The difference between Sales and Sales Operations is clearly confusing to those outside of the Sales profession but I suspect it is not entirely clear to a few of us here as well. I can’t tell you how many times I get calls from Sales recruiters who after looking at my job title on LinkedIn, “VP of Sales Operations”, ask me if I would be interested in a Sales management role. I always explain that my role is as staff to Sales and that they are probably looking for a quota carrying Sales leader that manages other quota carrying sales resources. While that seems to clarify the difference for the recruiters, I’ve had conversations with Sales managers who don’t agree that managing quota carrying resources is the primary differentiator. I am hopeful that some readers of this article will reply with their perspective on the distinction between Sales and Sales Operations.
But why is Sales Operations so different from one company to the next?
I believe the comprehensive list of Sales Operations tasks on my home page are required to run any size sales organization, large or small. If you’re the sales leader at a startup company hiring your first individual contributor you need to figure out how to train them, incentivize them, provide appropriate tools to help them sell, determine their territory, determine their quotas, answer procedural questions, facilitate incoming orders, and analyze their sales effectiveness. You will reiterate these processes for each new hire (sometimes with the help of Finance and HR) until you can no longer perform these responsibilities plus handle your Sales responsibilities (e.g. selling, recruiting, hiring, motivating, skills coaching, forecasting, achieving your quota, etc.) At some point either you start to burn out or those helpful folks in Finance or HR push back, suggesting you hire a Sales Operations person to handle some of these tasks. When you get to around ten selling resources the pressure mounts and action has to be taken.
As the Sales leader you will probably write a job description for the new Sales Ops role and include those responsibilities you’re most comfortable sharing or giving up entirely. That could mean your first Sales Ops person is simply responsible for administering a CRM system and generating reports, or it could mean that your Sales Ops person is responsible only for forecast reporting and performance analytics. The overall list of tasks for which Sales is responsible doesn’t change, it’s just a matter of which of them will be delegated to Sales Ops and which continue to be performed by Sales management. The word delegated is carefully selected since all of these items remain the responsibility of the Sales leader.
I draw two insights from this. First, the responsibilities of a Sales Operations role are a subset of the Sales leader’s role and second, the reason Sales Operations responsibilities vary so widely by company is because the tasks included in that subset are at the discretion of the Sales leader.
In the last few years the role of Sales Operations has matured and you will find Sales Ops practitioners more established and disciplined in focus, capabilities and Sales 2.0 tools. They will expect to be responsible for more of the tasks cited by CEB and, for the Sales leader willing to share some of that load with the right individual, the result should be a more scalable, effective team with higher revenue attainment.
I should add that once an organization grows to employ hundreds of selling resources, entire departments are built up around some of these Sales Operations tasks. As time goes by and sales leaders come and go, these departments are gradually vested with increasing control over their area of discipline with more and more independence from direct Sales management.
These are my thoughts based on personal experience and interviews with Sales leaders but please feel free to post how you determined the scope of Sales Ops responsibilities in the comment box below.