Setting Priorities: Shifting Sales Operations from Reactive to Proactive

Setting priorities sounds easy enough. But, when looking at the number of sales operations activities on their to-do lists, are organizations actually doing it? In today’s blog, we explore how priority-setting can help transition sales operations from reactive to more proactive.

Priority-setting for sales operations

In our 2018 Sales Operations Optimization Study, we took a look at how organizations were setting priorities for sales operations and broke them out into four approaches:

  1. Has a formal charter, with long-term plan and vision
  2. Coordinates with leadership but with focus on analytic support for executive decision-making
  3. Coordinates with leadership but with focus on operational and technology-based programs
  4. Priorities are set by other teams

The majority of today’s sales operations teams are still reactive and not driving their own priorities. Our research shows less than 1/4 of organizations set their own priorities with a formal charter or business plan, and 1/5 have others setting their priorities for them. While this might make sense considering sales operations is a support function for sales teams, being reactive is linked to lower sales performance.

Priority-setting – Does it matter?

When comparing organizations whose sales operations teams had a formal charter against those whose priorities were set by others, we found that organizations with a formal charter saw a 15.2-point improvement in quota attainment. This is something sales leaders cannot afford to ignore. The question sales leaders should be asking is, “How can we elevate sales operations to drive more of the strategy and be more proactive?”

A more structured approach to how priorities are set is an important step in shifting sales operations to be more proactive. This, in turn, can contribute to improving the organization’s sales performance. What is included in the charter and list of priorities will vary from organization to organization, but there are some areas of consideration that can apply to any organization.

Three steps for sales and sales operations leaders to get their priorities right

  1. Alignment with key initiatives. There are many ways you can align your tasks with key initiatives. Here, we illustrate one way to help you get started without overcomplicating things. First, start by compiling a list of sales operations tasks in the left-hand column—those that are currently being worked on as well as those that are planned within the current fiscal year. Next, take a look at the key initiatives supporting your organization’s sales strategy, and list them in the right-hand column. For example, your sales operations tasks on the left might include augment contact/account data in CRM, roll out new forecast process and implement prospecting tool. Key sales initiatives on the right might include cross-sell product Y into existing client base, add X new accounts from Top 50 account list and improve customer retention.

Now, draw lines to connect the items on the left (sales operations tasks) to those on the right (key sales initiatives) where you see a connection. If you don’t have many lines connecting one side to the other, then it’s a good time to be proactive and add or replace one or two items with ones that support the key initiatives. If most of your items in the left column connect to one or more items in the right column, you can still prioritize them in order of importance and impact. If you are managing against too many tasks, you will end up over-committing and under-delivering.

  1. Understanding what needs to be done. It also is important for sales leaders to understand what needs to be done with the support of the sales operations team. These types of tasks may not always be directly tied to a key sales initiative, but they are critical to building the foundation for sales productivity and performance. Items on the “what needs to be done” list could vary significantly from organization to organization. Below are some examples grouped against an organization’s growth phase:
  • If you are in a startup phase, you will more likely need to prioritize on defining and building the foundation (such as defining a buyer-aligned sales process or implementing a CRM).
  • If you are in the growth phase, you may want to focus more on sales compensation and territory modeling and look at ways to scale the growing business.
  • If you are in a more mature phase, your needs may focus more around refining existing processes to be more dynamic and adjusting as market and customer needs change.


There also are tasks driven by legal requirements such as GDPR that should be taken into account. Balancing the tasks that address “what needs to be done” with those that directly support key sales initiatives is an important step—especially if the foundations (e.g., sales process and tools) need to be built or fine-tuned.

  1. Knowing what not to put on the list. You should now have a decent list of items on the sales operations priority list that are aligned with key sales initiatives and also address the things that need to get done. The third step—the most impactful but also the most challenging—is to review the list and identify items that need to be removed (or deferred to a later time). In other words, identify the things sales operations is not going to do within the defined timeframe you are building your plan against. This step is impactful because it forces sales leaders and their sales operations teams to narrow the list of “to-dos” to a thought-out and manageable list—with clear objectives and measurement metrics—within a defined timeframe. It also is challenging because saying no comes with practice and experience. You have to earn the right to say no by first delivering against what you committed to. But if you don’t take this step, the list remains a “to-do” list instead of a prioritized set of activities that will have positive impacts on sales performance in the long term.

Proactive is better

The survey results illustrate the current state of sales operations—the majority of sales operations teams remain reactive rather than proactive, with others defining their priorities for them. Only 1/4 of organizations have their sales operations teams establish priorities with a formal charter and long-term plan. If elevating sales operations to be more strategic will result in improvements in sales performance, it’s time for sales leaders to partner with sales operations to define and refine their priorities with a long-term vision and plan. And you don’t have to overthink this step—you can get started by referencing the three steps we reviewed in this blog and adjust as needed.

Questions for you:

  • How complete is your sales operations list of priorities? How was it created?
  • When was the last time sales leaders and sales operations jointly reviewed ops priorities?
  • How well aligned are the priorities to business strategy and the work that needs to be done?
  • What are the critical few tasks that sales operations needs to focus on?
  • What do you need to get off of your sales operations to-do list?

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