Sales Leaders Are Setting SDRs Up for Failure

They shouldn’t.

Written by Brian Nordli
Published on Sep. 01, 2020
Sales Leaders Are Setting SDRs Up for Failure

“Dear Cold Calling Soccer Mom, I see you.” This is how Nikki Ivey began one of her first social media posts speaking out against the culture she experienced as a sales development rep.

Like most sales professionals, Ivey started her career as a sales development rep, or SDR, where she was treated as little more than fodder for the sales pipeline machine. Make 100 calls, send 100 emails, repeat. There was little insight into why certain prospects made it into her daily task list, and sales leaders didn’t take the time to tell her.

“It was like: ‘Don’t worry about it. Shut up and dial,’” Ivey recalled.

She later found out that that’s often how it goes in one of tech’s most misunderstood and grueling entry-level roles.

Most SDRs are hired fresh out of college and have little-to-no work experience. The job descriptions, which often use athletic terms like, “team player” and “competitive,” exclude people like Ivey from the get-go. And sales leaders often treat all SDRs as if they’re recent college graduates, too inexperienced to have a voice in the company or to do anything other than cold call.

When a person accepts a job as an SDR, there’s an unspoken agreement that they’re going to be at the bottom of a company’s hierarchy and responsible for nearly 60 percent of the sales pipeline, Ivey said.

“You’re missing out on an opportunity from the very beginning to fuse your organization with a diverse set of candidates.”

If a rep doesn’t succeed — nearly 40 percent of reps turn over in less than two years, according to The Bridge Group — it’s thought to be because they didn’t work hard enough and aren’t cut out for sales, Ivey said. It creates a gatekeeper culture where new hires must pay their dues as SDRs before they can be let into the account executive club.

But Ivey was neither an inexperienced recent graduate nor a former athlete. She was a cold calling soccer mom, and she didn’t see herself or others like her represented in the role.

Her post was the first step toward challenging that culture. She went on to co-found SDRDefenders in order to give SDRs a voice in the sales conversation and turn the perspective around on the position.

“If you’re not paying attention to how you recruit, invest in and support your SDRs, you’re missing out on an opportunity from the very beginning to fuse your organization with a diverse set of candidates,” Ivey said.

SDR Management Tips

  • Create an onboarding program for SDRs. They need at least eight weeks to ramp in order to have quality interactions with customers.
  • Align compensation and quotas with the needs of both sales and marketing, and adjust them as needed. Quarterly metrics, as opposed to monthly ones, can also work wonders for an SDR’s mental health.
  • Set minimum KPI targets across multiple channels to give reps room to experiment and play to their strengths when prospecting.
  • Talk about burnout and make sure reps know their value extends beyond their numbers. Cold calling and emailing is difficult and often lonely.
  • Create a career plan with concrete steps toward promotion. This lets the SDR know what to work toward, and it can help create a pipeline of talent for the company.


Salesperson struggling illustration
Image: Shutterstock

Prospecting Isn’t Just a Numbers Game Anymore

If Ivey were to rewrite the job description for SDRs, she would use words like “resilient,” “gritty” and “thoughtful.” Those are the skills it takes to succeed in the role, she said.

But more often than not, SDRs are treated as nothing more than cold callers. This partly stems from sales’ gatekeeper culture, but also from a disconnect between the current sales landscape and the history of the position.

Most SDR positions are modeled after a methodology called “predictable revenue,” said Kyle Coleman, VP of revenue growth and enablement at Clari. Pioneered by former Salesforce sales leader Aaron Ross in the mid-2000s, it’s a quantitative approach built on the idea that, if a rep makes enough calls and sends enough emails, they will generate a predictable amount of pipeline for sales that will translate to revenue.

“It was like: ‘Don’t worry about it. Shut up and dial.’”

While it revolutionized sales at the time, it doesn’t reflect the current sales landscape. The B2B SaaS market has never been more saturated, which means it’s harder than ever for reps to stand out from the crowd.

As long as sales leaders treat it as a numbers game, reps will have to make more and more phone calls to reach the same quotas. For SDRs to succeed today, they need to be given the tools to customize their messaging.

More on SalesThese Strategies Help High-Performing SDRs Stay on Track


SDRs Need at Least Eight Weeks of Training to Succeed

One of the most common debates Coleman has with other sales leaders is about how long it takes to onboard a new SDR.

