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How To Build (And Scale) A Successful Sales Development Team
I get asked this same question several times a week.—”Tito, how do I go about building a sales team (especially the sales development function) from scratch?”
It usually comes from founders, or the first sales hire at a company. Sometimes, it comes from companies after several failed attempts. The truth is, there’s only one way to do it right, and if this is your third try, lucky you, I’ll share the formula with you.
Before we dive in, and maybe even more important than “how to” is the “how NOT to” part, so let’s cover some of the mistakes most people make when building SDR teams first.
1) Training SDRs as if they were Account Executives
2) Hiring junior SDRs and giving them full freedom
3) Not doing it yourself first
4) Keeping it cheap/scrappy
5) Thinking you can pay little money
6) Trying to scale with only warm leads
7) Not understanding the current state of the customer
Mistake #1: Training SDRs as If They Were Account Executives
This is the most common mistake, especially if your SDR organization falls within the sales department. If you’ve hired your SDR and had their onboarding be the same as the AEs, you’re in trouble for two reasons.
During onboarding, your SDRs learns about most of the features, they see the product in action and listen to the AE give a pitch. The reason that’s a problem is that the SDRs will start pitching product features.
“We have this great integration with X” and assume that what they are saying is properly communicated, however, this is “The Curse of Knowledge”.
When you see a product in action, you understand it differently from when you haven’t seen it. Imagine you’re trying to explain what an iPhone does to a tribe in Africa that has no idea what “internet” is. Maybe an extreme example, but the curse of knowledge is real, watch this:
Mistake #2: Hiring Junior SDRs and Giving Them Full Freedom
“Ok, I get it, Tito. No product training, so let’s just give them a phone, a computer and off we go, right?” I wish.
You’re going to be in deep trouble if you’re hiring SDRs and just telling them to do “as they wish” to get meetings. Unless of course every SDR you hire has a lot of experience and is great at what they do (these employees are not only rare you but also expensive).
Chances are that most SDRs you hire are transitioning careers or coming out of college so they have little business acumen. Full freedom = disaster.
Coach your reps to keep the fun out
I’ve heard horror stories about the work of SDRs and how they annoy executives (have you seen people publicly shame SDRs?) Me too. However, I’ve also had an SDR a few years ago who wrote an email that said “Thank you” 17 times in one email.
Emojis anyone? How about GIFs? Too much freedom can mean creativity, but freedom means responsibility. You don’t hire a kid out of college and make him a pilot for Delta Airlines without training.
Unless you’re selling a $20/mo product, keep the “fun” out. Give your SDRs some direction. Why? Because 3-9 months down the road when you realize you’ve spent $100K on 2 SDRs and they have produced nothing. Once you want to “put a structure in place”, they’ll be against it.
Manager: “Ok team, so we need better results. Now everyone needs to make 50 calls every day.”
Reps: “Bullshit, I’m not making calls, cold-calling is dead, I read it on LinkedIn”
Mistake #3: Not Doing It Yourself First
“Wait, Tito, I’m a manager. I’m 40 years old, I’m not going to actually get on the phone and make calls, right?”
“Thanks for your time, the interview is over. You can leave now”
Just kidding. I’m actually a really nice manager. Ask my reps, or read my recommendation on LinkedIn, or whatever, I don’t care.
Unless your SDRs believe that their manager can do their job better than them, they will not follow their direction. They’ll feel entitled to more.
They want a promotion ASAP, more money. Also, they want to manage themselves and want to be AEs. If they feel they can train fresh SDRs better than you, you’ve lost their respect as a manager. That’s what I mean.
If they don’t perceive that you can do the job better than them, you’ll have a lot of turnovers.
“Oh shit, is that why my average SDR tenure is 4-8 months?”
Mistake #4: Keeping It Cheap/Scrappy
Well, that’s one reason why they’re leaving. The other one is that their job itself sucks when it comes to workflow.
You bought the cheapest sales acceleration tool, and the cheapest data tool, and so on. Let me tell you. You’re going to war—your SDRs are hunters. They’re getting on the battlefield of attention trying to engage VPs and C-level executives and they have the equivalent of bows and arrows. The winning teams have bazookas.
