is continually observing, poking, prodding, and hunting for flaws or inefficiencies in the customer lifecycle — from lead to repeat customer to raving advocate.
Sales operations often oversee the following areas of sales success. We’ll explore most of these throughout this post:
- Implementing data-backed processes throughout the customer lifecycle
- Overseeing and facilitating sales rep onboarding and training
- Researching and implementing new tech or software to optimize sales activities
- Managing and implementing channels for smooth communication both inside and outside the department
- Lots (and lots) of transparent documentation and best practices so sellers are never ignorant on how to execute a process
Why care about sales operations?
Now that we’ve defined sales operations, let’s explain why it’s essential for maturing organizations. We’ve said it many times before: it’s tempting to adopt new sales techniques because they trend in Silicon Valley or are touted by a thought leader on a blog somewhere.
Here’s how to not waste your time. Begin with a precise examination of your goals and how the solution at hand (sales operations, in this case) helps solve problems.
Why give sales operations a second thought? Isn’t sales operations just another name for sales enablement or any number of sales roles? When is it appropriate to even start thinking about hiring a sales operations manager?
As we explore these questions (and more), weigh them against the problems currently facing your organization. Conceptualize how a sales operations team might solve those problems now or in the near future.
Sales operations is essential for sustainable growth
How do you grow as a B2B organization? You sell more. And how do you sell more? Let’s assume you’re not interested in raising prices or offering new products.
In that case, there are three main ways:
- Optimizing your existing salesforce to sell more efficiently (faster and cheaper)
- Increasing your deal size
- Hiring more sales reps
These essential tasks — sales cycle optimization and sales onboarding and training — fall squarely into the purview of a sales operations manager.
You might be asking, “Okay, but why do I need to hire a full-time employee to manage this? Why can’t I just hire more sales talent myself and call it a day?”
The short answer is this: there are hundreds of tiny tasks that sales reps perform weekly. Just to name a few:
- How they engage with the market and how they position your solution’s value
- How they communicate wins or sales obstacles with each other and direct reports
- How often they train or engage in personal development
- How many attempts they make to contact prospects before giving up
- How they engage, track, note, and monitor CRM data
- How they structure their days for optimal productivity
If you’re a small B2B organization, I’ll bet your sales team isn’t aligned on these things. If they are, you’re the exception.
Getting a small group of account executives on the same page is one thing. But how can you maintain alignment as the team grows by a factor of three or even four?
This sort of systemized alignment is a prerequisite to smooth, sustainable growth for your organization. The alternative is:
- A team of uncommunicative, misaligned sellers
- A CRM full of junk data
- No documented processes (bad news if someone decides to jump ship)
Sales operations is essential for visibility and accountability
Every sales rep instinctively groans when they hear the words “visibility” and “accountability.” To them, this translates to the powers-at-be being “all up in their business.”
But hopefully, your sales team enjoys a culture of constant improvement. After all, if there’s a way to identify sales inefficiencies and fix them, this makes the sellers’ lives easier. (Especially when you introduce automation for data entry. Sales reps hate data entry.)
Plus, they are the beneficiaries of those extra commissions that come from a more efficient selling workflow.
The bottom line is that “you can’t fix what you can’t measure.” It’s no longer acceptable to see a deal mysteriously go from “Prospect” to “Closed – Won” with no notes in the CRM. How can you replicate that success?
Understanding the specific sales process is key to ensuring all the reps are operating out of the same playbook, aligned in their messaging, and forecasting their revenue accurately.
The technology, people, systems, and channels required to maintain visibility is one of the chief responsibilities of a sales operations manager — and another reason why sales operations is so important.
If visibility into sales situations and truly knowing your buyer is something your team struggles with, check out our upcoming webinar. We’ll discuss the data sources you need access to, the metrics you should be tracking, and the different ways you can leverage those insights.
Sales operations is essential for efficiency
Sales operations teams live and breathe efficiency. They were the kids in elementary school who would do their homework on the bus ride home to have extra free time in the afternoon.
They hate seeing time, money, or people go to waste.
Sales operations teams optimize the processes and technology behind how leads are captured and documented. They also optimize how quickly reps make contact with prospects.
They’re all about streamlining lead acquisition and increasing funnel velocity, as well as a smooth customer experience to ensure repeat business.
This means having a close-knit relationship with other departments, especially customer service and customer success.
Sales operations vs. sales enablement
If you’ve read our other content, you may be asking how sales operations is any different from sales enablement. Indeed, there is much overlap between the two disciplines. But upon close examination, they’re quite different.
