Who Should Sales Development Reps Report To?

There’s a case to be made for sales or marketing. Which is best? Well, it depends.

Written by Brian Nordli
Published on Nov. 17, 2021
Who Should Sales Development Reps Report To?

A few months ago, Arthur Castillo started hearing some interesting chatter from sales leaders in his network about the structure of sales teams. They argued that sales development representatives shouldn’t be aligned under sales but instead under marketing.

To Castillo, who works as a field marketing manager for the sales engagement company Chili Piper, this shift felt like a changing of the winds in what has long been a one-sided battle over who should manage SDRs. Sales consulting firm the Bridge Group has found that 68 percent of companies align their SDRs under sales — a trend that has been going on since 2012, according to its 2021 survey.

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. If these people who have always been talking about SDRs reporting to sales are changing their tune, I think there’s something here,’” Castillo said.

So, Castillo decided to poll his network on LinkedIn: Should SDRs report to sales or marketing? The post touched a chord, triggering more than 8,300 votes and 299 comments.

So who should SDRs report to? It depends on who you ask.


The Hot-Button Issue Explained

For as long as Tanya Smallwood can remember, there’s been a debate over who should manage SDRs.

SDRs operate in a middle ground between sales and marketing. They generate leads and raise awareness among potential customers like marketers but also cold call and problem-solve like sales reps.

She’s heard of teams where SDRs report to sales, others where they fall under marketing and some where SDRs belong to a unified revenue organization. Each scenario can work, but it all depends on how your company makes its money, said Smallwood, who currently works as the head of revenue at the supermarket e-commerce platform company Homesome. 

If you sell a low-cost product at a high volume — meaning customers can purchase your product with a click of a link — SDRs can operate under marketing. At that point, the role is about fielding inbound leads and guiding them to the right place, with little sales strategy involved, Smallwood said. 

The Bridge Group’s 2021 survey bears that out, as inbound SDR teams are 1.4 times more likely to report to marketing.

But when it comes to complex business-to-business sales, Smallwood argues that it makes the most sense for sales development reps to be part of the sales team. In her eyes, it creates a smoother customer experience and allows the sales team to be more nimble.

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Why SDRs Should Report to Sales

When SDRs report to sales, it means they’re in the same meetings as the account executives, their metrics are aligned with sales goals and their manager reports to you, the sales leader.

“Most marketers aren’t thinking about those kinds of things.”

This creates a more unified connection between the SDR and the account executive, which is critical to providing a seamless customer experience. In a more complex B2B sale, those two roles operate as partners, Smallwood said. The SDR builds the first relationship with the buyer, helps them understand their challenges and then sets the meeting up with their partner account executive.

3 Advantages to Aligning Sales Development Reps Under Sales

  • It allows the sales team to be more nimble and adjust its market strategy.
  • It improves the SDR and account executive relationship for a more seamless customer experience.
  • SDRs receive more relevant career development training.

When they’re on the sales team, the SDR has a better sense of what buyers to target and how to establish a relationship that will lead to a closed deal, Smallwood said. Whereas, under marketing, the SDR is one step removed from the sales process. While it’s possible for them to have a good relationship with their account executive, they inherently have less exposure to the current sales strategy and what leads to a good deal.

“It’s not easy to create good relationships where the AE and [sales development representatives] don’t feel like they’re competing and that it is a partnership,” Smallwood said. “Living under sales makes that partnership and being able to refine that partnership … so much easier.”  

And if issues bubble up between the SDR and account executive, it’s easier to remedy them because both teams are reporting to the same leaders.

“If you have a [SDR] complaining to marketing and an AE complaining to sales, that creates unnecessary friction,” Smallwood said. “Whereas if you’re all reporting to the VP of sales, they’re like, ‘WTF. We’re going to fix this.’

You also have control over the entire sales process, deciding how much qualification the SDR should do, whether or not they do light demos and what the hand off process looks like. Those factors can make or break a deal, Smallwood said. Too much overlap in your sales process, and the buyer will likely move on to someone else. When SDRs are under marketing, those sales tactics don’t always get addressed or prioritized.

“Most marketers aren’t thinking about those kinds of things,” Smallwood said. “We’re no longer at the top of the funnel, we’ve gotten the qualified lead. Sales leaders are the ones who think about those kinds of things.” 

