Startups have to scale or fail - and they need sales to power that growth, not act as a brake on it. That effect can’t come from a larger sales force, so it needs to come from leaps in productivity in efficiency that only strategically-minded sales operations can provide.
As companies scale, sales needs to get more efficient.
When Average.com gets its wheels up it has maybe 20, 25 people. And typically about 8 to 10 of those - 40% or so - are sales staff. But when it gets to having maybe 250 staff, all told, only about 50 of them will usually be sales staff. Yes, the company is hiring five or six times more sales people overall - but the percentage has fallen by half.
So as it grows, Average.com needs fewer sales? No, we all know that’s not what’s happening here. But as companies scale they need to pull in more specialized staff. There’s a general move away from doing and towards managing because the organization gets more complex, and there’s just no way a company can scale its budget along with its growth needs. A 25-person company can’t afford not to have 8 or 10 sales people; a 250-person outfit can’t afford 100 salespeople.
So we have an impasse. Companies must scale revenue to grow, but they can’t do it by scaling the number of sales hires. So how can they do it?
The only way to scale sales without scaling sales staff is for the sales staff you have to become more efficient. And when, as Flybridge VC Jeff Bussgang says, ‘one of the largest friction points to rapid scaling is the sales force,’ you can’t rely on reps to just magically do it. Your CEO probably made your first few sales, but she’s got one or two other things on her plate now; your VP of sales is a killer sales person and a great leader, but it’s not leadership that’s needed here: it’s planning and mapping.
Training and processes have to create an environment where reps can’t help but succeed, and that comes from sales ops teams.
Scaling To A Different Kind Of Rep
As you scale, you hire a bigger range of sales reps. The average falls - before, only self-starters would be interested and could hack the ‘we do everything’ multirole environment. A tiny startup is no place for someone who doesn’t, in their heart, believe they can just get up a little earlier and make the world change. So your first few sales reps were either terrible but delusional, or flat-out awesome.
But fast forward a little; now you’re getting 50-year-olds who might not be totally comfortable with the tech, and 21 year olds who might have never had a job before. You need process or you’ll get failure right where you absolutely need success.
These are the reps who will get bogged down in using new selling technologies. The ones who feel too insecure to raise their hand and say they don’t understand how Slack works, so they send emails - or write paper notes to themselves because the CRM fills them with technophobic dread. Put them on their feet and they might be great salespeople; But again, that requires process and planning.
In the early stages, again, that’s not so important. No-one knows anything. Crucially, tactics and strategy are almost the same thing at the phones. But as companies scale they need to leverage sales ops to switch their focus to strategy. Harvard Business Review points out that, ‘The team must not only cover a broad range of sales force issue expertise; it must also include process/detail experts and analysis/design experts working together aligned around the goal of sales force success.’
In other words, tactics and tech aren’t enough; sales ops should be steering the whole enterprise toward sales success.
Buyer Journey Alignment
We’re having to acclimatize to new selling models. Reports of the death of cold calling, email, and pretty much everything else have been greatly exaggerated, but that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t in flux. ‘The B2B buyer purchasing journey,’ says Dave Hubbard, ‘has fundamentally changed,’ and the role of salespeople is changing as B2B buyers accelerate down the ‘funnel’ without us.
Marketers are watching their activities be ever more tightly tied to revenue as analytics reveals ROI, sometimes across multiple campaigns. The new buyer doesn’t fit the funnel - the old one didn’t either, but it didn’t matter so much. Now, sales has to reshape itself to fit the buyer journey. The good news is that there’s already an understanding in B2B that marketing is there to support sales.
As SalesHacker’s Fergal Glynn notes, ‘In B2B, marketing is all about supporting sales, making it easier to sell, and helping the sales team close more business.’ Aligning sales and marketing to support buyers on their journey is key to sales and growth.
That means coordinated multitouch campaigns, supported by content, and combined with lead generation on multiple platforms - with the whole multichannel process logged for analysis. There’s a lot to go wrong with the tech and the processes themselves. Sales operations are needed to step in and implement these changes effectively.
Tech Helps - Unless It Doesn’t
A bigger sales team in a bigger organization has different tech needs than a team of 5 in a company of 15 people. So we’re talking sales automation and prospecting tech, we’re talking CRMs and project management software, and we’re talking a whole lot to go wrong. Tech implementation can swallow all the advantages of that technology and then some if it’s done clumsily. And like most of our customers, we’re usually implementing these technologies not to gain something, but to lose something - like the repetitive clerical junk that means the average sales rep spends a minority of their workday selling.
Reps are already overstressed and short of selling time. So don’t let’s find them some more non-selling stuff to do, or leave them to self-teach new tech in the workplace. Sales ops can be the difference that makes the difference when the time comes to implement new tech.
There’s more, though. Sales ops shouldn’t accept a purely supporting role, helping reps understand CRMs and project management tools. Will Wiegler, CMO at SteelBrick, says,
‘If sales ops takes only a technical view of CRM, they become more likely to focus on implementation, integration, and support, and less likely to consider speed, capabilities, and revenue impact.’
‘In other words,’ Will continues, ‘they’ll look at it as a support tool, not a strategic tool.’ That strategic input is absolutely essential to align sales processes with the business growth they need to support.
As startups struggle to scale, they face challenges like onboarding reps, coping with increasing skill diversity and building full-size companies on the bones of something that a few short months ago was nothing more than a couple of guys and a good idea. Sales has to scale with the company and that has to mean increasing efficiency, both by improving the productivity of the time reps spend selling, and by making sure that new business tech frees them to sell instead of holding them back.
The only way to reliably do that is with a sales operations team that starts from the strategic direction of the company and builds from there to support and enhance increased sales efficiency.