The Revolution of Sales Operations: Embrace New Technology

Posted by David Costello on 06-Dec-2016 14:22:09

Sales operations is not an emerging field within the traditional business framework, however, under the sweeping trend of new technology, the world of sales operations has been inevitably changed. Sales ops directors and managers often have an overarching perspective of organizational sales strategies, departmental structure, and overall revenue growth. Some of them play particular important leadership roles in the sales team, while the others work as adjunct roles. In the new digital world, sales leaders may have also noticed that they have more freedom in terms of defining their roles within an organization with the help of new tech.

 

In this article, the new trends of sales operations, in particular, the requirement of “do more with less”, are discussed in the first part (provide a link to that section when publishing online). Then, the core role of technology and automation in Sales Ops is highlighted. Details of how new technology can help sales ops managers to solve problems in terms of sales fulfillment process, sales planning, sales compensation, sales pipeline management, CRM implementation and sales forecasting are addressed (another link). Finally, there are suggestions with regard to how sales operation managers can master new technology in the digital world (Link).  

 

Sales Ops are asked to “Do more with less” 

The new trends have become obvious. They are forcing sales operations leaders to reconsider their approaches and strategies about better organizing their jobs, in order to improve productivities. According to an article written by Bertil Chappuis and Brian Selby, the new changelings that sales ops managers encounter can be summarized in one sentence: they are asked to “do more for less”. Driving the revenue and profit growth is always the unarguable priority for most sales leaders. The traditional ways of selling have been proven out of dated sometimes. For instance, adding more front-line sellers to expand account coverage or overlay sales capacity may end up diminishing returns, which is impractical in many resource-constrained industries, especially in 21st century.

 

Many companies simply expect sales operations departments to master the ever-expanding responsibilities with limited budgets. Chappuis and Selby’s opinions have also been supported by the Sales Operations Trends Survey by the Alexander Group (AGI), as about 75% of their respondents demonstrated that they were asked to do more with less. These respondents are from 78 companies with median revenue of 1.5 billion dollars, and most of them report a 0-5 percent planned decrease in 2016 sales cost and sales operations budgets. Furthermore, the statistic of the survey shows that 81% of responding sales operations departments have fewer than 50 people with a median of 10 heads and the median sales to sales operations headcount ratio is 13:1. Details are shown in the charts below. As Arshad Carlm, the principal and region leader in the Alexander Group’s San Francisco office, concluded, “this surprising finding underscores the need for efficiency drivers such as cutting-edge tools, well-defined processes, and scalability within the sales operations organization”.

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(Sources: 2016 Sales Operations Trends Survey Highlights: Do More With Less, and Scale by Arshad Carim, read more: http://www.alexandergroup.com/blog/sales-operations/2016-sales-operations-trends-survey-highlights-do-more-with-less-and-scale/ )

 

Based on Chappuis and Selby’s research, companies that invest one resource in sales support for every front-line sales resource generates significantly higher sales productivity than companies that invest less. However, it does not change the fact that sales operations departments are generally underinvested, regarding resources and technology. Even though most companies participated in Chappuis and Selby’s research emphasize that technology is an important lever in driving sales performance improvement, only 28 percent of them are actually applying up-to-date technology in their sales ops functions. As a result, necessary transaction and administrative work are shifted to salespeople and they have less time to communicate with customers because of that.

 

New Problems, New Solutions

The core role of technology and automation in Sales Ops

Perhaps consumers used to the traditional purchase processes in the B2C market expect similar experiences with B2B companies. More self-service capabilities in relation to product research, trial, purchase and many other aspects are demanded. As more and more information is available online, many clients raise the bars for the depth of technical expertise on products or services that B2B companies bring. Therefore, technology is crucial when companies establish and develop their world-class sales ops functions.

 

The key role of technology and automation is revealed in many aspects of sales operations. For example, accurate data can be used to provide articulated sales plans and insights that sales people can act on. To summarize, sales operations managers can improve sales ops efficiency, compensation planning, quota and objectives management as well as inquiry and dispute resolution with the help of new tech.

