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November 18, 2015

The Secret Weapon to Scaling: Sales Operations


I was speaking at an event last night and met a young woman at a large public tech company that was thinking of moving into startup land. She wanted to know whether her skills would be valued in a smaller, growth company. I asked her what role she was currently playing and my eyes widened when she replied, "sales operations". "Holy crap!" I exclaimed, "You'll be the most valuable hire a growth stage company could ever make." When the people around us looked puzzled, I realized that not everyone appreciates that sales operations is the secret weapon to scaling start ups.

One of the largest friction points to rapid scaling is the sales force. Very few companies have a business model that enables frictionless revenue growth because of their successful implementation of a freemium model - e.g., Bettercloud, Cloudflare, Dropbox, MongoDB - and even those that do eventually hire a sales team to move up the ladder on deal size and improve upsell, cross-sell and renewal rates. When you begin to scale a sales force, you desperately need to create a sales operations function.  Here's why:

  • You need to hire, train and make productive a lot of new salespeople - fast. Your sales directors and VPs find it hard to take the time to sit with internal and external recruiters and write job descriptions, screen candidates and develop the systematic training and monitoring and coaching programs for new sales recruits. The difference between ramping a productive salesperson in 3 months versus 6 months could be life or death for a scaling startup. That's the role of sales operations.
  • Your VP of Sales is a great leader, but not a great operator.  Most VPs of sales are strong leaders of people, recruiters and individual "rain makers". But they don't typically love staring at spreadsheets, analyzing metrics and working out optimal compensation systems that align incentives with strategy. That's the role of sales operations.
  • Sales and marketing alignment is important - but hard to execute in the trenches. The sales directors and VPs are too busy chasing deals and coaching their reps in the field to be back in headquarters walking marketing through the latest in competitive intelligence. The field staff struggles to be patient enough to explain and identify what sales tools are lacking as well as tracking what happened to certain cohorts of leads to improve lead generation. And wrangling over the latest in pricing and packaging schemes is never fun - and not something you want your sales team distracted by. That's the role of sales operations.
  • The insights from your sales CRM system is strategic, but cumbersome. Having an in-house whiz at salesforce.com/SugarCRM/NetSuite is required to develop those fancy pipeline reports, prepare for the weekly sales calls as well as report to the executive team and the board on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis a snapshot of what is happening in the field across all territories and all sales teams. That's the role of sales operations.
  • You want to invest in technologies to make sales efficient, without slowing down sales during technology implementation. Sales organizations are full of technology that need to be mastered - CRM, dialer, email platform, analytics tools - and asking each sales rep to develop proficiency in each tool and provide the IT team with feedback on how to optimally configure each tool is a distraction for them. That's the role of sales operations.

The best sales operations leaders allow the sales team to spend more time selling and less time worrying about reporting, cross-functional coordination and operational management. Sometimes known as the Chief Revenue Officer's chief of staff, the mole for the CEO to figure out what's really going on in sales, the executive who prepares all the board reports on sales - whatever you want to call it, that role is the absolute secret weapon that every company needs to rapidly scale sales.

As an aside, here are a few job descriptions recently posted for directors of sales operations at rapidly scaling startups that I liked on LinkedIn to help bring the position to life:


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