Having SDRs under the same roof as sales also allows you to adapt your sales strategy on the fly, Smallwood said. If you decide to transition from a territory-based sales approach to a named-accounts strategy, you don’t have to go through marketing for permission to change the SDR team’s directives. You can roll out the new approach in a meeting, establish new metrics and organize the training necessary to execute it.

“Your sales leaders can make these decisions and inform marketing, versus like, ‘OK, this team reports to marketing. Now I have to go into a three-day power session talking about why we’re making this change, what the outcome is going to be and how we’re going to record it,’” Smallwood said. “It makes it easier from a tactical standpoint.”


More Access to Sales Training and Career Opportunities

In addition to the tactical advantages, former SDR Zoë Hartsfield argues that reporting to sales provides a more seamless early career experience.

Hartsfield started her own career as an SDR reporting to sales at BombBomb, a video prospecting platform. While she didn’t follow the common SDR career path and become an account executive, she found the sales training she received invaluable to her current role as the community and partner manager for the sales platform Dooly.

“To try and ask someone to lead you where they’ve never been, it’s hard. If you’ve never held a demo, never made a cold call, how are you supposed to coach me to cold call competency?”

For starters, she said sales training is more relevant to the role of an SDR. Most SDRs spend their time making cold calls, sending sales emails and handling objections from customers. Even if sales enablement works with SDRs in marketing to provide that training, most marketers don’t have the experience to reinforce those skills, Hartsfield said.

“To try and ask someone to lead you where they’ve never been, it’s hard,” Hartsfield said. “If you’ve never held a demo, never made a cold call, how are you supposed to coach me to cold call competency?” 

Beyond that, Hartsfield appreciated the opportunity to pick the brain of the account executives she worked with. Working closely with them in sales, she was able to ask questions about what made for an ideal prospect and what indicators signaled an easy sale. Since most SDRs become account executives, that experience can be crucial for career growth.

But even if an SDR doesn’t want to go into a sales career, that exposure working with an account executive can still be useful.

Hartsfield was able to use those lessons to write better outreach copy, find more relevant leads and book more meetings that the rep could close. Those experiences provide valuable preparation for any SDR looking to become an account executive, but Hartsfield also found it useful for her transition into marketing. 

When she interviewed for a community marketing role within BombBomb a year and a half later, the VP of marketing wanted to know why they should choose her over a marketer with five years of experience. Hartsfield was able to point to her experience working with customers, understanding their pain points and how the product solves them as an edge.

She earned the role and attributes her experience working under sales as a reason for her success as a marketer. 

“By having all of those conversations, by understanding the sales motion and what makes a good qualified lead, it made me a stronger marketer,” Hartsfield said.

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Why SDRs Should Report to Marketing

Castillo used to be in the “SDRs should report to sales” camp, but lately, he’s started to change his mind. 

After speaking with several sales thought leaders and making his own transition from account executive at Chili Piper to field marketing manager, he began to see flaws in the dynamic. 

“Because of this rigid process they’re not necessarily buying the best piece of tech. It’s like, ‘Who can solve my problem the quickest, and who asks me to buy from them at a reasonable price?’”

When SDRs are aligned under sales, their primary focus is typically on qualifying customers and booking meetings. Often, this can lead to reps asking rote questions around budget, authority, need and timeline to qualify the customer. But that isn’t what’s best for the buyer anymore.

3 Advantages to Aligning Sales Development Reps Under Marketing

  • SDRs are able to have more meaningful conversations with buyers because they aren’t solely measured on meetings booked.
  • SDRs are able to speak with a wider variety of prospects.
  • It opens them up to more career pathways outside of the traditional account executive route.

Buyers today are further along in their purchasing process than ever before thanks to the proliferation of product information online, Castillo said. They’ve often mapped out the problem they want to solve and researched the products they think can best solve it. They don’t need to be qualified.

“Because of this rigid process they’re not necessarily buying the best piece of tech,” Castillo said. “It’s like, ‘Who can solve my problem the quickest, and who asks me to buy from them at a reasonable price?’” 

When SDRs are aligned under marketing, they’re able to have more engaging conversations with buyers. They can seek to understand why they’re interested in the product, what triggered their buying process and meet them where they are. It may not always lead to a meeting, but it’s more informative than checking qualification boxes, Castillo said.


