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From Sales Ops to Special Ops: The Future of Sales Operations

By October 3, 2011Article

Sales forces can no longer perform like a regular army in today’s demanding and difficult economic environment. No one can afford to simply hire more sales people to achieve top line results. Instead, sales teams must perform more like elite special forces to deliver on the heightened expectations they face. To get there, they’ll need world-class sales operations teams to train, equip and support them.

As top technology companies engaged in a complex sale have discovered, sales ops is a critical and increasingly advanced discipline – one that must be managed with care if your enterprise is to produce predictable revenue gains. Indeed, sales ops now deserves your company’s full attention if you are to reach your full growth potential.

According to research firm IDC, sales operations is a key driver of sales productivity – a key objective in the face of rising sales costs, lengthening sales cycles, and increasingly demanding buyers. However, many of today’s sales ops teams are “ill equipped to rise to the challenge,” contend IDC analysts Michael Gerard and Irina Zvagelsky in a report on “the next-generation sales operations team.”

In search of sales effectiveness and sales enablement

As analysts and practitioners suggest, sales ops professionals will have to address issues such as sales effectiveness and sales enablement if they are to thrive in their appointed roles.

To some extent, the maturity of a sales operations team may be correlated with the age or size of the company in question. Young, entrepreneurial firms often hire a few talented sales people and give them freedom to operate as they see fit. It may resemble what one sales ops veteran calls the “Wild West.” However, such approaches eventually lead to conflict as promises made in the field or discounts extended to new customers begin to create disorder within the firm.

It’s at this point that firms begin to assert greater control and demand accountability. This is where sales operations typically begin to emerge and take a stronger hand. The initial actions of the sales ops group may be “more stick than carrot,” says Carol Sullivan, director of sales operations for Marketo, a San Mateo-based marketing automation software company.

Early emphasis typically is placed on managing commissions, order tracking, data cleansing, and ensuring offers and contracts are carefully vetted. It’s a demanding struggle to impose processes and systems on a sales team that may have been relatively unconstrained by them.

Sales ops must lay the groundwork for the next stage of growth, made possible by a new group of reps engaged in repeatable and consistent behaviors. “You want to measure what you want to incentivize and you want to document your processes,” Sullivan adds. “You need that underlying foundation even when you feel you are not ready for it.”

Once the firm has established a greater level of sales effectiveness, attention increasingly turns to sales enablement. If sales effectiveness represents the analytical, left-brain role of sales operations, it’s sales enablement that gets to the creative, right-brain responsibilities.

Sales enablement revolves around the conversations and interactions that sales people must have with their customers. Key to ensuring the success of sales in the field is ensuring that appropriate sales messaging, tools, and training are available — and actionable. With the appropriate skills and messages, sales people can increasingly sell on value and rely far less on early-stage tactics such as discounting.

Sharon Little, who runs SalesCraft, a thought leadership group and consultancy focused on winning strategies and practices in sales enablement, contends that companies are “making progress in leaps and bounds.” She sees investment pouring into sales enablement as firms seek ways to take sales performance to new levels and differentiate themselves in the field.

Little, former director of global field communications for virtualization software giant VMware, sees great promise for promoters of sales  enablement in tying their endeavors to a major sales initiative that’s critical to success in a given time period. “Sales enablement can get you from where you are to where you want to be,” she says. “It can reliably and predictably transform your organization while still ensuring you meet your numbers. It allows you to refuel in flight.”

Demands on the next gen 

As companies get larger and more mature, so, too, does sales operations. In fact, an array of roles may emerge – specialists covering everything from effectiveness to enablement to training to analysis to platforms and applications. This is the type of environment that IDC focuses on in its research on “the next generation.”

IDC’s Gerard and Zvagelsky make several recommendations:

  • Sales ops staff should represent 10-15 percent of total sales staff.
  • Sales ops should establish a “center of excellence organizational structure,” enabling teams to create consistent processes and leverage their capabilities on a global basis.
  • Sales ops skill sets and competencies should be improved to support the transition from a tactical role to a strategic role, developing the ability to introduce advanced processes and spearhead next-generation technologies.

Companies, however, may have some distance to travel to truly excel in sales ops. In interviews with sales management and sales ops professionals from major technology companies with average revenue of $10 billion, IDC found that “too many sales operations folks are doing too many tactical activities, and using out-of-date processes and systems.” Moreover, they discovered that collaboration with other teams – such as marketing and finance – is deficient.

IDC also found that organizations are struggling to manage change. The reorganization of a sales force can be particularly problematic as new go-to-market strategies as well as new coverage and compensation models are introduced. What’s more, sales ops teams are struggling to gain credibility and buy-in from sales management for new initiatives.

While IDC analysts sees a need for developing skill sets tied to change management, process development, statistical and financial analysis, next-gen sales technology, and executive-level communications, they ultimately think the success of sales ops is tied to how strategic the role is perceived within the organization.

“Sales operations must accelerate the transformation of the sales organization,” write Gerard and Zvagelsky, pointing to the challenge of meeting customers’ needs and maintaining competitiveness. “Sales operations must be more than simple order management support, sales forecasting, and IT infrastructure. [It] needs to take on a more strategic role in the organization, including sales process improvement, sales enablement, and customer intelligence.”

Sales ops: then, now and next

By some accounts, the sales operations discipline can be traced back to the mid-1990s when software companies such as Siebel Systems (now part of Oracle) were actively promoting fledgling concepts such as “Sales Force Automation” and, later, “Customer Relationship Management.” As sponsors of conferences, studies, and other activities, the leaders of these efforts supported the development of the sales operations profession.

More recently, it’s clear that hosted software companies such as have played a similar role in further supporting interest in sales effectiveness – making the technology necessary to rigorously manage sales processes accessible to a wider group of buyers.

And, now, software firms such as SAVO and Qvidian are supporting professionals who specialize in sales enablement, giving them the tools to engage in more effective sales conversations and interactions. Meanwhile, consulting firms such as Corporate Visions are providing training and messaging support for companies engaged in expansive sales initiatives.

As such patterns suggest, the companies providing new thinking and new technologies often cultivate new professions and communities of practice – certainly in these cases.

Expect these professionals to play an increasingly vital role in the technology industry – and others besides. Ian Levine, senior vice president of sales operations and strategy for the document management solutions company Iron Mountain, says that sales operations now offer an “opportunity to bring science to sales. It’s turning into a dial-moving department instead of a comp plan and analysis department.”

Sales ops is about “creating capacity for sales professionals,” adds Levine. “Sales professionals have a finite amount of time and you want them to maximize it. You want to remove non-sales activities from their day and optimize selling time with messaging, playbooks, tools, technology, training – whatever they need.”

It seems likely that the economy will remain difficult to navigate for the foreseeable future. Buyers will remain wary, skeptical and conservative.  With this in mind, sales professionals will have to perform at increasingly high levels to reach their quotas and deliver real results.

The good news? The sales operations discipline seems poised to deliver still higher productivity and performance. You may have fewer feet on the street, but greater output per salesperson. You’ll have high-value assets you can command at a strategic level, delivering outcomes disproportionate to their size. With the assistance of sales ops, your sales organization may even begin to resemble the military’s top performers: special ops.

Britton Manasco is a specialist in thought leadership marketing and sales enablement. Check out his blog, Illuminating the Future or contact him at 512-301-4881.

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