Sales vs Operations

Andy Warren, 2009-09-28

It’s probably a key stereotype of our business that the sales team doesn’t really get along with those in operations/production. Sales teams seem to insist on selling features and timelines without asking if it’s even close to possible, and operations wants to solve problems elegantly without regard to the realities of paying the bills. Now I know it’s a generalization, that’s what stereotypes are after all, but I find it to be true more often than not, to varying degrees.

Sales people are not literal people. When they say “100%” they rarely mean 100%, it’s more like 95% from 8-5 pm. They live to make deals. Selling something and being well paid for it is what drives them. Much of their behavior is driven by a compensation plan that you don’t see, and you have to to think about that to make sense of their behavior. If you were paid solely on the number of lines of code you wrote, I wager not only would that become your predominant focus, you’d find creative ways to generate code. As much as we may not like their behavior at times, realize that most of it is quietly endorsed by the big boss, the one that built the compensation plan.

On the other side, operations people – us – are literal people. We try to do exactly what is asked, we like solving problems, and we really really fear failing to deliver, whether it be the 97th report of the year or a huge data migration. We tend to believe that if we fail bad thing will happen. When sales promises things that we don’t have, we end up volunteering (or being forced) to work a lot of extra hours to deliver the goods, and rarely get a bonus for that extra effort. We also tend to dislike product marketing that focuses on features that are just for show or don’t exist yet and we don’t like the idea of sales people much beyond the clerk at Wal-Mart. If we sold something, our pitch would be something like “I’m selling this product for x dollars, would you like to buy it?”.  Some more thoughts:

  • Sales people like to network. Us…well, we have to read a book and take a class, and even then we’d probably sit back and watch!
  • If it works out, it’s just like the sales person promised. If it doesn’t, they blame it operations!
  • Customer service to a sales person is making their client – a person – happy. Customer service to us is making whoever uses the solution happy. Rarely the same two sets of people!

I don’t know if it’s genetic or a result of how you were raised or how you spent your early adult years, but there is clearly a difference between the people that build and the people that sell.

I don’t have any magic answers either. I think it’s obvious that at times we’re going to have to push hard to deliver a feature to land a customer, and that at times sales is going to have to be told to back off because they are promising things that cannot be delivered. I think most of the tension happens due to poor leadership:

  • Leader moved up from sales and identifies with sales, either doesn’t really care about the operations team or doesn’t want to annoy/restrain sales
  • Leader moved up from operations, learns that sales really does drive the business, and ends up mostly supporting the way they work in order to keep the train moving

In general if it a bridge it to be built, it’s from operations to sales. Over time you learn that by building that relationship – something they understand – you have a chance to provide some insight and feedback about the sales cycle in an unofficial way. Sales people aren’t evil or dumb. If they can make money and make it easier for you, they will. But if it’s a choice of making money or making it easier for you, they go for the money. It’s human and real, they work to support family just like we do.

Too cynical? Tell me about your experiences with sales.

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