If you’re going cheap on data and sales tools, you’re dead. Not only because it’ll be harder to engage prospects, but also because the workflow is so frustrating that your reps will quit.
You won’t know this unless you’ve done the work yourself.
You know why else they quit?
Mistake #5: Thinking You Can Pay Little Money
“We budgeted $70K for the SDRs”. If you think you can hire reps for cheap, and keep it cheap for long, I want to welcome you to Turnover-World.
Bad tools, bad data, difficult workflows and bad pay. You would probably quit too, but have you ever tried doing their job? (See mistake #3).
The SDR job is mentally taxing and highly stressful. If their base salary doesn’t even allow them to pay rent and food, they’ll leave! You’re setting yourself for failure because “everyone is doing it that way”. If you continue following the status quo, you’ll continue failing.
Mistake #6: Trying to Scale with Only Warm Leads
Relying purely on trade show scans, mass newsletter emails, and other wide “net” strategies aren’t scalable. Why? Because there’s overlap.
Think about it. Two booths at Dreamforce won’t bring you twice as many leads as one booth. Going to twice as many trade shows won’t get you twice as many leads either. It’s mostly the same people going to these conferences. Two email blasts to your 20,000 person list won’t get you 2x the meetings as 1 email.
Target your outbound marketing to ice-cold leads
If you were able to get some results by purely using non-focused demand generation, your website, and other lead sources, scaling will be hard. You need to figure out how you can build a ppipeline from ice-cold leads.
This means turning your “Inbound Marketing” into “Outbound Marketing”. Outbound Marketing?! What the hell is that?! Some people call it Account Based Marketing. Select the accounts you want to go after and have your marketing team go hunt. Replace your nets for spears.
But to be able to do that you need to understand your customers well.
Mistake #7: Not Understanding the Current State of the Customer
Do you understand your customers? What about you SDRs?
This blog is an example. If you’ve read this far, it probably resonated with you. By bringing you insights, it shows I understand you. I won’t pitch you to get on a call though. I’m not eager to sell you ASAP. I’m interested in sharing more thoughts with you if you’re thinking of building or improving your team. You might, or might not need AltiSales.
Can you do the same for your customers? Can your SDRs attract curiosity, and can your AEs turn curiosity into interest? If they can’t you’re doing it wrong.
The One Question We Asked 32 Sales Development Leaders on Building a Sales Team
To learn more about how companies are scaling their sales development teams, I reached out to some of the top up-and-coming leaders in the B2B sales space and asked each one:
What is a single piece of advice you’d give to another sales professional who’s currently scaling or who is about to start building a sales development team?
Here’s what each of them said, in their own words:
1) Ralph Barsi, Global Sales Development Leader, ServiceNow
“See and treat your people as if they are one or two roles ahead of where they are today. What you believe, you become; and the best leaders start by believing in their people.”
2) Adam Lewites, Entrepreneur Selection & Growth, Endeavor Atlanta
“Be Patient. You likely will not see an ROI on SDRs until month 6 (give or take). Don’t cut the cord too early.”
3) Drew Lawrence, VP of Client Solutions, The Ash Group
“Build your SDR playbook before you hire. Have the tools, processes, and procedures in place before you interview anyone. This will help to ensure that you hire the right people & empower them to hit the ground running.”
4) Kelly Schuur, CEO, Misfit Labs
“In my past experience, SDRs were bottlenecks which slowed down the sales organization. SDRs felt like they had to over-qualify to get credit for an opportunity. Sales is a numbers game and we want our AEs to have as many at-bats as possible. If a lead wants to talk to an AE, have your SDRs use the tools available to them online (LinkedIn, Crunchbase, Twitter, withiand Clearbit) to do basic qualification rather than acting like a sales bouncer.”
5) Eric Gonzalez, Associate Director, Sales Operations, Glassdoor
“Measure everything, always be training, and never stop looking for a better way to do something.”
6) Colin McGrew, Former Senior Director of Sales, Keboola
“Start with the end in mind and be specific on your expectations and measurement. Is your team setting appointments or creating qualified opportunities? How will you segment inbound/outbound and how are you going to pair SDRs with field sales reps?”