You could classify sales enablement as a facet of sales operations. But enabling sales teams for success is just one piece of the puzzle. There are also the issues of:
- Onboarding and training new reps
- Communicating between departments
- Ensuring a smooth integration of the tech stack
Sales operations is a more high-level discipline, usually with a keener eye toward the big picture. On the other hand, sales enablement is more concerned with the impact on sellers’ day-to-day lives. For smaller organizations, many responsibilities of the two areas will inevitably fall to the same people.
SEE ALSO: What is Sales Enablement
How are sales operations teams structured?
Now that you’ve got a high-level understanding of the value that sales operations offers, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Here are the most common roles on a sales operations team and their typical responsibilities.
Sales operations specialists
Sales operations specialists are usually dedicated to a particular subset of sales operations, such as:
- Conversion rate optimization
- Sales training and onboarding
- Implementing sales communication channels
- Documenting sales best practices
Note that a full sales ops team is usually recommended when a company has experienced substantial growth. We’ll talk more about the recommended times to implement sales ops personnel in the following section.
Sales operations analysts
Analysts are responsible for wrangling all relevant data and producing actionable forecasts that lead to sales success. This role requires a deep understanding of data visualization and Excel, perhaps even some data science skills like statistical modeling or programming.
Thanks to the advent of AI-based software like the Accent Technologies suite, analysts need to rely less and less on manually creating data models.
For example, Accent’s Supercharger CRM can process sales activities and create prescriptive recommendations based on customer behavior. All this without opening a spreadsheet or writing a line of code.
Sales operations analysts are essential for producing data-backed strategies for the future of the organization. They’ll often bring their insights to their direct report, the sales operations manager.
Sales operations manager
The sales operations manager is usually the first or second hire B2B organizations will make as they take the plunge into the world of sales ops.
Managers don’t necessarily need a deep, specialized skillset in all areas of sales operations. Still, they should at least be able to “speak the language” of each discipline. Their direct reports are usually VPs of Sales or equivalent titles in the C-suite.
In addition to managing and growing their team, sales operations managers are held accountable for producing KPIs that directly impact the bottom line.
When should you hire a sales operations manager?
This is the all-important question. All this stuff is great in theory, but when is it right for your organization to hire a sales operation manager?
After all, everything we’ve talked about so far costs time and money. How can you be sure these efforts will yield a net positive in profit, morale, and growth?
The productivity vs. scalability spectrum
Before we answer that question, we need to talk about the delicate balance of productivity vs. scalability.
In the early stages of most businesses, it’s vital to stay cashflow positive. That may seem very obvious but stay with me on this one.
A consistent cash flow is essential if there’s little to no VC funding keeping the company afloat. Money coming in consistently means focusing more on producing and “discovering” processes than brainstorming ways to scale.
A rubric for scaling doesn’t do much good if you don’t have the cash and the talent to implement it.
That doesn’t mean employees have a license to sell however they see fit without regard for a process. There’s something to be said for laying the groundwork for systems early.
However, on the spectrum of scalability and productivity, the early stages should be more focused on productivity.
Here’s a real-world example. I once worked with a company that had a Creative Director obsessed with creating systemized processes. He was good at it, too. He implemented robust software systems, documented workflows, and organized his team meticulously.
The problem was that the company was too small to see the fruit of these systems. The employee was spending so much time developing processes that he was neglecting his daily tasks.
As a result, the creative team missed deadlines left and right. The sales and marketing stakeholders were left in the lurch waiting for sales collateral.
Extrapolate that mindset out to an entire organization, and the results spell disaster. The point is this: hiring a sales operations manager at the right time in a company’s lifecycle — not too early and not too late — is critical.
So back to the question. When should you hire a sales operations manager?
Short answer: not until your company brings in at least $1 million in annual recurring revenue (ARR). That is, according to Matt Cameron. Matt is a managing partner at Sales Op Central and wrote up a handy rubric to help leaders think through their sales operations implementation.
He thinks in three distinct growth stages:
- Companies with less than $1MM ARR
- Companies with $1MM to $10MM ARR
- Companies with over $10MM ARR
Let’s take each of these one-by-one and examine Matt’s astute recommendations.
The startup stage (Less than $1MM ARR)
In this stage, your sales team is likely composed of a sales director and three to five account executives.
Making a sales op hire in this stage is likely redundant. Most processes are simple enough and shared among such a small pool of people that sales personnel can easily manage.
