How to Get Sales and Operations to Work Together

October 01, 2019

Having been in both the sales and sales ops role, I’ve seen more than my share of the battles between these two departments. Here’s the breakdown on why this is the case and what can be done about it.

From the sales perspective:


Those in the sales ops role are the only people other than spouses, financial advisors, and a few other trusted friends who know exactly how much salespeople make for a living. This places salespeople in a vulnerable position, and it takes a lot of trust to move forward with changes to the compensation structure made seemingly in a black box called “sales ops”. A lack of clear, timely communication prevents a relational safety net from forming — so if a new incentive compensation plan is rolled out and salespeople don’t like it, you may have to do some major disaster recovery.

From the sales perspective, a conversation with someone from sales ops may sound like this: “Hey Brad, instead of paying you twice a month, we’re going to change things up a bit. Here’s a document with the new rules. Read through it. We’ll pay you a little less at the beginning of the month and a little more at the end. Email me with any questions, thanks!”

Often, salespeople are frustrated that they have not been consulted about changes to something as significant as their pay, and they feel helpless when the changes made are not clear to them. On top of that, salespeople grow resentful if they feel that sales ops treat them as too insignificant to take the time to sit down and review pay changes in detail. Even more insulting is when major changes are made to the comp plan without salespeople being notified, as if they will not notice the changes when the new agreements and contracts are rolled out. "I’m not a dumb salesperson. I’ll notice changes in the comp plan, so don’t act like I won’t!"

From the sales ops perspective:


It’s a hard life in sales ops. Often, salespeople seem like ticking time bombs, on the verge of outrage at any given sales comp plan change – regardless of whether sales ops had any say in the change or not. Often, sales ops are the scapegoat for the executive team’s decisions to create more aggressive pay structures. “All I do is write the changes into the plan. It’s not like I’m trying to make the salespeople’s lives harder! But they always get mad, and there’s no one else to blame. I’m a department of one.”

Salespeople (if they are good at what they do) tend to be more demanding to have things their way, and sales ops don’t get the charm reserved for clients. This can cause resentment from sales ops, met with questions and demands from salespeople when sales ops may not necessarily have the power to change comp plans or even the data to answer all of the questions. This can cause sales ops to feel defensive towards salespeople and often results in them waiting to get every single piece of information about sales comp plans before rolling them out – even if it means months of delay.

On top of this, sales ops may resent the sales team for the many tags and pieces of required information to track sales activities, which may take a lot of time – especially if sales ops needs to constantly hound salespeople to get all the pieces of required account information to stay compliant. This is not the sales department’s fault (blame it on the system!), but does not help the relational dynamic between sales ops and sales. Think about the sometimes-staggering amount of commission payouts for salespeople that sales ops processes yet never see a dime of due to their non-incentivized, salaried positions.  There’s no wonder sales ops don’t see salespeople as being “on their side.”

Crafting the Conversation

Almost all issues between sales and sales ops come from poor communication, as mentioned in my previous article. From the sales ops perspective, the most important thing to remember is that salespeople may not like what they hear. The point is not to make salespeople happy, but rather to make sure they are informed. From the sales perspective, sales ops will never be their best friends, but they can be their closest allies if they keep lines of communication clear. The things salespeople want to hear from sales ops include:

  1. What is the plan?
  2. How will these changes impact me?
  3. Why the change?

It sounds simple enough, but often, this step of communication doesn’t happen because those in the sales ops role don’t want to deal with potentially negative responses. Here are a few sample conversations for the successful communication of a new commission management process:

  1. Sample 1: “Here are the new steps you need to do in this process: x, y, and z (what). Yes, you guys will need to do a few more steps (impact). However, these quick, extra steps will help you do what you do best, which is sell, rather than manually track your commissions (why).”
  2. Sample 2: “The new incentive compensation plan will include these new modules: x, y, and z (what). We understand that it’s different from the old way of doing things, and there will be a learning curve. So we won’t hold any mistakes against you for the first few months (impact). This is the only way to make sure the data is clean and ensure you’ll be paid properly (why)." 

The reality is that the “why” behind an incentive compensation design change may not always be centered around sales. The reason may be, “This is the only way to get us back to being profitable.” However, salespeople would rather get an honest, clear picture of the direction of the sales team rather than be in the dark. Plus, this builds trust. In the relationship between sales and sales ops, it is critical to nurture the relationship because if one side or the other stumbles along the way in the messy process of incentive compensation plan implementation, you’ll have that relational credit to fall back on. There may not be a friendship, but there will be understanding and peace.

Searching for more insight into relational dynamics involving the sales process? Read our e-book on all things Sales Performance Management (SPM) to find out who should own sales compensation and more



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