7) Jorge Soto, CEO and Co-Founder, FirstCut
“Make sure that you have a comprehensive hiring, onboarding, and training program that is data-driven.”
8) Noelle Alyassini, Account Executive, UserTesting
“Having a strong onboarding program that facilitates a short ramp time for new SDRs is fundamental to scaling. The program should clearly outline expectations for the SDR’s 1st 30 days, it should provide a peer mentor & it should test retention of key info & prospecting skills.”
9) John Malamud, Account Manager, PagerDuty
“Make sure inbound is healthy — your AEs are swamped with leads they don’t have time to follow up on — before even thinking about growing an SDR team, let alone doing outbound. Then start with MDRs, or inbound SDRs, and create a scalable process that triages these leads into qualified opps.”
10) Meghan LaTorre, Senior Manager, Sales, Zendesk
“It’s all about process. Don’t expect these more inexperienced teams to “wing it.” Invest in a CRM, sales prospecting/intelligence tools, and call scripts to help provide the framework for success.”
11) Ilan Kopecky, Director, Business Development, Salesforce
“Looking to start/scale your team? Hire the HUNGRIEST people you can find, those who WANT to be at your company, those who want to ASCEND but understand the TIME and COMMITMENT needed to prove themselves, and those who will engage in some good old healthy competition.”
12) Margaret Weniger, Director of Sales, SaaSOptics
“Create a hiring profile based on your top SDRs.
Be efficient by establishing a hiring cadence: phone screens, interview day, and then onboarding day for the class of new hires.
Develop team lead roles to help with ramping new hires”
13) Jon Parisi, VP of Sales, GuideSpark
“People: Hire for attributes. You can’t coach “hustle”.
Process: Consider the right KPIs for you (meetings booked vs. completed, $$ of pipe vs. # opps, live connects vs. dials).
Technology: Increase output drastically with little incremental effort. Work smarter, not harder.”
14) Sam Burns, Director of Field Operations, SurveyMonkey
“Take notes in your CRM as soon as you start using one. Then reinforce it to the rest of the team. The four other members of the sales team may know about what’s happening with this lead or that prospect and not feel the need to take many notes because the universe is tiny.
But that’s now. Fast forward a year from now; I guarantee you’ll wish you had reinforced proper note taking practices in your CRM. Context is everything and a CRM can’t convey it. It seems simple but it saves future headaches.”
15) Katherine Andruha, Director, Global Sales Development, Apttus
“One of the most important factors of building a successful team is the talent you hire. Make hiring a priority. SDRs are an investment of time, resources and, of course, money. You want someone on the team that fits the culture, is motivated from within and can make a meaningful contribution to the team and company as a whole.
Take a moment to think: Sales Development Reps are your future sales organization, do you want this individual working for you for the next 2, 3, or even 5 years? When implementing new strategies, ASK your team for their ideas and make the process together. They will feel more invested and will work harder to make the new process a success.”
16) Leo Cardenas, Manager, Group Sales, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment
“Two big things for me are:
1) There can’t be growth without opportunity. (reps need a ladder to climb)
2) Coach behavior, NOT attitude. The right behaviors lead to the right attitude.”
17) Sarah Enxing, Global Sales Enablement Program Manager, Syncsort
“Find candidates that have a record of being self-starters and a desire to grow with the company. The SDR role is a tough job! They are the first line of defense, the first impression of your company. You should hire someone you could see in a senior sales role in the future.”
18) Brandon Crawford, Director of Partnerships, SocialChorus
“Process, process, process, and reporting. Scaling an SDR team efficiently and effectively all comes back to having in place repeatable processes for everything from onboarding new SDRs to SFDC workflow and Opportunity SLAs. And most importantly, nothing will work without being able to report on every little detail.”
19) Lan Bui, Head of Global Sales Development & Sales Operations, Leanplum
“Create an ideal SDR profile and hire against it and create a standard onaboarding and training program to optimize the ramp time. Communicate goals and metrics to the team so expectations are set.
Be metrics oriented and understand key conversion rates.
Create a growth plan.”
20) Erik Estabrook, Director, Business Development, 6sense
“Invest in the SDRs. Too often, companies treat the business development teams like naming a lobster and throwing them in the tank. Create the development path to enable them to do what their talents push them toward, but more importantly- what they want to do.”
