Building a Sales Ops Function

Sean Lane has led revenue operations at Drift and Upserve, and hosts Drift's Operations Podcast. In this guide, he explains the different roles sales ops plays, and how to build both the org and processes that make up the function.

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Questions covered in this guide

Why should SaaS companies invest in Sales Ops?

So there’s someone to be objective across teams you want every team in your organization to be working towards making their team better, but while all of that is happening, you need an objective party to be looking at the bigger picture and trying to figure out not just what’s best for those individual teams, but for the company as well.

So there’s someone to be forward-looking about what you want to measure it’s so difficult, especially in a fast growing company, to think past what you’re doing today. You need someone who can look a little further down the road and say, “what are the core components of our funnel, customer journey, and our marketing and sales investments?” Understanding what you want to measure later allows you to focus on the right foundational building blocks as you grow.

To give time back to sales reps – you want to save reps time on administrative work or other manual items so they can spend more time on what they’re best at: selling. A good ops person should be able to come in right away, see that low hanging fruit, and make sales reps’ lives easier.

To give sales leaders a partner for anything from capacity planning and hiring, to enablement, to tools in the tech stack, to insights into their business. When you’re coming into a new sales organization, every single sales rep and every single sales leader is one of Sales Ops’ “customers” and your job is to make them better at their job. As long as you approach it with that customer-centric view, I think a Sales Ops is always going to be a value add to an organization.

What’s the difference between Sales Ops and Revenue Ops?

Model 1: Centralized Ops model (aka Hub & Spoke) = typically Revenue Ops where Ops sits at the center of your go-to-market, with various spokes of the wheel that go out to different parts of your internal organization. If you have Ops at the center, then you probably have spokes that go out to Sales Ops, Marketing Ops, Customer Success, and even Support. 

Model 2: Function-specific model = typically Sales Ops this is where you have each Ops team report directly into that function (i.e Sales Ops reporting into Sales, Marketing Ops reporting into Marketing)

When does it make sense to start to build a Sales Ops function?

Hire once you have a couple of reps and have some kind of repeatable sales motion – at this point, your CEO should no longer be a primary seller and you might even have a sales leader. You should also have some product-market fit and some idea of how your go-to-market is going to work. If you haven’t figured out any sort of repeatable sales motion yet, it’s probably too early.

Even before you have a dedicated sales ops person, what are the couple of things companies absolutely must do in the early days?

Identify your key metrics – you need to have some basic things in place. Even in the earliest stages, you should track things like your sales cycle, average selling price (ASP), and win rate, so that you’re building some foundational metrics you can build on.

Define major milestones in your funnel – what does it mean to have a lead and what does it mean to create an opportunity? What does it look like to have a customer? You don’t have to get any crazier than that.

Build a culture of capturing data – “if it’s not in Salesforce, it doesn’t exist.” It sounds cliche, but this mentality can be built into companies from very early on. CEOs and early leaders have significant influence over the way that the rest of the company thinks about the role of data and systems in their organizations.

What are the core sales ops metrics to track?

Basic funnel counts – identify key moments in your funnel and track volume, like:
  • Number of first meetings (typically discovery or demo) booked
  • Number of meetings held (since not every meeting booked will be held)
  • Number of opportunities created
Conversion rates– track conversion between steps in your funnel, like:
  • Rate of booked meetings to held meetings (hold rate)
  • Rate of held meetings to opportunities created
  • Win rate from opportunity to booking
Key sales metrics– track sales metrics, like:
  • Average sales cycle
  • Average selling price

What are the key activities of Sales Ops?

Process and performance across the customer journey – your job as an operator is to find all of the inefficiencies in the customer journey and get rid of them. What I think is unique about Ops is when I say “customer journey” I have two sets of customers: internal customers (the sales team) and then my actual company’s customers. When it comes to internal customers, Sales Ops’ role is to make the Sales organization more productive. Some great early places to improve efficiencies include lead delivery, internal hand-offs, compensation planning, and new hire ramp plans and enablement.

Tools and systems managing all of the core go-to-market systems that come into play in the day in the life of your Sales team. This includes managing everything from the company’s tech stack to reps’ views and dashboards. Sales Ops owns the plumbing of how data moves between your different tools, and showing the right lead or the right information to your team at the right time is critical in leveraging your tools properly

Metrics and analytics – this is the bridge between the first two. This is all of your ongoing goal-setting, reporting, insights, and forecasting for all key funnel metrics. It also means developing specific routines and cadences with leaders and managers to talk about performance with their teams. In addition to the normal routines and reporting, you have ad hoc projects and analyses that come up all the time based on what the company might be working on at that given time.

What are the Sales Ops sub-specialties that you start to hire for as you scale?

In a centralized revenue operations model, you might have activity-type specialists the Ops team might be divided into separate groups: Data, Systems, and Ops. In this model, the Ops group acts as more of a liaison/project manager between the Data and Systems teams and the go-to-market leaders in various functions.

In a function-specific model, you might have specialists for your different sales motions or core SalesOps functions – you could have different people supporting various segments like Enterprise, Small Business, SDR Teams, and Account Management. Or you could specialize your team based on specific skill sets, like tool administration, commission plan design, forecasting, or territory management.

Where does Sales ops fit in the org?

