These two seemingly overlapping roles differ greatly, but both seem destined to land in the C-Suite.
If you’ve ever been jealous of friends who can describe their job in a sentence, you’re not alone. Though “revenue operations” (and its many varied titles) has been around since the 1980s, the far-reaching, nebulous duties of the person undertaking the role continues to be cloaked in mystery. In some companies, it can mean sales analytics and resource deployment; in others, territory design and pipeline vetting.
The role goes by so many names, it’s no wonder experts in the field have a hard time describing what they do at cocktail parties (back when we used to go to those things). Its sister role, sales enablement, suffers from the same misconceptions, often leaving practitioners to take on whatever their companies need at that particular time, thus burdening them with the responsibility for everything or nothing (or something in between).
Both roles are moving targets, both frequently get confused with one another, and both deserve agreed-upon definitions that are easy to express to a luddite while conveying their significance to the success of any sales organization. (Which, as we know, is every organization.)
So let’s back up and give a little history. Revenue operations began to solidify in the mid-aughts, when technologies became more sophisticated and the economy took a nosedive. The result: more leads needed to be generated to get a deal done, the buying cycle took longer, and the cost of sales teams risked eclipsing revenue. The solution obviously lay in the implementation of technology, but how? With whom? From the silos of the enterprise grew a role that is best filled by agile operators who can speak the languages of sales, operations, IT, finance, marketing—and find technologies that can seamlessly weave these disparate teams together toward a common goal.
Four main spokes of this wheel make up the typical (though is there really one?) RevOps role: data, which usually means defining KPIs and storing them in a centralized location through systems integration; tools, meaning the entire sales stack (and beyond); process, because consistent messaging and strategy across a company is critical when attempting to align the various departments; and strategy to keep the company growing at a speed that can make the C-Suite giddy. Revenue Operations report to the SVP of sales in a mature organization, but that, of course, varies wildly.
Meanwhile, sales enablement emerged at the same time to provide a business with the tools it needs to close lots and lots of deals. We’re talking content, knowledge, data, information, even artificial intelligence and machine learning. In most companies, this role is “owned” by both sales and marketing, since the sales team can communicate with the marketing team about the content and materials they require throughout their buyers’ journeys so they can sell more effectively.
Ideally, sales enablement professionals create systems that turn raw data into normalized, digestible, usable content, through standardization, qualifying leads, reviewing the sales process, all the way down to automating email sequences. This was once manually done (OMG!), but AI/ML has made the process easier, faster — and also more complex. Dexterity and an openness to explore and integrate new technologies is critical.
“Artificial intelligence is one of the most profound trends that I’ve seen in my career,” says Marianne Borenstein, Chief Client Officer at Collective[i]. She believes that revenue operations and sales enablement “are the first modern executive roles”—though the path to the C-Suite is not always clear. Which is why she and Collective[i] have set up a networking group to put these brilliant minds together and amplify their voices, skills, and benefits to any growing sales organization. “We call this group Special Ops because that name refers to the branch of the military that is reserved for extraordinary leaders who possess the skills, fortitude and track records to address big challenges,” Borenstein says.
Just how “special” are these operators? Take Bradford Jordan. He started his career as an improv performer, then went on to train corporate teams to think on their feet. Now the former comedian is manager of global sales and success enablement at Slack. He has seen his role evolve but has always felt like a strategic partner with the SVP of Sales. He likes to elevate his sales enablement team’s profile “by bringing them directly into the room with our SVP of Sales and putting a spotlight on their ability to not just come up with good ideas but also to drive outcomes for sales.”
Matt Miller, who’s the senior division vice president of sales operations strategy and planning at ADP, majored in history, so naturally sales was his calling. (Ha!) He oversees sales analytics resource deployment and territory design and has taken his team of two to about 150 to 160 people today. “Everything we do has to be measurable,” Miller says. “We have to be able to quantify the work that we’re doing and how that translates into new bookings.”
Ryan Blackwell, meanwhile, began his career selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. “The company’s whole technique was to give away free house cleanings and really show the value of the vacuum cleaner,” he recalls. “And I remember from that day forward, I was like, there is more to selling than just going out and positioning a product.” Since then, he’s been working to speed up the velocity of sales, find the gaps and the roadblocks, and smooth it all out. Today he overlaps those roles as the Chief Revenue Officer of Renaissance, a company that provides more than one-third of U.S. schools with solutions to accelerate learning for millions of students.
All of these sales enablement and rev ops professionals use metaphors like being a Swiss Army knife, or the glue that keeps un-siloed departments together, or the quarterback of a football team. And with multi-purpose jobs like that, one would think they have a direct path to the C-Suite. In truth, they meet with the CMO and, sometimes, the CEO, but they typically don’t own the desks next to them.
Experts argue that the Chief Revenue Officer is the most feasible route to the C-Suite, since the goal of a CRO is to bring together marketing, sales, and customer service. While CEOs should provide vision, Chief Marketing Officers should focus on messaging, and Chief Financial Officers should control expenditures, Chief Revenue Officers can take a step back and determine if there is a better way to grow revenue faster by serving customers more personally. That’s why the CRO role can, ultimately, become a bridge between sales and marketing.
But maybe we’re not there yet. Or maybe we are. Some studies have shown that companies are replacing peripatetic CMOs with CROs, since the CRO understands what’s happening in the field, where lead generation is in that moment, and where the company stands in regard to customer success. And it turns out that sales enablement and revenue operations professionals have the skills required to step into that leadership role. However, until uptake of CROs is the norm, sales enablement and revenue operations professionals should keep pushing to get into the room with the SVP of Sales, the CMO, and even the CEO.
“The CEO is the superpower that sits at the top,” says Renaissance’s Blackwell. “But it’s the complementary assets that they surround themselves with that build world class cultures.” And sales enablement and revenue operations professionals may just be the ultimate asset — the special forces of a successful sales organization.