 

Enhancing Sales Fulfillment Process 

Today, sales fulfillment process includes more than its typical steps. Sales operations managers also need to create proposals, develop contracts, execute orders, ensure timely delivery and liaise with finance. When some companies prefer to handle this in-house, the others look for outsourcing. No matter which ways they choose, it is a competitive advantage for many companies and it can definitely be improved with the assistance of new tech. Consequently, sales ops managers are required to be computer literate in order to drive seamless execution, as they also need to be highly communicative in relation to establishing trust and relationships for delivering premium customer satisfaction. Technology is an important factor that significantly influences the whole process, especially in the business that has a strong e-commerce component, fulfillment can entail maintaining online inventories, activating new accounts for online customers and managing active customer lists with high efficiency.

 

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Sales Planning

A valuable sales plan is always integrated with the corporate strategy and values. It should be capable of delivering against the objectives for the period. In other words, sales planning can only be effective when strategies, values, and objectives are well communicated to and thoroughly understood by the sales team and the company staffs that support them. As sales operations managers have to face with increasingly challenging tasks on a daily basis, even the most experienced professionals in this field may neglect to thoroughly plan their sales calls, especially when they are counting on their experience and confidence in their ability to think on their feet to carry them through. However, this strategy does not prepare them for every contingency and may produce less than their expected returns.

 

Solution:

Although we are in the digital era, the potential solution for this problem can be old fashion. As Larry Caretsky, CEO of Commence Corporation suggests in an article, the effective sales planning always contains several useful steps: identifying the sales objectives, evaluating the current situation, listing the barriers to success, assessing your own strengths and assets, tailoring your own sales call strategy, defining your needs and finally outlining a practical plan. Of course, with crystal clear real-time statistics, each of these steps will be much easier and more accurate, especially when it comes to a better understanding of the current situation.

 

Sales Compensation

Generally, sales operations managers are in charge of deciding compensation plans for their teams. It’s tempting to add many layers of complexity to the compensation plans of sales teams, as their success is highly measurable and tied directly to the success of the company. However, the more complicated the plan is, the less likely the sales representatives will have time to follow it. The best compensation plans need to directly incentivize success for each role, and it should be easy to track by both salespeople and managers.

 

As George Barrett, Finance Director at A&O IT Group, explains in his article “Driving Sales Performance through Effective Sales Operations”, the design of a commission scheme may encourage salespeople in a wrong way. He supports his opinion with an example, “you may inadvertently encourage Salespeople to hold over orders to deliver in periods of higher personal reward or to scramble to bring orders into the last days of a quarter (creating a risk that forecasted orders will not close in time)”. Sales compensation plans should vary from case to case, for instance, an accelerator and a decelerator should be used in totally different business based on the nature of the industry. The other potential challenges include misunderstanding of what your salespeople want. As a result, they may do “something else” instead of what you thought would motivate them to do.

 

Solution:

Lars Dalgaard, the founder, and CEO at Success Factors gives helpful pieces of advice for sales operations managers in terms of designing a particle compensation plan. He suggested a “plug-and-play” plan, which puts that spreadsheet together for the salespeople. The “ask for two things, no more” strategy is also refreshing, as he points out that sales ops managers should quantify what they want in clear math with clear segments of increasing pay off at higher performance levels. The final tip from him is “never, ever change mind on a compensation plan that has already put forth”. Acts like taking commissions back in the middle of the year are totally unacceptable, and sales ops managers should cheer for their salespeople’s triumph as it means more money for the entire company. Competitive sales reps want to compare with peers, they want to win. Therefore, accurate data to support and visualize their success is essential now.

 

Sales Pipeline Management

As a systematic and visual approach of selling a product or a service, sales pipeline is helpful in terms of demonstrating where the money is during the whole sales process. However, even experienced sales operations managers may make mistakes in relation to sales pipeline management. It has been concluded by Toma Kulbytė, a content marketing specialist at SuperOffice that there are ten signs to show sales ops managers are not in control of their sales pipeline. Those signs include:

1. Spend too much time on administration.
2. Deals move slowly from one stage to another.
3. Don’t know the number of opportunities that they have open.
4. Treat every customer the same.
5. Ignore sales forecasting.
6. Don’t know who the decision makers are.
7. Don’t know what the sales team is doing.
8. Continue to lose valuable sales data.
9. Sales cycles are too long.
10. Don’t know the lead to win ratio.
 