Sales Ops could be under Sales, an Ops leader, or even Finance first, there isn’t a perfect answer; there are pros and cons for each model. Regardless of the model you pick, though, the most important relationship to develop (regardless of the reporting structure) is the partnership between the Ops team and whichever go-to-market function they’re working with. Ops needs to deliver value and establish itself as a strategic partner early. If you can do that, you’re less likely to be viewed as just a support function in the business. 

Sales Leaders can set Ops up for success when we have new people join our Ops team, I’m far less worried about them learning our Salesforce architecture then I am with them spending quality time with either a VP of Sales or Customer Success or Marketing. The foundation of that relationship is going to be the most important thing moving forward. If these go-to-market counterparts are bought in, they can set a tone for the future of how the Ops team will be perceived within the company. 

When you hire for a first Sales Ops person, what should you look for?

Look for someone who’s “adaptively excellent” you can put this person into any scenario, and it doesn’t matter what experience or expertise they have because they’re going to take in the context of what’s around them and make the best decision possible. You want people who aren’t going to be completely thrown by a new situation because they’re probably going to face new situations all the time. You want someone who’s proven they can handle challenges like that. 

Look for problem solvers – you want people who want to be the one who figures it out; they’re not just the person who finds the problem. You want a team of operators who are competing with each other and collaborating on solving your business’s problems. It sounds silly, but if the person likes crossword puzzles, chances are good you’ve found someone who will make a good Operator.

Someone who understands a similar funnel to yours, with growth experience it’s more important to hire people who’ve seen growth at previous companies before than people with experience in your exact industry or business model. It’s more important that they can adapt and evolve with your company as it grows (that being said, if you’re a B2C/E-commerce company and you’re hiring someone who’s only worked in B2B SaaS before, that might not be the best fit).

What backgrounds make for good sales ops people?

From customer-facing teams – folks who’ve done other “tours of duty” in Sales, Marketing, or Customer Success. If you’ve been on one of those teams and you move to Ops, you have true empathy for what it takes to do those jobs. You aren’t just a person behind a spreadsheet who thinks your idea will work.

From Finance these can be strong Sales Ops people, and often bring a more analytical, financial skillset to them

MBAs people who come with a more general finance or operations business background. 

Where can you find good sales ops candidates?

Find the communities where they spend time! Here are some of my favorites:

Modern Sales Pros – a message board forum with a treasure trove of previous questions and a community with great in-person events. 

Slack communities (e.g. Wizards of Ops) – go there to ask questions, see job postings, and crowd-source ideas from specialized groups

What’s in the Sales Ops tech stack?

The core a CRM (e.g. Salesforce). Must have.

A marketing automation tool (e.g. Marketo, HubSpot) Build out your early email database and campaigns. There should be a one-to-one relationship between the CRM and the automation tool.

A contract tool – you need some way to sign contracts such as DocuSign or PandaDoc.

Match your tech stack with the maturity of your org – as you grow, it may make sense to add more specialty tools, but don’t over-do it. It’s so easy to reach a point of tech stack bloat. You shouldn’t mismatch the maturity of your company with the complexity of the tools you’re trying to buy. Some potential add-ons as you grow, include:
  • Prospecting tools – if your company is extremely outbound heavy. This could be LinkedIn Sales Navigator or tools like Outreach and Salesloft for sales sequencing.
  • Lead scoring tools or behavior-scoring tools – if you’re more inbound focused and have a problem around prioritizing and picking the right leads to go after.
  • A database enrichment tool like ZoomInfo or Clearbit – if you’re trying to pick your target accounts or add in more firmographic traits of your prospects.

Then as you become more mature and your go-to-market becomes more complex – you might start to value a forecasting tool (e.g. Clari), a marketing attribution tool (e.g. Bizible or FullCircle), and potentially Account Based Marketing (6Sense, Demandbase) specialty tools. And of course revenue acceleration tools like Drift!

How do you measure the success of Sales Ops?

Write clear, measurable goals connected to business outcomes be incredibly specific with the goals you create for your part of the organization. That isn’t “build workflow X” or “launch tool Y”; it needs to be tied to the reason you’re building or launching those things, and the metrics you’re going to influence as a result.

Make sure your goals align with the priorities of the teams you work with the items that are at the top of the Sales Ops goals should also be at the top of the Sales team’s list. 

Internal NPS – this is a little fluffier, but I do this every quarter. I send a survey to all of the go-to-market leaders with a handful of different questions about how they view the Ops team’s work that quarter. I ask standard NPS questions, but I also ask them:
  • Did you have better visibility to run your business this quarter than you did the quarter before?
  • Did you have better prioritization alignment with Ops then you did the quarter before?
  • Was there better communication about the changes we made last quarter along with the why behind those changes?

What are the most important pieces to get right?

From a relationship perspective – build a strong rapport with whatever team you’re working with. If you don’t have a foundational level of trust and view the relationship as a partnership, then you aren’t going to be set up for success.

From a metrics perspective – lock in the definitions and metrics you want to track for the core stages of your funnel. Ask yourself what’s the most information you can glean from the smallest number of KPIs.

What are the common pitfalls?

Making things more complicated than they need to be – I say this from a lot of experience. The more you can simplify things, the less likely you are to run into a scenario later where you’ve boxed yourself in and you have to completely start from scratch. 

Don’t forget to actually talk to internal customers (the sales reps) “liking salespeople” shouldn’t be a rare quality in Sales Ops folks; it should be the standard. If you’re an Ops team that’s just sitting behind your spreadsheets or spending all of your time in Salesforce, but you aren’t talking to your end users, then you’re going to fail and so are your internal customers.

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