Our Thinking

Sales Operations – The customer centred support organisation


Sales are at the core of any business organisation. Sales people need strong support to succeed and there is a continual need for optimisation of process to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of a sales force. Sales effectiveness continues to be one of the top three priorities of sales directors, and sales operations is key to achieving this.

The main functions addressed by B2B sales operations are typically lead management, bid production, contract management, order management and process, sales teaming, tools support, training, credit control, billing query resolution, incentive compensation and management reporting. Complications arise around the often mixed legacy of sales operations functions. Some may have originated from sales teams directly, some from commercial support and others from finance or accounting. This leads to teams from mixed backgrounds and skillsets, and often sales operations activity in smaller countries is performed by secretarial support to the sales director. This has led to many organisations having a fractured approach to process compliance by geography, product and service line.

The perceived challenge around sales operations is often simply one of cost reduction. The functions covered are not themselves revenue generating and so cost reduction is indeed an important consideration. However, efforts to reduce sales operations team size often leads to pushing the activities into a less appropriate area, and typically back to the sales force. This in turn means higher cost resource is used to perform tasks that are not suited to their role and reduces customer facing time. An alternative of reducing costs by greater centralisation of sales operations without due regard to critical process re-engineering can also have the opposite effect, costing more and alienating customers. That said, intelligent use of centralising or even outsourcing can provide real benefits in some cases.

This perceived low-value supporting role leads to an inward-looking view of the sales operations function as one of process, control and reporting only. It is however not only a back-office function and can be deployed for many other valuable tasks:

  • Reduction of salesforce non-customer facing time activity with sales effectiveness measures
  • Motivation of account managers with consistent and clear sales plan support
  • Speedier sales cycle, reducing cash flow delays

We now turn our attention to sales operations in the context of the most recent thought leadership on customer centricity.

Today’s business environment is characterised by unprecedented levels of competition, eroding customer loyalty and a quickened pace of innovation. Together, these forces have triggered a shift in the balance of power between providers and their customers. This is good news for organisations that see the opportunity amid the change and align themselves quickly and effectively around a new focal point: delivering a customer-centric experience – profitably and consistently – designed end-to-end around customer perspectives and intentions.

Customer-centric sales operations will address these challenges and be based around:

1. A structure of working based around the customer’s viewpoint

  • Group order processing around customer requirements
  • Prioritise key customer accounts
  • Provide the appropriate level of service, chargeable in some cases if value-add

The unit of transaction of sales operations should be the customer. The customer is not concerned with the individual internal steps to engage, be sold to, place orders, deliver and invoice. Cracks in this process are too often apparent to the customer, and their orders get mixed into a large pot that does not prioritise their needs and demands. Pricing and service quotes may be mis-entered in the system, leading to a discrepancy in order forms and ultimately invoicing. This forces the customer’s own operations teams to manually match their purchase orders and invoices, hence losing credibility and confidence in the service offered.

Linking value add services (consulting, professional services, managed services etc.) with core products at the back-office support level gives a rounded solution sales environment to account teams and the confidence to sell effectively.

2. Serving the account managers optimally

  • Structuring dedicated resource for large accounts and a flexible pool for smaller accounts
  • Extended customer teaming – the bringing together of account director, commercial, technical and support resources – on large accounts

When sales operations functions work in harmony with the overall customer team on large accounts there can be improvements in bid validity, order accuracy and directing the correct resources onto the areas that matter.

We need to breakdown the silo organisation mentality of sales processes. Structuring extended customer teams around large clients makes sense. By giving the account team specialised and/or dedicated support in pre and post sales activities the customer benefits from increased attention and a trusted relationship with sales process enquiries.

3. Using customer focused tools – not only internal needs driven

  • Customer self-serve access for order entry
  • Web access for order and query tracking
  • Direct customer access to sales operations staff, automatic re-directing of routine enquiries from account manager to sales support
  • Customised reports to customer requirements

There is an ideal opportunity with technology evolution to give greater customer control of placing orders (when desired) and also of tracking progress. This can simultaneously increase customer satisfaction and reduce operating costs. By agreeing with the customer that routine enquiries are automatically redirected to a customer relationship specialist frees up account manager time and give the customer confidence that they are speaking directly with someone knowledgeable.

Account managers can spend a significant part of their time in resolving customer queries regarding invoicing. This not only wastes time on both sides but can seriously impact the prospects of new or repeat sales as a dispute drags on. A direct and strengthened link via sales operations can mitigate this risk.

4. Opening up Inside Sales

  • Making sales operations team customer facing
  • Inbound sales can generate significant untapped revenue streams
  • Giving customer direct access to sales operations teams for quicker query processing

Many resources within sales operations have the insight and skills required to deliver a first class service directly to accounts that do not justify active account management. The ability to take orders in particular can be strongly coupled with customer service functions to provide a cost effective way of managing – and profitably developing – the “long tail” of accounts that most organisations have, particularly in the SMB sector.

5. Transformational lead time changes

  • Getting service to the customer quicker
  • Being accountable to customer for delivery

Reduction of time for delivery of service is a significant competitive advantage. Sales operations are at the front end of this process and by investment in quality management of all quote processing and order handling the impact on the customer experience can be tangible. A focus on quality of initial order entry prevents delay downstream and simple measures such as unifying internal account references can greatly reduce input errors.

6. Partnering with the sales ecosystem : supplier, alliance partners and onward customers

  • Teaming to get order management co-ordination
  • Providing sales operations services for selected partners
  • Centralised, offshored or outsourced sales operations where appropriate

There is a strong case for closer co-ordination with key partners in delivering sales operations services. Benefits can be shared between partners and shared services are a logical progression of increasing proximity and target sharing with partners. Given the increasing complexity of channel selling relationship, a common approach to serving the customer that is channel independent is a strong proposition in a competitive market. 

Conclusion : potential results of customer visible sales operations as part of an extended customer team

There are many benefits from taking a more customer centric view of sales operations, including:

  1.  Honest, regular and consistent engagement with customer
  2. Understanding of the changing business priorities and market at all levels, increased reactivity
  3. Mutually established KPI scorecards and review of satisfaction survey results and action plans
  4. Joint definition of roles and responsibilities with the customer
  5. Willingness to step over the boundaries of job descriptions
  6. Regular extended customer team meetings
  7. Continuity of dedicated personnel in support functions
  8. Possible co-location of staff at customer location (even temporarily), strengthen local relationships and personal commitments
  9. Avoiding RFP process and increase chances of winning future business
  10. Isolate and minimise competitive attacks by providing excellent customer service

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