Evolution of the Sales Operations Function

June 28, 2021 Mick Naughton

Sales operations: What it used to be and what it is becoming

When I started working in B2B (pre-Jurassic period) the types of activities that would now be considered part of sales operations were typically spread out across a variety of areas. Reporting may have lived with finance, training and comp with HR, and sales technology may have come down to whichever team had the office supplies cost center to ensure our reps had a rolodex to keep business cards. IT and data were something that lived in a back office.

But how times have changed! Gartner recently posted an article which highlights that the volume of data has increased at a breakneck speed over the past 15 years. At the same time, the needs of organizations have evolved to not only have sales operations as a basic functional group within a business, but to be best-in-class, sales ops should deliver a competitive advantage.

While data may be the crude oil that is powering this shift, it is how data is transformed that is the fuel, which will power those organizations that achieve true differentiation. In their blog, Gartner details what the driving forces are behind this shift. They point to two factors: “Complexity/Interconnectivity” and “Moving from Reactive to Proactive to Predictive.”

Factor #1 - Complexity and Interconnectivity

In the last 20 years, the world has become both smaller and larger, all at the same time. We can communicate face to face with clients across the globe without leaving our desk. We outsource or have automated functions that had traditionally been a core capability, and we have 24-hour sales teams in the form of eCommerce. All those changes have been accompanied by an emergence of a massive tidal wave of available data and expectations for a seamless end user experience. It’s easy to see why the need for a centralized function within an organization in the form of a sales operations executive is necessary to harness and develop strategies to deal with these changes. Siloed functionality would be inefficient in keeping up.

“Advances in technology and access to big data are pushing even greater complexity deeper into the selling organization. From its central, coordinating perspective, sales operations can now unlock strategic sales and go-to-market insights that are inaccessible to other functions,” Gartner Senior Director, Analyst Steve Herz.

Along with those fundamental shifts have come enterprise software platforms and the integration of AI and ML into day-to-day decision making. This can include a wide variety of use cases from a sales operations perspective, informing sellers what to sell, who to sell it to and what price to sell it for. “Analytics Everywhere” is a rallying cry from both consultants and software providers alike. As sales operations teams are considering partners in this landscape to help them deal with these issues, there are as few factors that Zilliant has seen as crucial and has built best-in-class features into its offering to address these challenges.

  • Highly Scalable: As applications get larger and more complex, the traditional way of building enterprise applications has become problematic. In our cloud-native, microservices architecture, applications are structured as collections of loosely coupled services, and this makes them easier to build, and more importantly, easier to deploy, expand, and scale. 
  • Dynamic/Real Time: Sales operations should consider an API-first strategy that encapsulates the business rules, processes, and value of a product. Then, leverage these APIs to integrate intelligence into the user-facing experience and functionality. By doing so, updating pricing, sales and related commercial guidance can happen in real time as market conditions change.
  • Interconnected: Cloud has evolved in terms of having platforms that enable the off-loading of infrastructure requirements and allow users to take full advantage of the distributed, scalable, and flexible nature of the public cloud to maximize business value. Rather than standing up a new solution for sales teams to retrieve guidance from, seek to integrate directly into your existing CPQ, eCommerce, CRM, ERP or other sales-facing solutions such as those offered by SAP, Oracle, Salesforce and Conga.
  • Smart – Leverage leading AI and ML approaches, purpose-built for the challenges of B2B, to deliver market-aligned pricing that measures elasticity at the micro-segment level as well as sales growth guidance that reveals what customers and prospects should be buying based on “ideal” customers.
  • Collaborative – Take the intelligent, data-driven sales and pricing guidance generated by AI and ML the final mile with a management application that enables sales ops to scope, filter, and prioritize actions based on strategy and potential business impact.

Read eBook: Sales & Operations Planning: Six Winning Strategies

Factor #2 – Moving from Reactive to Proactive to Predictive

The move from being reactive to proactive has been a mantra of business consultants and self-help gurus for quite a while. The number one rule in Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is: be proactive. That was published in 1989. That has largely been a successful approach. There are entire sales training programs that leverage this idea and productionalize a system to teach sales teams to act as such. But in a world where more and more clients are coming into the B2B universe with experiences as a consumer of having systems automatically anticipating their needs, B2B companies need to adapt and deliver a similar experience or risk being left behind.

Read Blog: B2C is a Predictor of B2B

Now, the easy answer is to just build an internal data science organization and throw them at every available problem. Or just to buy a tool that has analytics. In a B2C world, a well-built “tool” might be enough. But B2B is complex and requires more. Sales operations executives should seek out partners that offer not only a best-in-class platform, but best in class support to back it up.

Zilliant’s technical and sales team comes from B2B. Many (like myself) were former pricing practitioners. Our world class architecture is supported by a world class team. Here is just a cross section of the tenure and experience our team brings to bear:

  • Practice Directors: Average +25 years B2B and/or pricing experience.
  • Engagement Managers: Average +21 years B2B and/or pricing experience.
  • Pricing Scientists: Average +10 years B2B and pricing experience.
  • Data Architect and Engineers: Average +10 years B2B and/or pricing experience.

Predictive power requires a powerful tool, but to transform your sales operations function into one that delivers a competitive advantage, it should be matched with expertise and support.

Conclusion

Sales operations executives need to be forward looking. It takes more than simply grouping a set of functions under an organizational silo to achieve differentiation. It needs to be an organizational strategic asset that drives change, delivers insights, and moves at the pace of technological innovation.

If you’re interested in how Zilliant can help your company achieve sales operations excellence send me an email at michael.naughton@Zilliant.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.

About the Author

Mick Naughton, M.S., MBA, is a sales director at Zilliant where he helps global B2B companies realize improved financial performance using advanced technology. Prior to joining Zilliant Mick spent 20 years in the life sciences industry in a variety of pricing, sales and technology roles.

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