However, if companies in this stage are feeling overwhelmed by technology maintenance and data, they should consider hiring a sales operations specialist to cover the following areas:
- Salesforce (or other CRM) administration and maintenance
- Data sanitation (making sure all sales records and notes are clean, consistent, and searchable)
- Integration oversight (connecting all the various applications, software, and processes so they all communicate seamlessly)
- Forecasting and data analytics
Matt postulates that anything beyond this initial hire wouldn’t be a profitable use of resources. All that changes when you hit six zeroes in ARR, though.
The growth stage ($1MM to $10MM ARR)
In the growth stage, things are starting to get complicated. Sales leaders and company stakeholders should begin seriously looking at sales operations and the company’s future scalability.
This is especially true when organizations are courted by VC firms who love documented, replicable processes in every department.
Matt recommends giving the sales operations specialist more responsibilities, such as:
- Data analysis across the entire technology stack (marketing automation data, CRM data, Google Analytics data)
- All forecasting and reporting duties
These responsibilities would complement their workload in the startup stage and include accompanying KPIs (we’ll talk about the most common KPIs in the best practices section).
At this point, it’s prudent to hire (or promote from within) a sales operations manager. This person would be the leader of developing the sales ops team and oversee the bulk of the disciplines discussed in this post. These include:
- Analyzing and optimizing conversion at each stage of the funnel, from lead to advocate
- Creating and documenting new best practices for sales activities (how many touchpoints, what markets sellers should focus on, how they prioritize leads, etc.)
- Implementing communication channels
- Identifying deficiencies in systems, processes, or software
- Creating an onboarding and ongoing training curriculum for the salesforce
- Researching and implementing new software solutions for greater efficiency and profitability
- Documenting everything
The maturity stage (Over $10MM)
The real spadework of building the systems and processes for scalability often happens in the previous stage. In this stage, it’s all about maintenance and keeping the ship steady.
Not scaling so quickly that new hires can’t keep up with established systems. But not too slowly that cashflow begins to stagnate.
As the team expands, it’s the manager’s responsibility to hire and train new specialists and analysts. These employees will then oversee entire disciplines that become too unruly for a generalist.
For example, here’s a hypothetical sales operations team in a maturing organization:
Jasmine is the sales operations manager. Since the growth stage, she has been with the company and is intimately familiar with all areas of sales operations. She is responsible for:
- Presenting KPIs to the VP of Sales
- Hiring and onboarding new sales ops employees
- Overseeing the execution of all sales ops tasks, systems, and large-scale initiatives.
Mike is a sales operations specialist with expertise in communication, training, and onboarding. He’s tasked with maintaining:
- All communication channels and processes
- The onboarding curriculum for new sales reps
- Ongoing sales training assignments and software
Lily is a sales operations specialist with expertise in Salesforce administration, marketing automation, and web analytics. She ensures that every part of the customer journey is accurately captured and that sales reps are abiding by documented best practices in their use of the software stack. She is always looking for ways to make technology more seamless in the sales reps’ day-to-day lives.
Larnell is the sales operations analyst. His one charter is to make data “tell a story.” He takes all the raw data from Lily and the team and develops forecasting models and a roadmap to engage with new markets. These predictive, data-backed strategies are presented to Jasmine, who subsequently presents them to the VP of Sales for consideration.
Best Practices for Sales Operations Teams
We’ve painted a pretty thorough picture of:
- What sales operations is
- How to implement it
- Implementation milestones you should be looking at in your company’s life cycle
Now, let’s talk about some best practices to help get your sales operations venture off on the right foot.
Consider these tips from the perspective of a sales operations manager or specialist.
Understand your goals and set KPIs accordingly
As we near the conclusion of this post, you’re hopefully brimming with ideas, excited for the future, and already writing down your sales operations goals.
Make sure your goals are SMART (specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound). An example of a good sales operations goal would be:
“Decrease the sales cycle from an average of 6 weeks to an average of 2 weeks by the end of 2022.”
If you need some help formulating goals, consider these common sales operations KPIs as a starting point:
Quota Achievement Rate — this metric is measured in a percentage and represents how often sales reps hit their monthly quotas.
Average Win Rate — the ratio of closed-won deals over the total number of won and lost deals.
Average Sales Cycle Length — as mentioned above, this metric represents the average length of time it takes to close deals.
Average Deal Size — the average value of deal sizes sellers manage at any given point in the process.
