The tie that binds: how sales operations inspire process, success, and adoption in leading organizations

Collin Stewart, CEO

20 March 2019

In the world of entrepreneurship, few, if any, tasks are ever done: the product is never finished, marketing campaigns are never perfect, and sales is never maxed out. There’s just always more to do.

Sales operations is no exception.

Processes can always be refined – and everyone, from sales leaders to in-the-trenches prospectors, has an idea for how those processes can be improved. I mean, who hasn’t thought of a more intuitive sales funnel or better dashboards. 

Each of those ideas has merit.

The trouble, of course, is when your sales ops team jumps from idea to idea, and has to put out fire after fire, they’re never fixing root causes or taking a holistic look at the organization. And that’s where the magic of sales operations lives – in the comprehensive, big-picture frame of how to improve the machinations of a sales team in the long run.

As such, sometimes, taking a step back is what’s needed.

“I think that one of the fun parts of sales is ringing the bell – but that in-the-moment thinking it does bring up fires. Every time a rep or a manager comes up to a problem, that is a fire in their world. But if you look at the job like that, we aren’t addressing any problems. You can put a bandaid on any problem, but there will still be holes,” says Jeffrey Serlin, Head of Global Sales Operations at Intercom, on a recent edition of The Predictable Revenue Podcast.

“You have to step back and look holistically, and think about what in the aggregate needs to be solved long term. That makes sure problems are permanently closed.”

Focusing on sales operations

Every organization – large or small – will have its own particular needs when it comes to sales operations. For example, when Sarlin started at Marketo, his focus was improving the company’s quote-to-cash processes. But when he joined Intercom, he was tasked with much more project-based tasks such as building the support infrastructure for an ever-growing SDR team, improving the company’s forecasting ability, as well as various “cleanup” jobs.

In either scenario, however, one thing remained constant, regardless of the job: the need to establish new and improved processes, and get buy-in from the team. Without that buy-in, what’s the point?

“You always have to break some things – internal Dogma, or the way the company has evolved, for instance. You may have to break some stuff to put in place the things needed to make the company succeed,” says Serlin.

“In some cases, you have to think about global offices, the sales teams doubling, the complexity in the product – all of these things are huge. And, throughout it all, you have to be very focused on how you implement any changes. Because, without buy-in from the team, it just doesn’t work. You have to remember to start with why. Then, make sure you are collaborating with the team– include the team in your job. That is the difference between getting things right and wrong.”

(Editor’s note: in the spirit of alignment, I thought I’d repost our awesome interview with business coach Jeff Davis on how to ensure marketing and sales stay on the same page. You can read about our interview here, or listen here)

Jeff’s six steps to building an effective sales ops roadmap

To make sure he, and his team, are covering all of their bases and staying true to their focus on collaboration and holistic thinking, Serlin has created a detailed six-step process to illustrate an organization’s sales operations priorities and, subsequently, help design a quarterly roadmap to reflect those needs.

Those steps are:

  • Interviewing/shadowing people – identify pains of teams you are supporting. This step is all about meeting with people (across the organization) face to face. At Intercom, because they have global offices, Serlin went on a listening tour. He, and his team, travelled from office to office, to simply listen to the things going on in the world of Intercom’s sales team.
  • Reflection – document / articulate everything you heard. Serlin’s team collects feedback, and reflects on what they’ve learned. At this point, they really want to understand the breadth of what their teams are needing.
  • Draft a V1 of the sales operations roadmap – syncing up with management to work on prioritizing tasks and the solutioning needed. Serlin and his team catch up again with Intercom’s global managers and leadership teams to present to them a first version of the sales operations. It is a comprehensive document, which includes everything the team heard in their travels. Sales leaders, at this point, can ask questions, as well as return to their respective teams to discuss the initial roadmap.
  • Review – estimating time for each priority. Serlin and his team make sure they have identified everything need to complete the jobs on their roadmap, including resources and timelines.
  • Revisions – return to sales leadership.The sales operations team revises their roadmap, if need be, and presents it to sales leaders for approval.
  • Roll out – the global team is presented with the sales operations roadmap (Serlin recently presented this at Intercom’s global sales kickoff).

“Depending on the size of your team, this could take a couple of weeks. It takes us this long (about 5-6 weeks), because we are a distributed team, with lots of people in different offices,” says Serlin.

“This framework helps keep fires at bay – remember, when you get pulled off to do other things, you never really fix anything. Lucky here that leadership is operational, they understand the importance of giving us our space to build this. And, it keeps us as a sales ops team, focused and honed in on what we have committed to.”

The importance of “solutioning”

To be sure, each of the aforementioned six steps is critical to a well designed and laid-out sales ops roadmap. But, if we’re forced to isolate one piece as even more important, it’s the third step: syncing up with management to work on prioritizing tasks and the solutioning needed.

“This is an incredibly important part of the process – if we are going to use the capacity to work on each roadmap item, we need to make sure it will work. We need to be thoughtful here, just as you would in the product world,” says Serlin.

“So, we go deep on every problem, assess what an ideal outcome would be. We look at what the low hanging fruit are, as well as what can we do with our own skill sets. Essentially, we are determining what the discrete tasks are that we need to do build, and size the effort of each. I like to do that on a whiteboard. We even mock up some designs, and present them back to the team.”

Once the team is aligned on the different tasks, then they meet with the technical teams to assess their needs and, most importantly, figure out how to make sure they don’t break anything once the begin work.

Like his larger six-step plan for project roadmapping, Serlin has devised three key steps to the solutioning piece of the puzzle:

  1. Determine the lightest weight initial version of any new project or idea. At this stage, everyone involved should answer: does this version make meaningful change
  2. Determine how to make that plan work within the systems that already exist. This is where the technical experts come into play – before diving headfirst into a new project, you must understand what can break, what is going to break, and what is the plan to backfill, and communicate what is going on to the team should something break.
  3. Finally, enable and train the team. Picture this, you change a couple of fields in Salesforce. No big deal, right? Not exactly – people have those screens printed in their minds. Overlooking how impactful a small change can be is dangerous. As such, it is critical to always think about how you communicate that. Tell people what you are going to do before you do it. And let the team know why you are doing it – they will appreciate it.

For more of Serlin’s thoughts on establishing effective sales operations processes – including the importance of a six-month temperature check and more on how to organize a sales ops function – check out the rest of his interview on The Predictable Revenue Podcast.

Further reading:

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