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A primer on Sales Ops (a.k.a. SOPs) for early-stage B2B founders

I have spent the past 8 years of my career in sales operation in awesome, fast scaling organisations such as Box, Anaplan, Framer and more recently Uber Freight Europe (that just got acquired by sennder GmbH). About 3 years ago, as I moved from San Francisco to Amsterdam, I noticed that the European founders were much less aware about the benefits of Sales Operations (practitioners call it “SOPs”) than their US counterparts. Oftentimes, founders and sales leaders here did not know what a Sales Operations role does, how this function could be valuable for their sales org, or how to hire the right person for the role. There were also much fewer candidates with the Sales Operations job title in the market. I described the Sales Operations scene here as “low supply, low demand”.

Fast forward 3 years, after having worked at 3 European organizations and advised a growing number of Point Nine portfolio companies, I have encountered numerous questions and noticed an increasing demand for Sales Operations. In this post, I try to unpack some of the common questions I get (specifically applicable to B2B, Enterprise Sales environment), in hopes of driving awareness of this important function in a sales org.

This post is structured in 3 parts

  1. What is Sales Operations (SOPs)?
  2. Why and when do I need a dedicated SOPs person?
  3. How to hire a SOPs’ badass?

1. What is Sales Operations (SOPs)?

The term “Sales Operations” is not only referring to a function but to a company wide “set of business activities and processes that help a sales organization run effectively, efficiently and in support of business strategies and objectives.” Source: Wikipedia

The Sales Operations (SOPs) role will be tasked to drive and perform most of these activities and processes, but it is not the only person/team that is responsible for all: it involves the whole sales organization, as well as cross functional teams’ collaboration to make it work.

The primary objective of the SOPs team is to enable and drive frontline sales to sell more efficiently, by

i) strategically providing directions,

ii) implementing the optimal sales tech stacks, and,

iii) iterating to make the sales process even more frictionless

The SOPs team is successful when the sales team can focus entirely on revenue generating activities, in turn providing a better initial experience for your customers and faster achievement of your company’s revenue goal.

Let’s dive into these three areas of ownership. Although there will be emphasis on certain areas depending on your organization’s size and the state of the business, you will see they are interrelated and indispensable to Sales Operations.

Sales Ops function illustrated

Strategy, Planning & Analytics

This first area of the SOPs role aims to provide a north star for your sales team and drive their behavior. It spans from optimizing sales processes, identifying sales methodology & best practices, analyzing performance metrics, sales forecasting & pipeline analysis to sales goals & quota setting, designing sales compensation plan, territory assignment and sales capacity planning.

Here are a few questions the SOPs team typically tries to answer:

  • “What is the team quota and individual quota for the next 6–12 months?”
  • “How should we incentivise the team so they are driven to overachieve their goals, without blowing up our budget? “
  • “How many leads do we need to realize our sales goals? How do we acquire these leads?”
  • “What does a sales cycle look like and how can the sales team fast track a deal to win? Is it scalable?”
  • “Should we hire more sales reps and if so, how many?”

The SOPs team strives to answer these by generating reports and analyzing historical data, but also by closely collaborating with sales leadership to determine the overarching, forward looking strategy & direction for the sales team.

Sales Systems & Tools (Technology)

A great sales tech stack is essential because good tools and setup are needed to manage sales day to day, as well as to provide insights to sales management. The process of vendor selection, CRM implementation, integration and improvements ties hand in hand with some of the aforementioned activities under Strategy & Planning.

Some of the questions that often comes up are:

  • “What are the right tools for this team and do we have these tools in place already?”
  • “Are they set up in a way that makes sense for the sales team and is there anything we can automate to make their life easier?”
  • “Is the data required in strategy & planning analysis all reportable from the CRM?”

To answer these, SOPs will first need to understand the determined strategy and applicable sales processes before selecting what tools a sales team needs. They then need to set up the tools & systems to reflect such sales processes, identify reporting needs, and manage clean data for reporting that are crucial to ongoing planning & analysis. Other than that, SOPs will oversee the adoption of implemented tools and provide training, documentation, as well as ongoing improvements (yes, your CRM setup will change overtime as your business and sales process will change) and continued education.

Operations & Enablement

Now that the sales team has a clear direction and good tools, SOPs is also responsible for the day to day execution. Examples include:

  • Ensuring all changes are communicated to the sales team
  • Working with other functional teams (esp. marketing) to provide training & sales collaterals to the sales team
  • Working with functional team to maintain a feedback loop between sales and others, i.e. onboarding and customer success will appreciate a good handover process from the sales team
  • Implementing a discount approval process especially for strategic deals, as well as managing the quote to cash & contracting process
  • Ensuring data cleanliness, Month/Quarter/Year end performance measurement and deal reconciliation. This plays an important role in compliance and financial reporting, especially when a company tries to raise funding or go public

Success in this part is often related to how things are set up under the Strategy & Planning and the Tooling parts. For instance, without setting up your CRM in the right way, you would not be able to collect financial data, nor would your sales team be able to properly manage sales quotes and contracts to close a deal.

