Is Sales Ops Taking Over Sales?

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Sales ops is on the rise. Title, power, budget. It’s always been important. The change is power structure. So if you’ve been in sales or marketing longer than 5 to 10 years, you need to revisit your assumptions.

The “Service Organization” Period

Throughout the 80s, 90s, and even the 00s, sales ops was critical to the VP of Sales the way a sheepdog is critical to a shepherd. Or a cattle dog to a rancher. The difference between mediocre or good performance versus great performance was enormous — leading to massive impact on revenue. But priorities were driven by the sales VP. Sales ops was the corporate extension of the sales leader’s desire.

Please don’t take my dog references as insulting. Years ago, my own spouse ran sales ops for a division at Apple and was selected by the sales team as the most valuable corporate person helping them exceed goal. Her prize was joining the top reps on an over-the-top President’s Club trip to Spain. I tagged along as the spousal unit where my only job was to look good on her arm. I failed at that miserably, but the trip was fantastic. Her quota-carrying colleagues made it clear: she increased revenue. Sales ops (done right) increases revenue.

And in my own roles running marketing teams, I always saw the sales ops team as a most-valuable partner in pressure testing and rolling out programs and tactics to help our sales team win.

It Starts

My first hint at the rise of sales ops power was seeing a frequent change in titles. In midsize organizations, the head of sales ops was typically a director or senior director. Increasingly, I saw “VP of Sales Ops.” I’ve got to be honest: at first, I mostly attributed this to title inflation with little practical relevance.

Then three shifts jumped out.

Evidence of the Power Shift

The first change? More swagger. I heard these new heads of sales ops spout a multi-year vision for change without constantly referring to the mandate of their VP of Sales or CRO. I’m going back to the respect thing for a minute. Strong sales ops leaders — even back when they were all directors or senior directors — have always been smart and close to the front lines. They’ve long known what changes could accelerate growth. But knowing and doing are different. What they did was what their sales leader told them to do. Their tone was changing.

Second, budget. In most organizations, marketing owns the discretionary budget while the sales budget is mostly labor. When the sales team needs to spend big bucks on, say, the CRM or sales enablement, they typically get one-off spending approval from the CFO. The don’t simply grab money from an existing sales budget line item. But increasingly, we’re seeing VPs of Sales Ops with a discretionary spending budget. Any of us who got through a high school government class remember the “power of the purse” phrase. It meant Congress had power relative to the President by controlling the budget. When the VP of Sales Ops has a discretionary budget and the VP of Sales only has a labor budget, instantly the power shifts.

Finally — the newest signal — reporting. We see more VPs of Sales Ops with official … or unofficial … dotted-line relationships to the CFO or even the CEO. Of course, sometimes in the past, sales ops has reported to finance. That’s not new. What’s new is a traditional sales ops team reporting to the VP of Sales, but highly responsive to CFO and CEO priorities. The result is profound. In the past, when the VP of Sales had a top priority, it instantly became the top priority of sales ops. But we’re starting to hear VPs of Sales Ops, sometimes uncomfortably, pushing back on their sales VP’s top priority, saying what the VP of Sales wants has to play second fiddle to mandates from the CEO or CFO.

Pendulums Swing. Be Ready.

Pendulums swing in corporate power. And if everyone is unified behind the company mission and revenue growth, the growing power of sales ops is neither good nor bad, it’s just different.

But if you’re a veteran sales or marketing leader, you may need to revisit your assumptions about the way you get things done in a new world.

Are you seeing shifts like this and the power structure of your organization, customers, or partners? Please let me know.

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Thanks to my partner Ron Weissman for encouraging this power shift as a fitting blog topic. FYI, our standard is to capitalize words when part of official titles and not when referring to organizational groups or generic roles. If this confuses your reading, let me know that too.