21) Jason Vargas, Senior Consultant, Skaled
“Just like building out your Ideal Customer Profile – create your Ideal Candidate Profile. If you haven’t hired anyone yet and you don’t know what this would look like, ask other sales leaders you know if it would be OK to speak with their top reps – do the work to find the qualities that are important to you. If you don’t know what you’re looking for in a new candidate, you’re going to be flying blind.
Hire future leaders – Kyle Porter recently spoke about this and I couldn’t agree more. Find people that you want to have around for the long haul. People that can grow into leaders at your company. Don’t turn and burn, that creates the wrong environment and culture.
Create a hiring process that filters out for the qualities you’re looking for. Also, have your hiring process incorporate aspects of the role they’ll be doing – it’s a great way to understand how successful they might be at the job.”
22) Andrew McGuire, RVP, Pipeline Strategy, Duo Security
“Clean your account data. It will be incredibly difficult to build a team without understanding the number of companies, industry, size of the organization, etc. This is by far the most important thing you can do for the SDR team. Clean your data.”
23) James Barton, Sales Development Leader, Iterable
“In your weekly 1:1, take half the time scheduled for your agenda, but then be sure to have your reps own the second half.”
24) Michael Mansour, VP of Sales, Webgility, Inc.
“Hire what you can’t train (passion). Create an environment that can scale, think CRM and your contact strategy. Train what you can’t hire (product knowledge/professional salesmanship)”
25) Daniel Barber, CEO, DataGrail
“Invest in your people, and they’ll invest in you. Create an internal path for promotion, so that you can nurture top-talent into leaders within your organization.”
26) Aaron Melamed, VP of Sales, CodeFights
“Recruit detail-oriented people. The modern SDR runs a suite of software tools and must triangulate information from a staggering number of sources. Use tools to aid in the recording of data into CRM. Configure and bend SFDC to your will. Clearly define your Ideal Customer Profile and qualification criteria. Celebrate success.”
27) Kyle Poretto, New Business, Betterment for Business
“Hire Senior SDRs first. Don’t waste your time with hiring recent college graduates right out of the gate- they will suck up your closer’s time and drag your outbound down.”
28) Kristina McMillan, VP of Research, TOPO Inc.
“My best advice would be to clearly define your objectives for the team. If you want them to create opportunities, meetings, demos, whatever. They have to know what their directive is and how to make decisions that help move the company forward.”
29) DJ Blough, Demand Gen Marketing Manager, Circadence
“The most fundamental goal of the SDR team is to reach the right people at the right time and to deliver the right message. As your SDR team grows, it becomes more and more important to have a solid, repeatable and documented (keyword) process in place to support that goal.
SDR world is a fast-paced environment, and with the ever-changing digital landscape, changes that your prospective buyers are undergoing, changes happening within your own organization, it’s imperative that SDR’s have a foundation that they can rely on to be consistently successful.
It’ll take a combination of your own data and shared best practices to help you create a process that drives results, and just like everything else, it will probably undergo changes.
As long as you place an emphasis on tracking results and measuring effectiveness, the process should evolve into an sappointment-setting machine that really hums.”
30) Nick McGourty, Account Executive, Cloudflare, Inc.
“It’s massively important to make clear roles and responsibilities. What is the SDR’s end product? When has the SDR completed their part of the sale, and when does that AE pick up? Are the SDRs on the hook for meetings? Qualifying calls? Opps? This incredibly hard to nail down, as it varies given differences in organizations & strategies, but critical to ensuring focus, clarity, and commercial cohesion.”
31) Jeanne Marie Wilke, Head of SalesOps, Qualia Labs, Inc.
“Define your process early. Test. Fail. Learn. Track. Repeat. This will be key to tracking later.
Really truly understand your people and be patient. Get them exposed to as much as possible (presentations for execs, conferences, marketing, engineering) and push their limits.
Treat yo’self every once in a while and have fun!”
32) Bryan Beard, Sr. Manager, Inbound Sales Development, Zenefits
“Learn to interview with your gut. A candidate can say all the right things, but if you don’t feel it, neither will the prospect.”
Also published on Medium.