Lead Response Time — the time it takes before leads respond to a marketing effort, pitch, call, or other contact points.
Weighted Pipeline Value — the estimated value of the pipeline at a given time in the process, used to make profit/loss forecasts.
Pipeline Efficiency — this measures how effective sellers are at managing their pipelines.
Forecast Accuracy — this represents the rate of error of prior forecasts vs. actual results or performance.
Shadow the sales team
There’s no one in the organization more intimately familiar with the sales process than the sales reps themselves. They’ll be able to tell you:
- What they like about the sales process (or their jobs in general)
- What hangups they run into
- The arduous tasks they wish they could automate
And so much more. All you have to do is ask.
But even better than interviewing reps is shadowing them (with permission) throughout their workday.
Observe how they position the product’s value, how they enter notes into the CRM, and how they structure their prospect touchpoints.
Ask questions like, “Which part of this process is the most frustrating?” and “How do you think we could streamline this particular process?”
It’s important not to judge or change things in the beginning. Just be a student.
Make it clear that you’re not trying to be invasive or critical, but just make their job easier and help them reach their sales goals.
Understand the process from start to finish
In addition to shadowing the sales team, you need to understand the entire lifecycle of a customer. Of course, that involves doing a deep dive into inbound and outbound lead acquisition strategy.
It also requires an intimate understanding of the role of sales reps and marketing automation in guiding leads down the funnel.
Finally, you need to understand the hand-off from sale to customer success to customer support. It’s incredible how much insight you learn about the sales process by speaking to other departments’ leaders.
Some of the best insights for improving the product and messaging come from the frontline customer success folks spending hours on the phone with seasoned customers.
Understanding the entire process will help you get inside the mind of the customer. It will also help you better position your messaging and identify roadblocks that prevent paying customers from becoming product evangelists.
SEE ALSO: Sales Funnel Visualization Tools
Prioritize leaks in the boat
Before setting sail, you must fix your boat. Chances are, after:
- Shadowing and interviewing sales reps
- Understanding the lead acquisition process
- Surveying the entire customer lifecycle
You will see significant leaks in the boat. These are large problems that, if gone unaddressed, will bleed cash and sabotage growth.
It’s tempting to implement new systems and software right out of the gate. It’s better to plug up the holes in your boat so you can hit the open waters without the risk of sinking.
That means shoring up existing issues (even as part of an old or outdated strategy) before implementing new processes.
Keep sellers selling
There are so many things that can be automated. And not just by a computer or technology, but by outsourcing the duty to another employee or independent contractor.
You should always be asking, “how can we more consistently leverage this person’s strengths and eliminate any busy work?”
Not only is this essential in making things more efficient, but it lifts employee morale as well.
Follow the prospect breadcrumb trail
A helpful exercise for mature companies with robust tracking is to pick a customer at random and trace their journey back to its genesis. Doing this through your CRM or marketing automation platform illuminates some powerful insights.
It will often answer crucial questions, such as:
- How did they find your organization?
- What compelled them to contact sales? Or did sales contact them?
- How long between entering the database and making the first contact?
- How long between first contact and demo? Demo and close?
- How many pieces of content or marketing collateral did they interact with?
- Which pieces of content seemed to hold the most weight in their velocity down the funnel?
You can’t set a precedent based on one lead. But making a habit of tracing these breadcrumb trails can help you discover patterns that you couldn’t see otherwise.
Learn to love feedback and criticism
Any significant changes you make will draw fire. Even if you make it clear you’re doing this in everyone’s best interest.
Change is uncomfortable, especially for sales reps or long-time employees. Listen to criticism, sift it through your knowledge and expertise, but don’t be afraid to take advice from those who’ve been at the company for a long time.
At the end of the day, make decisions based on data. Even if that data isn’t the most popular choice.
Implement tech with intentionality
Technology is a massive part of a sales operations role. Much of the day-to-day work of sales ops professionals will be inside of software. It’s thanks to AI-powered sales enablement software like Accent Technologies that sales operations leaders — and reps — can be freed up from manual number-crunching to focus on strategy and big-picture goals.
All of the KPIs mentioned above can be measured, visualized, and optimized through the Accent Supercharger CRM, Sales Management AI, and Marketing AI platforms.
Implementing technology doesn’t need to be cumbersome or time-consuming. We’d love to show you how the Accent suite can meet your organization at every stage of the growth journey and help you maximize cash flow and intelligently scale.
Contact us today to learn more.
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