Solution:

As for the solution, the best way to keep track of and control pipeline management may be through CRM software. CRM applications provide clear visibility of sales cycles by marking prospects through each of the sales pipeline stages of the selling process, thereby making sales ops managers’ work much more effective.

 

CRM Implementation 

A useful tool for sales ops managers should not only deliver necessary data to management and operations for them to fulfill their functions, but also convey value to salespeople. As pointed out by George Barrett, “today these tools wrap around more of the relationship with the customer for all those people that engage with customers and deliver much more value and insight to Sales and so might contain information from other functional groups in addition to Sales”. Therefore, we look to sales leaders to deliver into the design of CRM system deployments and customizations those value-add features and functionalities that make the tool valuable to the sales reps. As the same data and information can also be provided by other functional groups through the tools, salespeople can pay more attention to selling now. However, there are also challenges that sales leaders may encounter in the future while using new technologies. CRM initiatives currently have a 63% failure rate, based on a new study by Merkle Group Inc. The study lists ill-defined decision hierarchy, weak transparency, and few consequences for not using the CRM system as danger signs of a potential failed implementation that organizations need to look out for. Other difficulties in terms of CRM implementation may include overpromising and too many features for users to adopt the CRM solution. Sales leaders should be aware of all these potential problems from the beginning.

 

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Reasons for CRM initiative failure 

 

Meanwhile, as demonstrated in the essay “The Business Value of CRM Systems: A Resource-Based Perspective” by scholars Shutao Dong and Kevin Zhu, there are key changes triggered by CRM implementation, and sales leaders should also keep an eye on these trends.

 

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Solution:

Sales operations managers may be suggested to combine the type of customer profile that is typically used by marketers or customer service apps and include that in CRM. Larry Augustin, CEO of SugarCRM also gives many tips, such as, “Contextual information must be expanded so that an individual customer’s behavior can be compared to the norm”, “The reach CRM of must be dramatically expanded to new populations of users who interact with the customers” and “Real-time data, big data, and data from the Internet of things will all play a role in expanding the customer profile”. More details are provided by the article “Why Your CRM Implementation Is Quietly Failing” published by Forbes.

 

Sales Forecasting

The purpose of sales forecasting is to locate mistakes and try to fix them as early as possible. Hence, trustworthy, relevant and real-time data is crucial for business leaders in terms of visualizing their business for themselves in order to make accurate decisions and act accordingly. When it comes to sales forecasting, there are several problems that sales ops managers need to pay attention to. For instance, unpredictable factors, such as government regulation, social trends, technological innovation, competitor expansion and natural disasters may bring shifts in demand. Furthermore, sales leaders may have become over-reliant on quantitative data and ignore external forces today. Other challenges in terms of sales forecasting include underestimating or overestimating achievement, binding forecasts without a system of routine checks, using bad tools that poorly interpreted data. It should be well aware that forecasting can make sales ops’ managers lose their focus from making the sale to hitting a number, and it may also restrict sales ops’ managers to a certain business model. On the other hand, the difficulty of creating an accurate sales forecast can be lacking analytics, or failing to integrate input from other business functions like marketing, finance, and operations, and it may be challenging to get sales rep at all levels to utilize new technology effectively.

 

Solution:

Even though sales forecasting is considered inefficient by some sales ops managers, it is an indubitable process with a high effectiveness. Good sales operations team need this procedure to build the reporting structure and consolidate reporting at territory, regional and global levels for tier reviews. It is suggested by Lewis Miller in his article “Why is it so Difficult to create an accurate Sales Forecast” that tracking and analyzing sales rep activities “while they work their deals” is always important. Consequently, forecasting accuracy will increase when the information is grounded in the actual activity completed during the sales cycle versus subjective rep opinion.

 

Master Technology in the Digital World

In the information era, it takes more to make good use of technology and develop it as a competitive advantage of your sales operations team. There are many aspects that sales leaders can work on, for examples, talent management, cross-functional leadership development, training, alignment with demand planning and marketing, then finally taking control of and utilizing the big data in order to become an analytics expert.  

