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Understanding the Role of Sales Operations
Selling Power Editors

This article is based on insight from ZS Associates; learn how its Sales Force Effectiveness Navigator tool can help your organization achieve profitable growth.

Selling has often been considered more art than science. These days, however, the best sales forces are empowered by technology solutions and data. Consider, for example, the relatively recent rise and growth of cloud-based applications, mobile technologies, social networks, big data, and sophisticated analytics. These trends and tools have been a gateway for many organizations to create greater sales force effectiveness and thus achieve organic, profitable growth.

In part, the march toward science is why sales operations continues to be increasingly vital to sales success. Why? According to Dharmendra Sahay and Scott Shimamoto, Principals at ZS Associates, sales operations is uniquely positioned to leverage data and technology to support the sales organization, diagnose issues, and design solutions. In fact, they define sales operations by six categorical functions, all of which have deep roots in science and technology:

1) Data management. Sales operations managers help sales leaders pick and choose which data to examine. They also make sure data is clean, accurate, and complete (not to mention organized and rolled up into reports, ideally via a centralized and automated database).

2) Platforms and systems. A sales organizations CRM and other platforms or applications must be integrated, robust, and cost effective. The goal is for these assets to deliver value to the sales team in a scalable, flexible fashion.

3) Reporting and administration. Sales leaders and the sales force dont have much use for data thats raw, inaccurate, or untimely. Efficient processes and accurate reports and dashboards enable sales leaders to respond to market challenges and drive revenue growth.

4) Pricing and contracting support. Given the pace of business, its imperative that sales operations enable the sales team with high-quality proposals that can be turned around quickly and efficiently. Contracts must be positioned competitively; however, they must also fulfill company and customer objectives and establish mutual value.

5) Analytics and business insight. Intelligent analysis of raw data can be invaluable for sales leaders: Which customers are most receptive to certain products? What are the best practices of top-selling reps in the organization? Analytics from sales operations can provide answers to these kinds of questions and help sales leaders base decisions on facts, not intuition.

6) Lead generation and management. Many sales teams complain that leads from marketing are often useless. Meanwhile, marketers insist theyve fulfilled their lead-generation objectives. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The sales operations function can make generating, capturing, and following up on leads a seamless, cost-effective, and collaborative process.

Although the basic mission of a sales operations team is to organize data and generate deep customer insight in order to enhance sales force productivity and effectiveness, the practical role of sales operations varies widely from one company to the next. Essentially, sales operations teams can choose to offer varying levels of service depending on a sales organizations sophistication.

The primary level of service is support. That includes anything from generating sales performance reports, managing administrative programs (for example, an incentives plan), and keeping CRM relevant. The next level of service is delivering information and insight to the right people at the right time, including highlights of emerging problems, misalignments, and other challenges. The third level includes developing potential solutions to sales force effectiveness challenges across a range of critical areas, such as customer segmentation, sales resource optimization, sales process, talent development, and motivation.

Finally, sales operations teams that deliver the highest level of impact distinguish themselves as strategic partners. They detect emerging customer or market trends and help determine how the business can meet those opportunities and challenges to drive greater sales success.

"The best sales ops teams have a clearly articulated mission statement," Shimamoto says. "They build a framework to support that mission and deliver value and impact."

The art of selling will continue to play a factor in sales success, and the influence of science and technology will likewise continue to grow. Organizations that nurture excellent sales operations teams will find it easier to maintain a competitive edge, enhance sales force effectiveness, and achieve consistent, sustainable sales success.

This article is one of a series about sales force effectiveness, written in collaboration with experts from ZS Associates. Dharmendra Sahay and Scott Shimamoto were interviewed for this article. To learn more, check out the Sales Force Effectiveness Navigator from ZS Associates.
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