Sales Enablement vs. Sales Operations: What’s the Difference?

Sales Enablement vs. Sales Operations: What’s the Difference?
August 15, 2019

As buying cycles become more complex, more organizations are approaching sales as a team sport – one where several key players help push each deal across the goal line.

Sure, having talented and well-prepared salespeople is critical. But closing new business today involves so much more than just the rep; there’s also marketing, sales development, sales engineering, procurement and legal, just to name a few.

Sales enablement and sales operations are important parts of the equation, too. Both functions work to improve sales force productivity and support reps before, during, and after the buying process. But if you’re not familiar with either term, then it’s natural to wonder: what is the difference between sales enablement and sales ops?

Read on for an overview of both functions and how they should work together within the overall sales organization.

What is Sales Enablement?

As a newer business function, sales enablement can be tough to precisely define. Ask 10 companies what sales enablement means to them, and you might receive 10 different answers.

However, most accept that the primary purpose of sales enablement is to equip reps with effective training, coaching, assets, processes, practices, and tools throughout the sales process.

Certifying that each rep has the knowledge and skills needed to maximize every sales opportunity (sales readiness) is a critical component of sales enablement’s mission. The function typically also manages the creation and maintenance of content that supports effective buyer conversations (sales asset management).

Because they are defined so broadly, sales enablement teams can have a lot on their collective plates. But some of the most common (and important) responsibilities of the function include:

  • New sales hires onboarding
  • Delivery of continuous learning programs
  • Supporting reps during product launches and other sales transformations
  • Implementation of the sales methodology (including related trainings and coaching)
  • Equipping frontline managers and sales leadership with effective coaching practices (or, even better, establishing a formal sales coaching program)
  • Reporting on metrics tied to sales learning and readiness (such as time to productivity for new hires)
  • Managing and ensuring rep adoption of sales enablement tools

Sales enablement team structure, on the other hand, can vary greatly based on the size, industry, and learning needs of the sales force.

Some organizations may only have one professional who handles sales training and coaching for the entire company. Other companies may have a sales enablement team made up of multiple people. Sales enablement might exist within sales ops, reporting to its VP or director, or it might exist separately.

What is clear, however, is that more and more businesses view sales enablement as a strategic business function. In fact, the percentage of companies with a dedicated sales enablement leader or program tripled between 2013 and 2017, according to CSO Insights.

What is Sales Operations?

Sales ops might be a more established function than sales enablement, but many companies have minor variations on how the function is organized and what its priorities look like.

CSO Insights describes sales ops as owning “the inner workings of the sales go-to-market plan… in support of the sales strategy and execution plan; they also are responsible for building, monitoring and refining the selling system foundation across process and technology.”

Put another way, sales ops teams work to support reps by continuously optimizing the sales process. Often, their focus is on activities that don’t directly involve buyer-seller interactions. For instance, the sales ops function might manage areas such as:

  • Administration of the CRM and other sales tools
  • Territory and quota management
  • Sales compensation, incentive plans and SPIFFs
  • Sales KPI reporting
  • Lead routing
  • Pipeline and forecast management
  • Proposal and contract management
  • Sales communications (although this can also reside within sales enablement)

So while sales enablement supports the sales force through learning and content – which is largely geared toward improving each buyer interaction – sales ops is focused more on making the process itself more efficient through data, tools, and optimized workflow.

For instance, while sales enablement might deliver training or coaching that gives reps the skills needed to move a stalled opportunity forward, sales ops would implement and manage a deal desk – which is responsible for reviewing deal pricing and structure, ensuring that each deal is profitable and compliant with company standards.

More specifically, sales enablement could facilitate a live role play or video coaching activity that assesses the sales team’s negotiation skills (before its reps interact with buyers). Enablement might provide coaching guidelines and best practices that help sales managers deliver effective feedback. The sales managers would then provide coaching feedback directly, helping reps perform better during negotiations.

On the other hand, sales operations could leverage CRM data and advise that a rep’s proposal have a certain level of deal margin, based on past deals and the buying company’s size. Ops might also help the seller navigate additional security audits required by sensitive industries, such as healthcare or finance.

Sales Enablement vs. Sales Effectiveness

If you’ve seen anyone with job titles that include “sales effectiveness” or even “sales excellence,” you may wonder how their responsibilities differ from sales enablement (and sales ops).

Sales effectiveness often combines responsibilities that either fall under sales enablement or sales ops, and is most often found in larger sales organizations. However, the role of sales effectiveness is largely interchangeable with sales enablement.

For example, sales effectiveness professionals might support first-line sales managers by helping them interpret the data they receive from sales ops and then apply that understanding to their sales coaching.

Like sales enablement, companies may establish sales effectiveness as its own function, or they could consolidate it within sales ops. Because the term is even newer than sales enablement, approaches can vary significantly from company to company.

How Do Sales Enablement and Sales Ops Work Together?

Because enablement and ops both exist to improve sales productivity and performance, there’s bound to be some level of overlap – which makes it vital that they maintain a strong relationship with each other.

Imagine, for instance, a company that implements a new sales tool. The sales ops team might set up the sales force in this new tool (by creating accounts, building dashboards, etc.) and use relevant data from it to improve the sales process.

Sales enablement, on the other hand, would train reps on how to use the new tool effectively. Enablement might also collaborate with ops on the creation of a new dashboard within the tool, discuss which KPIs should be reported on, and then communicate how those changes affect the sales process.

Without alignment between sales enablement and sales ops, you can imagine how quickly that situation becomes complicated – especially for a large, dispersed sales organization. The result could be low rep adoption of the new sales tool, or worse, reps using the tool in the wrong situations!

With an effective partnership between ops and enablement, sellers can not only execute the sales process more efficiently, but they’ll also show up to every buyer interaction more prepared!