There’s a tendency to assume that reps don’t need much time to ramp to quota. Hand them a script and a prospecting list and tell them to get to work.

Coleman believes that doesn’t cut it anymore. Reps need to know what they’re doing — and why — in order to have more quality interactions with customers that will lead to pipeline growth. In his opinion, reps need no fewer than eight weeks of training to be equipped to do the job.

“You can’t just say, ‘All right, you now know the product, you now know the personas, now go write a personalized email,’” Coleman said. “You have to give them the actual tools, and you have to give them examples. You have to have office hours and work with them as they build this muscle.”

At Clari, Coleman structures the training in one-week increments. During a rep’s first week, they’re given an introduction to tools like LinkedIn Navigator and Outreach and must pass a certification test to advance. The second week focuses on the product, where they’ll get certified to run a five-minute demo and meet other teams.

“You can’t just say, ‘All right, you now know the product, you now know the personas, now go write a personalized email.’”

As the weeks progress, they’ll learn more about Clari’s competition, ideal buyer personas and how to message around the pain points a buyer might have. During the final two weeks, they’ll put the skills together and ramp up to their expected KPIs.

The approach puts reps on equal footing with other people in the organization, in that they have a clear understanding of what they do and why they’re doing it. It also gives them a framework of skills to build on and make their own, which is critical to hitting quota, Coleman said.

“You have to give them a framework that is useful but not entirely prescriptive,” Coleman said. “We’ll give them the tools they need to be successful, but we expect them to exercise autonomy to do things the way they want to and to infuse their own personality, especially in personalized outreach.”

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Sales KPI illustration
Image: Shutterstock

Make Sure KPIs and Incentive Plans Are Aligned

In order for an SDR team to succeed, it’s critical for sales leaders to evolve the incentive plan and quota benchmarks with the company.

It may sound obvious, but two of the most common reasons SDR reps don’t deliver results stem from the fact that their quotas are either stuck in the past, or they’re not aligned with the sales team’s needs, Coleman said.

In the early stages, it might make sense for sales leaders to develop an incentive plan for SDRs based on a quantity-based approach, where the goal is to set up as many meetings as they can for an account executive, Coleman said.

“You need to design a compensation system that makes sure that the sales team, marketing and SDRs are actually working together.”

But as the company matures, SDR incentives should transition to a more account-based approach that targets quality leads for account executives. Otherwise, SDRs end up chasing leads that account executives can’t close. It can lead to a frustrated salesperson, and an SDR who ends up under fire for not delivering results.

“If there’s a gap between incentives, then it’s your fault as a sales leader setting those incentives,” Coleman said. “You need to design a compensation system that makes sure that the sales team, marketing and SDRs are actually working together.”

Coleman also suggests building quota compensation plans on a quarterly basis for the sanity of the reps. When an SDR starts every month with a clean slate and new goals, it can be impossible for them to take a vacation without falling behind.


What About Those KPIs?

When it comes to setting KPIs, it’s better to set attainable minimum activity goals than hard-to-reach targets.

If the team is geared toward personalized outreach, they’re not going to have the time to make 500 calls — and the KPIs need to reflect that.

At Clari, Coleman sets a minimum threshold of calls, emails and social media outreach for his reps to hit each week — and a maximum. The KPIs are there so that the reps mix up their outreach channels, but the targets are low enough that the rep can spend the rest of their efforts in the channel where they are most effective.

A rep more comfortable on the phone can spend more time making calls, while another rep more comfortable communicating on LinkedIn can target messages on the social media platform. What matters most to Coleman is a rep’s account penetration, a metric that measures how many target accounts an SDR has traction with. This could be that the prospect has opened up a document, responded to an email or set up a meeting.

The goal is to give reps the freedom to do their work and build skills beyond pipeline generation.

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Take the Time to Address Burnout

The average SDR tenure is about 18 months, but it doesn’t take long for reps to feel the burden of constant cold calls and unanswered emails. It’s a high-stress job, and the repetition doesn’t make it any easier to navigate.

To prevent burnout, 6sense Senior Director of SDR Ernest Owusu has a program in place he calls the “Three Cs” — Career, Culture and Compensation. It’s his job as a sales leader to address each of those areas with his reps.