Structure Your Marketing SDRs to Have More ‘Meaningful Conversations’ 

It doesn’t have to come at the cost of the sales strategy, either, Castillo said. He suggests structuring the SDR team around three priorities. 

The first would include reaching out to target accounts and booking meetings for account executives. The second would involve reaching out to prospects who signal intent. Maybe they attended a webinar, downloaded a white paper or engaged with a blog post, but they aren’t a fit for the company’s ideal customer profile. The goal for these conversations would be to understand what made them reach out. The final priority would be around revisiting customers who didn’t close with the account executive to understand why.

“There’s still a lot of value you can get in speaking with a buyer and having them explain to you why they’re not in buyer mode or what they’re doing now.”

Meetings booked would still be an important metric, but he’d also add another one called “meaningful conversations,” which he defines as conversations that last longer than three minutes. 

“That tells me that conversation is interesting enough for the buyer to want to engage and have a back-and-forth,” Castillo said. 

This secondary metric frees reps to meet a wider variety of customers and gather valuable information that often gets overlooked when you only chase meetings. 

“There’s still a lot of value you can get in speaking with a buyer and having them explain to you why they’re not in buyer mode or what they’re doing now,” Castillo said. “That can go back to customer success, sales or product.”


Exposure to Career Opportunities Outside of Sales

Beyond the strategic advantages, Castillo argues that aligning SDRs under marketing opens the reps up to more career opportunities. 

If you’re worried about introducing the necessary sales skills, you can schedule a weekly training with the sales enablement team. But the reps will also have more experience thinking about customer success, product and marketing based on the variety of conversations they have with customers.

“I thought it’d be a little closer. But I think there’s a sweet spot where [SDRs] can report to marketing and have good copy and understand some of the sales skills [they need].”

Of course, Castillo knows he’s fighting an uphill battle in convincing companies to align their SDR team under marketing. While he knows his network is mostly sales reps, he was surprised to find that only 18 percent in his poll thought SDRs should report to marketing. 

“I thought it’d be a little closer,” Castillo said. “But I think there’s a sweet spot where [SDRs] can report to marketing and have good copy and understand some of the sales skills [they need].”

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The Third Option: SDRs Should Be Part of a United Revenue Team

What if SDRs didn’t have to be isolated under just sales or just marketing? Instead, Hartsfield proposed a third option: having SDRs report to a unified revenue organization.

In this situation, both sales and marketing are considered one team that a chief revenue officer oversees. There’s no longer a push and pull between marketing priorities and sales priorities — just one revenue priority. As a result, SDRs aren’t an extension of sales or of marketing, but instead, an independent part of the revenue strategy.

3 Advantages to Aligning Sales Development Reps Under a United Revenue Team

  • It offers access to both sales and marketing resources.
  • There is no friction when it comes to team priorities.
  • It gives SDRs more exposure to other teams, which will expand their career growth opportunities.

It’s an approach Hartsfield has become familiar with working at Dooly. It creates a more supportive and flexible environment for sales development reps. In one instance, she spoke with a business development representative who needed a white paper to book a meeting. She was able to message the head of content and get that to the BDR by the end of the month.

In an isolated structure, marketing might have other priorities that would push that request farther back in the production queue, Hartsfield said. When the team is aligned, the marketer is incentivized to support the SDR.

“By rolling up to one North Star, whether that’s a goal, metric or person, it creates a lot more equity and opportunity for people to move within the company.”

Beyond that, SDRs in a unified environment are equally exposed to both sales and marketing strategies. They get the sales training they need and more freedom to learn more about customers who don’t always lead directly to a sale. This pays dividends when it comes time for career advancement.

It can be difficult for a rep to jump from one team to another in a siloed organization when they don’t have visibility into the other team’s strategy or experience with their managers, Hartsfield said. Under a unified revenue team, they’re in the same meetings as the head of customer success, sales and marketing, which increases their exposure to those roles and opens them up to new opportunities to switch roles. 

After all, they’re all one team.

“By rolling up to one North Star, whether that’s a goal, metric or person, it creates a lot more equity and opportunity for people to move within the company,” Hartsfield said. “Then you can develop your own people instead of fighting the churn of your own employees.”

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