Competing Sales Ops Roles: Fixer Versus Strategist

July 6, 2016 Mark Emmons

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When the research firm TOPO holds periodic gatherings for sales operations professionals, the sessions typically start with a question for the group. What is the biggest challenge that you’re trying to solve at your business?

“They always say the same thing,” said Craig Rosenberg, co-founder of TOPO and the creator of the popular blog, The Funnelholic.

Scale.

Please notice that they didn’t say, “Making sure everyone on the sales team has the correct login for Salesforce.” That answer, Rosenberg added, tells you everything you need know about the growing importance of the role.

16706452451_eddf5b4825_z“Once they lay down a basic foundation with their sales team, they’re in charge of the things the company needs to grow as fast as it can,” he said. “Sales ops used to be the 24-hour fixer guy. ‘I need this report right now. Drop everything and go get it for me.’ They’re still that to some degree. But sales ops isn’t just putting out fires anymore. They’re putting systems in place to execute the sales methodology. These have become the guys who are driving scale.”

In other words, they’re becoming in-house analysts. They can have the clearest picture of what is, and isn’t, working because their fingers are on the pulse of the entire sales process. They scour the data looking for insights that can make the team more efficient and help the company grow.

And it’s why at many companies, sales ops practitioners no longer are viewed as just the “IT-for-sales” folks in charge of tasks like making sure the team can, well, sign into Salesforce and other tools. Their portfolio has expanded.

“When I started, it was very much a fixer mentality,” said Dhiraj Singh, the inside sales and operations manager at real-time memory database company MemSQL. “It was reactive sales ops. But I think the best ones now are extremely proactive to improve efficiencies before they even see a problem. I know that’s what really interests me.”

Traditionally, the day of a sales ops pro could go something like this:

  • Run reports
  • Make sure the team is logging activities
  • Troubleshoot issues
  • Keep the team current on sales tools
  • Run more reports

That’s sales ops as a firefighter. Grab the hose and battle the blaze. (And in sales ops, there’s always a blaze erupting somewhere.)

“The reactive part always comes first,” said Jin Daikoku, the director of inside sales at cloud app security company Netskope. “You have to handle the inbox. For me, the strategic part, the looking forward and how we’re going to do better, is way more exciting and fun. But I don’t get to do that until I handle the urgent problems. I have to take care of that stuff first before I can deal with my own pet projects.”

The well-being of the reps comes first because sales ops needs to treat the team like an internal customer, Daikoku added. And you need to keep the customer happy.

“But the growing part of sales ops is not talking to salespeople, but rather being in a cubicle as you try to figure out how we’re going to analyze this data to help the business,” he said.

For Alex Miller, the sales operations manager at messaging startup Zinc, the job has evolved into a 50-50 split between the day-to-day and the long-range vision. But he doesn’t underestimate the importance of the administrative side of the job.

It’s why Miller sits with the sales team. He blocks out time on his calendar just to be available to the SDRs. Having been a sales rep himself, he’ll even spend time using the sales tools to make sure they’re working properly for the team.

But keeping the sales engine well-oiled and running smoothly is just the start. It’s not just about the here and now. It’s about forecasting and planning for the future.

“More and more, people in sales ops are looking at the larger strategy,” he added. “That’s why you’re seeing the job title change from sales operations manager to sales operations strategy manager. It’s just an acceptance that so much more goes into the role now. You’re always wondering if we can do things differently and if we can improve our output by changing variables.”

Peter Kazanjy, founder of the Modern Sales Pros forum, said that the role is “moving from being the tail that is wagged to being more the dog that does the wagging.” That’s what happens, he added, when you can use data to identify both strong points and red flags.

That ability, TOPO’s Rosenberg said, is why when sales leaders find strong operations specialists, they often bring them along as they progress in their careers. Leaders know what information they need, added Brian Birkett, the vice president of sales at LeanData. And sales ops figures out how to provide it.

“In many organizations, sales ops are the doers,” he said. “They do what they’re asked. But now you’re seeing that they can present insights that help the business. It’s really blurring the line with sales leadership. In the really good organizations, you have sales ops partners who can bring their own ideas to the table.”

And it’s why something else is scaling: the importance of sales ops.

About the Author

Mark Emmons

Mark Emmons is the staff writer at LeanData. He previously was a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at mark@leandatainc.com.

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