2. Why and when do I need a dedicated SOPs person ?

At the end of the day, as a (sales) leader, you want your sales reps to focus on selling, instead of figuring out i.e. how to set up Salesforce in the right way — It’s just neither the best use of their skills & time nor the best use of your resources. By having a dedicated SOPs person, sales managers can focus on coaching and motivating your reps; your sales reps can focus on hitting revenue goals as well as providing the best first touchpoint experience for your product audience.

Tip: Sales Leaders should see SOPs as business partners whose skills you can utilize to take burdens off your shoulder so you can focus on managing and coaching the team. Do not forget to loop in SOPs to help operationalise and execute on collaborative efforts among cross functional projects/teams.

But when should I hire SOPs?

The TL;DR is “when you want to bring orders to chaos” ;)

It depends on the company, but I would say once you have 3 or more sales reps in the team and plan on rapidly hiring more, it is time to hire a dedicated Sales Ops (at least on a part-time basis).

Until recently, companies waited until too late to hire SOPs. Now Sales Leaders know that having this function earlier means building critical structure proactively, instead of diving into the unknown without expertise or scrambling to clean up operational debts later. Rapid growth without visibility, process, and measurement is a big no-no. Often start-ups will start by sharing SOPs responsibilities among multiple individuals. Even if they have the right skill sets, this will still take away time and focus from sales reps, which is not ideal in the mid-long term basis.

3. How to hire a SOPs badass?

What makes a great Sales Ops candidate, especially for an early stage, fast growing start-up, and how should you go about hiring one?

Here are a few important skills your first SOPs hire should have:

  • Strategic & Analytical: This person should be an Excel & Data master — I know, it sounds old school, but that’s the nature of a start-up when your data may be in different places. That’s why this person also needs to be analytical and be comfortable with manoeuvring data sets. He/She will be responsible for putting structure in place so it is easier to obtain data moving forward. They also need to be strategic and thoughtful as many decisions they make in all areas will require big picture thinking, but able to break it down into smaller action items for execution.
  • Tech Savvy: he/she should also be comfortable with technology. It’s ok if they have never used your CRM before but they need to be willing to learn and learn quickly. Tip: if they are very good with Salesforce, but you use Pipedrive, it is likely this person will have no problem learning it because Salesforce has a much more complicated administration process.
  • Experience working in a Sales environment: We all know a sales environment is unique: fast pace, result oriented, yet process driven. Your SOPs hire should be detail oriented and be able to not just work with but also influence & communicate changes within your sales team. As the wise ones say:
  • Project Management ninja: SOPs will collaborate with cross functional teams on various projects. You will need a good project manager that is communicative, collaborative and great at stakeholder management
  • Organized, Structured, WITHOUT being rigid: the latter part is specific to start-ups. While this role is vital to putting structure in place, it is important to hire someone that understands the startup environment. If someone comes in and expects there is a whole set of data available for analysis, or that the company has all the tools purchased and ready, or that documentations are all in place, it wouldn’t be a good fit. You need someone that can strike a balance between being structured and being flexible

Key considerations when screening for & interacting with SOPs candidates:

  • No one is perfect and it is rare to find someone that is an expert in all areas. It is OK if your candidate falls short in 1 or more of the areas listed above, as long as they are coachable, willing to learn, and have an open mind. Start by identifying some of your sales org’s priority and needs. For example, if you are looking to purchase and implement a set of sales tools soon, you would want your candidate to be tech savvy and good at project managing, but they do not necessarily need to have experience in designing a full on comp plan — this can come later.
  • Depending on the region you are in, it may be difficult to find candidates with a “Sales Operations” job title in their CV. Consider searching for the titles “Business Operations”, “Strategy & Operations”, “Business Analytics”, “Data Analyst” — these are likely to possess similar skill sets you should look for in a SOPs candidate
  • If budget is a concern or if you are unsure about investing in a full time SOPs member right off the bat, consider starting with a part time SOPs and ramp up to a full time function later when needed — this often works out for start ups as it is a good trial period for both sides. (OK, I might be a little biased here because if you’re interested in trying this out, feel free to send me an email here or discuss it with Louis at P9)

A Fictional SOPs Job Description:

Hoping that it could help seed-stage founders make this first hire, I have created this fictional job description. Feel free to use it.

How do I know if it is working for us?

SOPs is a very invisible role, especially when sales is doing great. As mentioned earlier, the success metric for SOPs is a group of sales reps that focus on revenue generating activities and are efficient in doing so. If your sales team has great sales velocity, sales reps are happy with the tools they use as well as the process they are asked to follow, sales leadership feels informed about how their teams are doing and feel they can predict revenue well, I would say your SOPs team is doing a hell of a great job 🎉!

Tip: Once they join your sales org, ensure your dedicated SOPs person is plugged into the sales team’s day to day as a business partner; empower them so they make decisions and hold others (stakeholders, sales team) accountable for projects & tasks, something as simple as i.e. updating activities in the CRM.

In Conclusion

We covered what SOPs is and some of the elements in hiring for one. I cannot stress enough the importance of a Sales Operations role in scaling a fast-growing sales team. If you are leading a sales team, include in your hiring plan this crucial business partner of yours to ensure your strategic decisions are data driven, well thought/planned out, and efficiently executed.

Happy selling!

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Amy Liu

Amy Liu

Startup and Scale-up Sales Operations & Strategy