Anais Bernard, Commercial Operations Director at Vision Critical shares her 6 top tips for new Sales Operations Professionals.
Wherever you come from, be it Finance, Sales, Consulting, or even fresh from university, if you’ve landed your first Sales Operations job – congratulations to you!
The scope of Sales Operations can be broad. In short, I would define Sales Operations as trusted advisors to Sales Leadership who help turn strategy into revenue by implementing the right structures.
Sales Ops professionals are usually well-rounded, both tactical and strategic, with a combination of good organisational skills and technical skills. They also have the ability to work with everyone in the company.
After a few years in Sales Operations, here are the six tips I have picked up along the way.
- Change Management
- Be curious and get your hands dirty
- Hard skills: excel, power point, CRM
- Keep it focused
1. Change Management
I’m kicking off my Sales Operations tips with an important one: Understand early on that Sales Ops is all about change management. Whether you want to automate tasks, improve targets and incentives or redesign processes, everything you work on cannot be done in isolation. You need to ensure that impacted teams are aware of the change and have accepted and adopted it. Many times, I’ve seen significant system changes being released and very few people knowing about them.
And once you have made the shift, you want to measure its impact and learn from it.
The basic Sales Ops cycle is: Goals > Build > Enable > Measure > Learn > Repeat.
2. Be curious and get your hands dirty
If you want to improve things, you have to understand them first. Don’t take anything for granted, question everything and find gaps. Key questions you should ask are:
- Why is this done this way?
- What are we trying to achieve with this?
- Why are we expecting this from the team?
- Is there not another way to perform this task to save time?
- Is there any room for optimization/efficiency without compromising flexibility?
- How is this figure calculated?
- Is everything working as it should?
Similarly, try to find everything that could be wrong with the team’s pipeline, from stages to close dates and activities, from ageing to push rates and pipeline growth.
In addition to asking people around you, test it yourself, reconcile data between different sources, compare records in your CRM, and simulate various scenarios. You will learn about your company’s data sources and their limitations. You will then be able to interpret the data and help management make the right decisions and drive impactful change. And as soon as you identify a gap, take action to get it resolved.
Be a detective! The more you know, the more impact your work will have.
3. Hard skills
Although Sales Ops requires a lot of interpersonal skills, it is also heavy on technical skills. You are expected to measure performance, back everything you say with data and understand your company’s datasets. Before learning SQL and other languages, here are some basic technical tips which will be enough for most first Sales Operations roles:
Getting all our analyses from our CRM is the Sales Ops dream. But in reality, the use of Excel is usually required for complex analyses.
- Learn how to build a pivot table. It is the easiest way to understand quickly what is in your data export and identify if you’re missing any data points. And of course, you can use it to slice and dice the data as you want
- Learn the basic formulas like vlookup, sumproduct (which is more powerful than it seems), countifs, and match
- Learn how to structure an Excel file in a scalable way. What if the data suddenly changes, will that break your model? Ultimately you want to be able to export the data, paste into the model and refresh pivot tables so you get an updated analysis in a few minutes. Take the time to be structured. I usually have three tabs (Data export, Mapping, Analysis). If you have data points that are not integrated into your system, add them to a “Mapping” tab to harmonise your data. Example: if your CRM includes countries and regions but no sub-regions, it can be interesting to have a simple table mapping countries to sub-regions and use a vlookup formula to map this information into your “Data export” tab that you can then pivot easily
- Lastly, learn how to build charts, and keep it simple
Being able to translate your data analysis into a visual story is crucial because not everyone in your audience knows how to read complex datasets in Excel. Again, keep it simple. I tended to overcomplicate my charts at the beginning (and still do sometimes), whereas most of the time splitting a chart in two makes it easier to digest. Try to keep your audience’s attention by limiting the number of animations to a minimum. Less is more. Also, any data point you use in your title should be visible in the slide.
Get to know your CRM Admin – you’re going to need to ask them a lot of questions! Dig into reports and learn how to build them. Try to figure out how it works, how it is structured, what happens when you modify a filter. If you’re stuck, go to the CRM guru in your company or find answers in forums. If you’re on Salesforce, here is my key tip I discovered quite late: implement what is called the “Power of One”. This is super powerful and unlocks a whole world of analytics unavailable otherwise.
