According to Spin Selling author Neil Rackham, when Xerox first established a sales operations group in the 1970s to take on activities such as sales planning, compensation, forecasting, and territory design, the group’s leader J. Patrick Kelly described his responsibilities as “all the nasty number things that you don’t want to do but need to do to make a great sales force.”
Forty years later, the concept of sales operations or “sales ops” has become widely accepted as essential for effective sales management. With growing demand for data analytics today, sales ops capabilities have become an even more important ingredient in sales force success. Perhaps the biggest challenge for sales ops leaders is delivering a huge diversity of work, while operating in a constantly changing business and technology environment.
As an example, a recent job posting on the website of global healthcare company Roche seeks an individual for a sales operations leadership position who can:
- Contribute to the 1- and 3-year business vision as a member of the executive leadership team.
- Evaluate sales force strategies, plans, goals and objectives.
- Contribute expertise to optimize sales force and territory sizing, structuring, and alignment.
- Oversee sales performance analyses and reporting, territory alignment, and customer profiling and targeting activities.
- Administer quarterly sales incentive compensation plans and the goal setting process.
- Manage sales force automation and CRM systems and processes.
- Provide data, analyses, modeling, and reporting to support sales force quarterly business reviews.
Can one person really handle all this? The diversity of this sales ops role cuts across two dimensions. First, they face many decisions. The job requires knowledge of a range of sales force decision areas, spanning across categories that include strategy, organization design, talent management, incentive compensation, and sales force automation. Second, they must be strategic and tactical. The job requirements span a spectrum from tactical/support tasks (e.g. provide data for quarterly business reviews) to strategic/design activities (contribute to 1- and 3-year business vision).
Consider the competencies required to deliver on some typical sales ops projects.
Responsibilities such as evaluating sales force strategies or optimizing sales force size and structure require a deep understanding of specific sales management issues. These activities are best performed by people who have analysis/design expertise – individuals with strong creative and problem-solving skills, and project management and collaborative abilities. Such individuals have credibility with top executives, and generally crave creativity and variety in their work.
Tasks such as administering quarterly incentive compensation plans or managing sales force automation systems require specific technical knowledge. These tasks are best performed by people who possess process/detail expertise – individuals who have a strong operational mindset, are passionate about quality control and efficiency, are technically adept, and generally like structured work, even if it’s repetitive.
An individual who provides the steadiness required to be good at supporting operations is unlikely to possess the competencies, such as outside-the-box thinking, needed for designing strategy. At the same time, an individual who is good at strategy probably lacks the process discipline required to be good at operational work. Asking a process/detail expert to do the work of an analysis/design expert, or vice versa, is a recipe for disaster.
What does this mean for sales ops leaders? They must hire, develop, manage, and lead a team of people with diverse and specialized competencies who do fundamentally different jobs and likely have dissimilar career aspirations. The team must not only cover a broad range of sales force issue expertise; it must also include process/detail experts and analysis/design experts working together aligned around the goal of sales force success.
Strategies that use both internal and external (outsourced) resources enable sales ops leaders to build and manage these diverse capabilities cost-effectively.
Building a strong internal team requires defining roles and responsibilities, developing hiring profiles, acquiring talent with the right characteristics (including analysis/design and process/detail capability) and continuously developing and nurturing that talent. Companies such as GE use internal teams to oversee many sales ops projects. Team leaders have competencies in quality management and process improvement methods, giving them analysis/design expertise, along with an appreciation for processes and details. These leaders can structure problems, delegate work, and help process/detail people see the big picture so that everyone works toward a common goal. Many companies look for sales ops talent outside the immediate group by encouraging job rotations with other company departments, such as finance or marketing. Also, rotations between the sales force and sales ops can allow salespeople/managers to build on their sales experience while broadening their skill set. As salespeople become increasingly tech-savvy, more will possess the technical and analytic ability and interest needed for a sales ops role.
Companies can also use outsourced resources to deliver many sales ops capabilities. Some outsourcing partners excel at process/detail work; others bring analysis/design expertise. Onshore partners can provide functional and industry expertise, based on their experience working with many companies. Because of advancing technology, disappearing cultural barriers, and greater business expertise among offshore talent, many companies are using offshore partners for both types of work, allowing them to source the best expertise while reducing long-term costs.
The right person to lead sales operations is someone who respects both the analysis/design and the process/detail mindset, who can envision the business and technology future, and who can work with leaders across the organization, as well as with external partners, to enable ongoing sales force success.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Harvard Business Publishing. Reprinted with permission. This blog originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website: (https://hbr.org/2014/12/why-sales-ops-is-so-hard-to-get-right)