 

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Start from the Beginning: Talent Management

Ensuring the right people to get the right level of resourcing and empowerment is always essential. It allows sales ops to become a reliable consultant and leader. Many companies consider sales operations as overhead rather than continuous investment based on the growth of the business. Therefore, as pointed out by Chappuis and Selby, junior operational talents who are good at reporting and building analytical models are often put in the sales ops team. However, lack of leadership, problem-solving experiences, advanced analytics, change management, and coaching are their significant drawbacks. Hence, a “vigorous and focused” talent-development program should be an effective solution for this problem. Simply moving previous salespeople into the sales ops team is not enough. Companies should have “an intentional strategy for moving top talent back and forth between the HQ and field locations to foster a tight connection between corporate and field and spur new innovations”. The investment in analytics and data science expertise can not be neglected too, so that salespeople and sales ops managers can receive and share insights to improve their performance as their business keeps growing. Chappuis and Selby also introduced the role of “sales enablement” or “sales effectiveness”. This type of role is set to reduce the “non-value-added” work for sales reps thereby providing them with visions and services that improve customer interactions. For instance, initiatives include account-planning re-engineering, CRM simplification efforts, proposal desks and streamlined bid management may be helpful for sales ops department in terms of that.

 

Sales operations manager as a cross-function leadership role

What makes a sales operations department stand out from the competitors? Probably a cross-function leadership role can be an answer. The head of the sales ops department always plays an important role in terms of fulfilling these functions. Although the specific responsibilities of the sales operations leaders vary from different organizations, their priorities, and main activities may be similar. Sales strategy development and implementation, SFE initiative rollout and adoption, territory design, coaching and leading sales operations management, exception handling, executive support, sales compensation, supporting third parties and sales forces design are always the central area that they should focus on. Furthermore, from leading account and territory planning clinics, driving regular market-segmentation and capacity-planning, to harnessing the power of advanced analytics, sales ops managers’ responsibilities lead to better decision-making process, thereby helping not only the front-line salespeople but also the company leaders. First class sales ops managers need to have the ambition to pursue continuous improvement and the ability to identify the areas that need to be improved in terms of sales. They guide their sales reps towards the desired outcomes with profound understanding of the company’s vision, mission and strategies.

 

Aligning with Other Departments in the Company

Sales ops manager can not play the cross-function leadership role well without aligning with other departments in the company. In fact, everything is connected in the business world. For instance, during the demand planning process, companies go through input from marketing, sales, customers and R&D, data gathering and setup, routine forecasting cycle, sales operations planning, forecasting accuracy monitoring and improving and so on, all the analysis, data aggregation, reporting, adjustments and reviewing can not be separated from each other. One thing that often being overlooked when it comes to sales operation is its connection with marketing activities. As many experienced sales professionals consider sales process as an engine, it is also crucial for them to realize the importance of assessing this engine and fixing it when necessary. Since technology has been deeply involved in sales operations, both sales leaders and marketing professionals should now keep a scientist head when doing their jobs. In short, quality drives productivity. Without accurate and timely information, the limping marketing automation systems and CRMs will take more time from the true value-added sales activities.

 

More sophisticated data analysis is required as the size of database continuously grows in terms of sales and marketing. Business intelligence tools have been introduced, so that sales operation departments are expected to be able to evaluate the impacts of their previous acts now. Different sales assistant tools may offer different types of reporting. The question is how to collect these insights in the same place and make good use of them. Thus, a centralized reservoir to store all sales data can provide a bigger picture for a company’s sales efforts over time. After all, what sales leaders want is to predict what may happen next and direct the sales team’s activities accordingly. The idea of “centralizing” may also be applicable in relation to managing the core functions of sales ops. In particular, for companies that have multiple sales ops teams scattered across different regions and business units, the sales support can be ineffective and unstable. In that case, a regional or global hub to centralize and consolidate different aspects of their sales ops function can be a potential solution for this issue.

 

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Become a Data Expert

It is not surprising that sales professionals need to be familiar with data today. However, it is also true that they are not data scientists, and being adept at data does not mean that sales leaders have to acquire every difficult new technology. Thus, Visualization and intelligence tools which can help them to digest and understand data are worth to be invested in, since coherent data and reliable information are the prerequisites of right decisions and appropriate actions.

