Cornelia Klose, Head of Business Excellence at Ogilvy shares her five key skills needed to succeed in Sales Operations and the two main purposes every Sales Ops Leader should fulfil.
Sometimes I envy accountants. Don't get me wrong, I'm not about to change careers. But I'm envious of the ease with which they can tell people what they do, and everybody to respond with, “Oh, sure, you are an accountant!”.
When it comes to Sales Operations, it's not that easy. First of all, because it has two conflicting terms in the title. Secondly, because it is not concrete like Finance, for example, and thirdly, it's still a reasonably new role. That's why trying to explain my job usually earns me a confused look on people’s faces, followed by a “So are you in Sales or Operations?”
Since Sales Operations lacks a clear definition (yet), it is often the company's history, culture, and maturity that defines the job.
But we can narrow Sales Operations down to fulfilling two main purposes within any company and requiring five key skills. Let’s have a closer look at those!
The two main purposes of Sales Operations
1. Creating a flow
Imagine your sales process is a river, starting from its source and growing, either on its own and/or by new tributaries joining it. Along its way, the river will encounter obstacles which can slow it down or even extinguish it.
Let's transfer this metaphor to sales. A deal can grow by itself or by other value propositions being added along the way until we win it, or, oh well, we lose it. For each step in this sales cycle, the Sales team may need documents, demos or meetings that could slow down the sales process or even cause the deal to be lost.
So, a Sales Operations Leader is there to create a flow in the sales process. They do this by cutting edges, bypassing obstacles, accelerating difficult passages, detecting and blocking dead ends. We could go one step further and think of Sales Operations as someone building a canal, which is much safer and more efficient when it comes to making the “water” flow.
2. Building bridges
Some companies love to say to their employees, “We are all in the same boat.” Well, clearly we all have the same goal. But that doesn’t mean that we all have the same tasks, priorities and concerns. The person hoisting the sail has different needs to the one releasing the anchor, for example.
The purpose of Sales Operations is to build connections and help information flow as seamlessly as possible between different departments of a company. Often, this can involve the sales team and other departments. But just as frequently, Sales Ops will find themselves working directly with non-sales departments on projects that are linked indirectly to the sales team. The role is there to share each department’s processes so that each team knows what the other is doing, and when each team enters/exits the sales cycle. Sales Operations provides the different data needed to enable close collaboration.
So, now we've covered the two main purposes of Sales Operations, we're ready to dig deeper into the key skills a Sales Operations Leader should bring to the table.
Five key skills
1. Emotional intelligence
On average, a salesperson spends only 34% of their time selling. That's why understanding the daily work of a salesperson and their challenges is the most crucial skill a Sales Operations Leader needs to have.
However, this also applies to other departments within the company. As stated above, each of our colleagues has certain priorities and fears that have to be considered when creating processes. Being a Sales Operations Leader is about building bridges that make everyone feel happy, secure and heard.
There is a slight difference between being solution-driven and outcome-focused. During my early years in Sales Ops, I often tried to find a solution for a problem, and I was often very successful... Until I realised I wasn't fulfilling the overall purpose of Sales Operations. That is to say, I wasn't focusing on the outcome. Don’t get me wrong, being solution-driven is a key strength for Sales Ops. But finding a solution only brings half the joy if it doesn’t fit within the company’s goal. That's why understanding these objectives and implementing them in each solution is one of the key skills of a good Sales Operations Leader.
Good Sales Operations Leaders are those annoying people who always ask, “But why?”. They want to understand why something is (not) working. And they love to get to the root cause of the problem to understand and fix or improve the process. They constantly analyse problems and processes and try to find a better way of doing it.
4. Being second in command
Just like their big brother, the COO, Sales Operations are often aware that while they are not the official leader, they are the second pillar of a sales team. They are the people that are often in the back with little client facing time, yet know each client by heart.
5. Flexible mind
As a Sales Operations Leader, you constantly switch from operational to strategic tasks. So it is crucial to be able to go into detail while keeping a deliberate mind on projects. You’ve probably realised by now that I love metaphors. Here's another. I have always considered a Sales Operations Leader as someone that has a bird’s-eye view of the sales processes, but looks at it with a magnifying glass. In other words, they need to be able to see the big picture whilst ensuring that each pixel in the process is working.
Seize the opportunity
All this being said, it is up to each company to define the role and its implications. If you are about to build your sales team, a Sales Operations Leader will need to create an agile process from scratch and find the best solutions and systems for your go-to-market approach. However, if your company is in a maturity stage, Sales Operations will be scaling sales processes, often internationally, and creating a consistent structure for internal communication. And in an even more mature stage, Sales Operations is about fine-tuning processes and data-crunching. So, it's up to the company and the Sales Operations Leader to define the structure. And this gives each side a certain responsibility.
Unfortunately, I have often seen Sales Operations hiding behind the operations side of the task or the sales managers. However, with the digital switch in sales nowadays and the need to create a personal sales approach on a wide scale, Sales Operations has never been more pivotal. Seize this opportunity!
Likewise, this goes to all the sales managers out there: Rethink this position! Sales Operations is the ace up your sleeve to assure the successful implementation of your go-to-market strategies and the smooth integration of your sales team within the company. Give Sales Operations their deserved role within the organization and keep in mind that this person is accountable for the entire sales team. For this, they have to stand above the team, not at the same level as them and certainly not below them.
So the next time someone asks you what Sales Operations is, you can say: “Highly agile people with a sense for strategy and detail who constantly search for the best solutions and organisational behaviors to build bridges so that everything can flow towards success.” It's as easy as that!