Any good list of sales operations tips will mention empathy.
Empathise with your sales team. Ultimately, they are the ones selling and hitting the revenue target. You are therefore always trying to maximise their selling time so they can sell more and better. Understanding their day-to-day job is key. In your first weeks, shadow a Sales Rep. You will learn about key sales stages and processes they need to go through to manage a deal. Ask questions, think about ways to reduce their time spent on tasks. Test the system yourself to experiment potential hurdles, from lead management all the way down to deal closing. Review account targeting to ensure their focus is right. Empathy is a key attribute for Sales Ops. Always listen to what the ground is saying or complaining about. Experiment, prioritise accordingly and get improvements implemented.
Empathise with Sales Management. Your role is to be their trusted advisor. Listen to what they care about, understand their challenges, and check the data to confirm their potential concerns or gut feelings. Listen to the ideas they have to improve performance and have your esprit critique turned on so you can advise the best course of action to operationalise initiatives and learn from them.
Empathise with the wider team. You will talk to people from very various roles and backgrounds, each of them with their own language. Sales, Finance, IT, Marketing all have their own words to describe the same thing. Learn those languages, make sure you understand everyone’s point of view and be the translator to get business-related improvements implemented by IT.
For Reps to sell more and better, they need more time. It is therefore key to automate some of the repetitive tasks they have to perform in the system. After you’ve shadowed a Sales Rep, you should have a good picture of all the various tasks they have to perform daily. If it is not documented yet, document it. And then, from the workflow you created, you can identify steps that can be either automated, modified or removed altogether. Typical examples are: logging emails, reminders to discuss a renewal x days before the contract expiration date, lead assignment, etc.
As described in my third tip, automate any sophisticated analysis you suspect will need to be repeated.
For any new process you become aware of, try to think about how to automate it.
However, automation also needs to be sensible. By creating too many automation rules in your system, you may prevent some exceptional situations being recorded. Or you may create undesirable user behaviour or even counterproductive consequences. Having a tool to automatically record emails sent into your CRM? YES! Having a tool to send mass emails using the same template to everyone in your database? NO!
Carefully planned automation will save time for the sales team and also for yourself!
6. Keep it focused
I couldn’t write a list of sales operations tips without mentioning the importance of staying focused. Because Sales Ops is such a detailed oriented role, it is common to over-complicate processes or over-think. Start with the basics. Once you have a good understanding of the sales processes in your company, focus your attention on the basics.
Make sure the following are clear and accurate in your systems:
- Attainment versus targets
- Average deal size
- Average sales cycle with ageing by Stage
- Conversion rates
- Pipeline value and growth
- Forecast accuracy
- Handover actions (from Inside Sales to Outside Sales, from Outside Sales to Customer Success Manager)
Three basic dashboards: Sales performance dashboard to review overall revenue, pipeline and activity metrics, sales coaching for 1:1 with Reps, data quality to identify data issues Reps need to fix.
Work on gaps you identify in those basics and implement changes step by step. Once you get the basics right, you can get into more sophisticated initiatives. But basics are enough to keep you busy for some time!
I’ve always been lucky to have great managers who were happy to show me how to do things and share their knowledge so I could grow quickly. Some of my modelling habits still date from tips I received at my first sales operations internship. However, many companies have only one single resource in Sales Ops. This makes learning more difficult and slower, especially as there is no formal training.
If you are on your own, be proactive with your development. Learn from outside by reading blogs (like Klog!), attending conferences, or joining a professional group (check out Kluster’s sales ops meetup taking place next week). And, identify someone in your organization with the skills and knowledge you’re missing. It could be a CRM Manager, a senior Business Analyst, or someone who used to be in Sales Ops. Learning best practices from the start is important, as well as staying up to date with all the tools available in the market.
I wish you the best of luck in your first Sales Ops role and if you have any of your own sales operations tips, I’d love to hear them!
To learn more about the fundamentals of sales ops and where to start, download our free Guide to Sales Operations.