Bridging the Sales-Operations Divide

Matt Kirchner recently assembled a group of manufacturing industry sales and operations professionals to define "Rules of Engagement," a group comprised of seven individuals with combined experience exceeding 120 years. Here's what they came up with.
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I once worked with a company where the sales and operations functions were perfectly aligned. The operations team never complained about the promises made by the sales team. The sales function never pointed the finger at the folks in operations when a promise was not kept, or a customer rejected an order. The sales and operations crews existed in perfect harmony. Never an argument, never an insult, never a skirmish.

This outfit’s secret? It was a sole proprietorship. The owner of the business was the only sales person, the only operations person, and for that matter the only member of the accounting and customer service teams. With only one employee, all functions coexisted seamlessly.

For any organization with separate sales and operations functions, however, animosity and friction between these two groups seems almost inevitable.

 Nearly 20 years ago, I served on a management team where the divide between sales and operations was so vast that it tore the company apart; the team exhausting its energy fighting each other and losing the match to competitors who found a way to work together. Thus began my obsession with the never-ending task of finding ways for sales and operations to collaborate toward the mutual goals of customer satisfaction and business performance.

I recently assembled a group of manufacturing industry sales and operations professionals to solicit their input on the topic. This group, comprised of seven individuals with combined experience exceeding 120 years in their respective fields, included:

A regional sales manager of a contract manufacturing, design and engineering company who began his career as a welder and later the manager of a contract manufacturing company.

A plant manager of a metal fabrication and services operation who began his career as an entry level shop employee and had served time as the sales to operations liaison for his respective employer.

A sales professional with 15 years experience selling everything from temporary employee services to landscape supplies and contract fabrication services.

A corporate operations executive with Fortune 500 and mid-market manufacturing operations experience.

A sales engineer with nine years of contract engineering services preceded by 15 years operating and leading paint, powder coating and ecoat operations.

A former journeyman carpenter turned salesperson with experience selling materials to manufacturers as well as contract manufacturing services.

Consider this group’s diversity: both the sales and operations factions are well represented, and several of the members have experience on both the operations and sales sides of the business, which helped to limit their bias.

The group began its discussion by codifying the sales-operations divide into a single sentence, and after a lengthy discussion settled on the following. Does this sound familiar?

“Sales and operations share the same goals but struggle in setting priorities, communicating accurately and respectfully and in keeping commitments to each other. These issues lead to orders becoming emergencies, which in turn lead to mistakes and more missed commitments, which then lead to more emergencies.”

With the problem defined, the group was challenged to devise a list of rules for improving relations between any organization’s sales and operations teams for the overall benefit of the customer and the company. Their “Rules of Engagement,” or so they were labeled, follow:

Appreciate your team. We all share the goals of service excellence for our customers and financial security for our employer. Spend more time reminding yourself of that and less time questioning the motives of your teammates.

Before making a request, consider your options. All too often a member of the sales team simply parrots a customer request without clarifying it with the customer. If the customer wants 100 parts tomorrow, could they live with 50? Could they live with a slightly longer lead time for an expedited order? The sales team plays a huge role in setting operations up for success.

Listen deeper and respond only after understanding. Resist the temptation to respond to an email or other request emotionally. Many times what we think we read or heard and what the other person meant to write or say are two different things.

Ask “Can you?” don’t tell: “You need to.” Self explanatory.

Walk in the other person’s shoes, and not just in your own mind. Spend time in their meetings or spend a day with them. Find out what their day is really like.

When making a request of operations, state the issue and what customer expectations are. Forwarding a string of emails with the question “What do you think?” wastes time and leads to misunderstanding.

Have an in-person summit at least monthly. Seeing each other across the table is more productive than hearing each other over the phone or communicating by email. Get the sales and operations teams together in the same room to talk about the business at least monthly.

Have more regular “non-issue-related” interaction. Don’t limit discussions and time together just to the instances when issues or problems come up. Go to a ball game together, spend an evening fishing, go to lunch and talk about your weekend.

Be genuine and don’t be afraid to put issues on the table. Communicate honestly and respectfully at all times.

Amid any conflict between sales and operations—protect the company’s reputation and service customers. We’re all in this together.

I think they nailed it. Will following these “Rules of Engagement” lead to more harmonious interaction between sales and operations? Ask me a few months down the road. By then I’ll know. 

To learn more visit American Finishing Resources