What is the heart of high-performing sales organizations?

Heart disease is the number one killer of women and men in the U.S. Sales organizations fail for the same reason – a poorly functioning heart. What is the heart of the sales organization? It’s the sales operations function. If the sales team is like the body, tasked with delivering revenue, then the sales operations team is like the heart – it keeps the sales force blood pumping and body running.


How do you know if your sales organization has a healthy heart? Our recently completed Sales Operations Study revealed several insights, or early warning signs, indicating there may be something wrong with sales operations, the heart of the sales force. Sales leaders should take heed to examine their sales operations functions for these tell-tale signs:

1.    Doing the Same Things You Did Three Years Ago

Sales organizations follow a predictable life cycle. When they are born, life is simple – sell the hot new product and drive volume. Then life gets a little more complex. The sales force has to balance acquiring new customers with an increasing focus on retaining existing ones. The company launches new products and deploys new sales resources. Rapid business expansion leads to higher sales costs, and soon Finance begins to expect Sales to not just deliver revenue but also take accountability for margin.

Heart Medicine #1: As the sales organization goes through this evolution, sales operations has to keep up. During the simple times it may have been okay to simply crank out compensation plans, territories and quotas; but as the business gets more complex, more is needed. When the sales leader is saddled with margin accountability, the healthy sales operations organization invests in capabilities to drive this new accountability down through the organization. These investments include tools and processes around evaluating deals, configuring solutions, structuring pricing, and standardizing quotes and proposal responses.

Sales operations leaders should engage in a regular organizational review to determine alignment with the needs of the sales organization. Either quarterly or annually, sales operations output must be assessed against the needs of the sales organization.

2.    Forgoing Heart Health for Investments in “Brain” Functions

The hot trend in sales operations today is “big data” and “data analytics,” holding the promise to provide the sales organization (the body) with business intelligence and next generation tools. Today’s sales operations analyst looks nothing like the one of the past. They are aspiring leaders with MBAs and the ability to not only find meaning in data but also tell the story. New business intelligence and planning tools such as Anaplan and Tableau are gaining traction and transforming the way sales operations delivers value to the sales organization. This all sounds great, but doing so at the expense of foundational sales operations tasks will simply create more heartache.

Heart Medicine #2: Sales operations earns the right to take on brain functions when the heart is healthy. Territories, compensation plans and quotas need to be managed and administered well. Reports need to be relevant, timely and easily accessible. Valuable sales time needs to be protected through improved CPQ tools and processes. Critical management processes, like pipeline management, must be reinforced and streamlined. Strategic imperatives, like profit maximization, need to be supported with activities like deal reviews. Sales operations must evolve to be both the heart and the brain of the sales organization.

3.    Losing Touch with the Local Sales Team

Maybe you have spent the last couple of years building a Center of Excellence, pulling together separate sales operations teams into a single unit. This makes tremendous sense. However, sales operations leaders tell us that this exercise often goes too far and prevents the heart from effectively meeting the needs of the body’s extremities – the local sales team. The decision to centralize starts with scalability. If the function or activity is in close proximity to a system such as CRM or sales compensation administration, it should be centralized. But if it requires intimate knowledge of local strategy, including customer or specific selling situations such as proposal writing, you should think twice.

Heart Medicine #3: When knowledge of strategy, customers and/or market dynamics is paramount, the function should align to local teams. Examples include sales support (activities associated with account and pre-call planning and post-call customer follow-up) and sales compensation design. Follow central frameworks but align to local needs to efficiently deliver the necessary life blood to the body’s extremities.

4.    Shrinking Budgets

In our recent study, sales operations leaders also shared they are being asked to reduce budgets, or at best, keep them flat. Convincing the business to invest in sales operations is a tall task, but one worth taking on to give the body what it needs to win in a challenging marketplace.

Heart Medicine #4: Keeping the body healthy requires continued investment to take sales operations competencies to the next level. A healthy sales operations function not only executes tasks and informs sales leadership but also advises them on how to win in target markets. To do this requires ongoing investments to improve data and visibility into the business. Leading sales operations functions find new ways to help their sales stakeholders eliminate low-value activities and be more successful at the point of persuasion by delivering the right sales content at the right time through CRM, playbooks and mobile technology.

Keep on Ticking

To keep your sales heart healthy, pay attention to the symptoms and keep in mind the following:

  • Sales operations is the heart of the sales organization. It efficiently runs a complex body, freeing sellers to do what they do best – sell.
  • High-performing sales operations organizations earn the right to take on advanced “brain” functions, directing sellers to the next market or growth opportunity through analytics, training, tools and other means.
  • It may be financially alluring to centralize, but do not do so at the expense of getting life blood to the extremities.
  • As the sales organization evolves, what it means to be heart healthy changes, and investments need to be made.  Don’t stop finding new ways to help the body win in a challenging marketplace.

Contact an Alexander Group Sales Operations practice leader.

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