 

Being analytic also indicates the ability to distil the most important information from the massive data and develop their own way to capture this necessary information in order to general valuable insight. Ensuring clean, complete and accurate data is also a part of sales leader’s responsibilities in the digital world. To better improve the effectiveness and efficiency of a sales team, sales ops managers have to learn more from analyzing sales information. For instance, they must find out the best salesperson in the sales team and how s/he makes a deal; what kinds of clients welcome various types of outreach; stages in the sales cycle where things may get stuck and finally how to achieve improvement in all these fields.

 

New technology serves not only the sales operations managers, but also everyone else in the sales team as well as the company’s executives. Thus, choosing the right tools to equip them is a primary step to improve efficiency in terms of selling, and sales leaders, on the other hand, need more sophisticated tools with an emphasis on scalability and value to achieve this goal.

 

Toolkits for Account-Based Selling Strategy

As a primarily B2B sales models that targets companies rather than specific leads, this relatively old business selling model has made its way back with new technological advancements. Consequently, clean data is the priority of applying an account based strategy. Many sales reps try to update records with best practices in mind, however, the process may not be as reliable as they expect. The best strategy is always about continually encouraging best practices and correcting obvious data errors before they happen. If the data is inputted correctly from the beginning, sales leaders will not need to go back and forth and make corrections. It is necessary to optimize sales operations for account based selling, since the quality of data always limits the sales and marketing efforts. To begin with, data can be used to bridge the sales-marketing gap by actions such as lead scoring program, which refers to user behaviors like time on site, page views and links clicked. It can also reveal the demographics thereby help sales leaders to learn more about their customers. Of course, tools that further enrich prospect data also benefit sales reps.

 

When it comes to identifying which buying signals can make a different in the sales cycle, sales operations managers can start with their highest-performing accounts and see what they have in common. It is the process of conducting a ‘won sales’ analysis. The next step is to enrich the data and leverage sales ops as a much more pivotal role in their ABS playbook. According to William Wickey, the Senior Manager of Content and Media Strategy at Leadgenius, “in the ABS model, whose strategy is more team-driven, role diverse and predicated upon strategic execution than ever before - the comparison is as apt as it’s ever been”. Therefore, the sales ops leader functions like a “modern-day offensive coordinator”. The battle for competitive advantages remains tough as everyone in the industry can adapt the same sorts of technology now, so the path to success is never about using technology, but the ways sales leaders use it.

 

Sales Culture Shaped by Technology

To think beyond technology, sales operations managers should also keep an eye on the sales culture that has been shaped by the sweeping digital trend. With the help of big data, a lot of companies actually pay more attention to the everlasting ways of selling- telling their stories today. Technology Journalist John Kennedy analyzed the successful stories of two technology companies and illustrated their ways to be good storytellers. While Stripe communicates directly with developers who in turn decide to apply their technology on websites to process payments, the other company, Intercom, also enables direct communications with customers and spread its story through blogs, seminars, and e-books. In the 21st century, the networks, the intangible selling, and the soft side of things all contribute to the achievement of a company. Selling is no longer behavior or personality-driven as before, international selling indicates a more complex, multichannel, multicultural environment.

 

As sales professionals have already adapted to the new landscape created by big data and social media, they have also noticed that everyone can capture information to some extent. As suggested by Orla Rimmington, a partner with Kernel Capital, “it’s now crucial that sales teams have access to the social media tools, data, and content they need to build the funnel, convert leads and enable a repeatable sales process which is efficient and scalable”.

 

The best sales cultures in the digital era may have something in common, and Scott Edinger, Founder of Edinger Consulting Group summarizes these characteristics based on observations: 

- The sales function is recognized as a critical component of how the company creates value for clients.
- They manage sales as a process.
- Coaching is a business imperative.
- They manage the right metrics.
- They have a clear sales strategy beyond “get out there and sell!”

 

These may be strong references when sales ops managers considering their next steps.

 

Information Security and Ethics in the Digital World 

When we talk about technology, one issue that cannot be ignored is information security and ethics. Companies are vulnerable to breaches when enjoying all the benefits come with technology. Sales operations departments may be over-exposed as they are sitting on huge piles of confidential data. In 2016, companies are reinforcing security and audit controls to avoid threats and comply with the latest regulations. Therefore, this is also an important aspect that sales ops managers need to keep an eye on, in order to choose the right software and applications for their companies.

 

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Topics: Sales Operations

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