He makes sure every rep has a career growth plan and a north star to work toward. The job is too grueling to work for two years without having a career to progress to afterward, Owusu said. Compensation reminds him to make sure that the incentives are aligned with the work the SDR is doing. Finally, it’s crucial to have an intentional culture that brings the team together.

If any of those are out of line, it’s only a matter of time before the rep will leave, Owusu said.

“People underestimate the power of a genuine: ‘You’re fine, you’ll be OK. We’re not going to throw you away.’”

Perhaps the simplest thing a sales leader can do to alleviate the pressure of burnout is to simply talk about it and admit that it’s OK to feel burnt out. Too often, sales leaders treat exhaustion as a failure on the rep’s part, as if the rep is saying, “I can’t hack it,” Ivey said.

Speaking about burnout, asking about an employee’s mental health — and offering healthy alternatives to managing that stress that doesn’t involve alcohol — can go a long way toward supporting a rep’s long-term success.

“People underestimate the power of a genuine: ‘You’re fine, you’ll be OK. We’re not going to throw you away,’” Ivey said.


SDR Team Illustration
Image: Shutterstock

SDRs Aren’t Just Future AEs

There’s an assumption among sales leaders that all SDRs want to become account executives, but that’s not always the case.

In fact, Coleman estimates that only half of SDRs actually want to go into sales. Failing to support the career goals of other reps limits their potential and deprives the company of a valuable development pipeline.

After all, no other position in the company talks to as many customers as an SDR.

“SDRs have a really strong understanding of the prospects who they speak with every day,” Coleman said. “So bringing that perspective to any other role inside the company is hugely beneficial.”

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At Clari, SDRs start career planning six months into their tenure. At that point, they’ve had enough time to master the position and are able to start thinking about their future. Whatever role the rep identifies, their manager will create a coaching plan with them to help them reach that goal.

In order to give reps exposure to other roles, Coleman has adopted a version of Google’s 20-percent project framework, he calls “10-percent Projects.” In his version, reps spend 10 percent of their time each week working on an entry-level project for another team of their choosing.

The projects act like mini-apprenticeships, giving reps the opportunity to test out new positions and allowing team leaders to train a potential candidate. But the cross-team exposure also makes the SDR better at their job, Coleman said.

“SDRs have a really strong understanding of the prospects who they speak with every day. So bringing that perspective to any other role inside the company is hugely beneficial.”

Whether it’s working with product, marketing or any other team, the experience helps inform their messaging with customers.

“It keeps them motivated, engaged and fulfilled in different ways,” Coleman said. “It gets their brains thinking differently, and they’re learning lessons about themselves and what their future contributions can be.”

Through this method, Coleman has had reps transition into nearly every role within the company, from operations to marketing to engineering, during his career. At Clari, where he’s worked for 18 months, he’s hired 14 SDRs. Of those SDRs, five have been promoted, one has left and one has been let go.

Ultimately, hiring and onboarding is too expensive for managers to treat the SDR position like a trial run for a sales role.


Supporting SDRs for a Brighter Future

But not all roads need to lead out of an SDR position. Some people are wired for the fast-paced world of prospecting. Ivey considers herself one of those people. In addition to running SDRDefenders, she works as a sales development rep for Emtrain, a company that improves workplace culture through data analytics and training.

Ivey loves being the first contact for prospects. While the valleys of the role are low, nothing is more satisfying than helping a customer recognize the need for the software she’s selling.

“We’re on the cusp for the whole dynamic to shift.”

What she doesn’t enjoy is the culture that sales has built up around the position. The kind that doesn’t recognize cold-calling soccer moms and other diverse sales reps as viable candidates. The kind that doesn’t develop reps for future positions.

Still, she’s optimistic that the future will be brighter for SDRs.

“We’re on the cusp for the whole dynamic to shift,” Ivey said. “We’re going to start to see more [former] SDRs who are in leadership positions, who are in marketing or are in customer success, and are being more visible so folks see a path other than 100 cold calls a day for three years.

“This is just part of the uncomfortable look-in-the-mirror-type conversation that sales culture has to have, and it makes sense to start with how we treat the newest and most vulnerable folks in the profession.”

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