Even SDRs hate their job (but they don't have to)
Our colleague, Kim Solow is looking for her next Product Marketing Manager opportunity. She has over a decade of product marketing experience in SaaS, has worked with industry giants (Meta) and innovative late stage startups such as OneTrust and BetterCloud. Please reach out to her if you know of any opportunities.
Warning: The following piece is more relevant for earlier-stage tech companies. But we hope it's valuable for all marketers and sales associates.
Frankly, being a sales development representative (SDR) is horrible for the most part. You learn what it's like to face multiple rejections daily and what it takes to turn a relatively unknown person into a potential customer that an Account Executive (AE) ends up closing. Despite how tough being on the sales frontline can be, improving sales frontline roles is a widely ignored problem because it’s easy to think that "you can always find another SDR". Plus, there is also this belief that "sharks" can handle the pressure.
Newsflash, you don't need to “stick it out”, you may just be in the wrong place.
Before we go any further, let's get some definitions out of the way. In most organizations, an SDR focuses on qualifying inbound leads, while a BDR's job is to prospect outbound leads. Same thing, different channel. Some may argue, different levels of complexity.
Regardless, and for the sake of this essay, everything we will talk about from here onwards can apply to SDR (inbound) and BDR (outbound) teams. Or, if we get over marketing lingo, think of this as a reflection of the individuals that are your sales frontline, sending emails and calling daily to ensure your company grows (regardless of their title or where the opportunity comes from). When you’re a smaller organization, growth is the goal regardless of how.
SDRs/BDRs are your frontline, and that MATTERS.
My god, did we have nightmares working as SDRs. It seemed like, at any second, someone was either going to get fired because they did not meet their quota or they were going to break because they were actually killing it. It's rough. It requires relentless focus, lots of perseverance, being capable of pushing past permanent frustration and rejection. Plus, of course, actually helping the company find new customers.
There are entire YouTube channels dedicated to helping SDRs and BDRs push through the harsh realities of the job. Some videos teach you how to maximize productivity by building an abundant pipeline all the way from prospecting to calling to sequences and so on. Trent even goes a little deeper and shows you how he scheduled his day around the many tasks required to keep motivated. After all, it requires a mindset and understanding of your energy levels so that you can keep going no matter how hard it gets. It's a great video; check it out. It may help you.
What most people ignore when thinking about SDR/BDR/Sales client-facing pipeline-nurturing jobs, is that it pushes individuals to praise a competitive rise-and-grind mentality. While it may seem like a great value to instill in your organization, it also comes with a cost: less creativity and perceptiveness. Who has time to be creative when they must constantly fill the pipeline and improve sales quotas? Who has time to collaborate with other areas to improve user understanding and product features when they have 50+ calls to do daily?
Surrendering creativity and perceptiveness, however, may not be the best thing to do for long-term growth. Instead, working as an orchestrated marketing/sales team and valuing their feedback, learnings, and new perspectives works better. You can foster this healthy cultural environment by providing the right tools, support, independence, trust and collaboration. Or, you can ignore all that, raise the bar every time, promote ruthless competition, and hope they do not crack under enormous pressure.
Doing it, though, it’s a lot harder than it seems. So together with our sponsors, RevenueHero, we wrote a couple of pointers you can incorporate into your sales teams to improve performance.
Three ways to improve the work of your frontline sales workers
1. Train your SDRs/BDRs for performance and comfort.
Let's be 100% honest here. Among the top most unpleasant experiences for a senior marketing leader is going through a qualification call with someone who doesn’t have the answers to critical questions. SDR roles and the qualification slow process make it harder for people to buy and also make the job less enjoyable. Regardless, it is a common practice to train newcomers to the sales department to be the frontline and "hustle" until a couple of opportunities happen. Sounds strange, but it works sometimes.
Unfortunately for the brand, your team, your frontline sales newbie, and the decision maker he is pitching, the experience is far from satisfactory. It is not a coincidence that we find posts from multiple known brands like Hubspot, Nutshell, or Lusha that confirm being an SDR means facing rejection, pressure, and stress levels that break people.
Some individuals are exceptionally great at being SDRs even if they’re new to the job. But, that is rare and it sets an unrealistic expectation for your sales teams. Just like some people are ok with the qualification process, but most might want to just talk to the AE and quickly figure out if the product solves their problems.
Rather than following this route, be sure your sales teams have the right resources to learn everything they can about the product, previous sales wins, sales losses, and what it takes for them to succeed (based on historical data). This means having a documentation culture where collective growth rather than individual performance happens. Having this library of ideas, playbooks, emails, call scripts, etc., that yield the best results for your particular product is a gold mine that should be open to everyone facing clients daily. Plus, it helps your organization internally align with a shared source of truth.
Beyond information availability, also be sure to train your teams more individually to both teach and to get to know who they are. If you have an Account Executive-SDR/BDR structure, build an environment where they can openly share learnings and discuss potential improvements as well. While there appears to be no ultimate consensus on "Coopetition" (collaboration + competition) in a sales environment, building an internal culture that mixes both is intuitively superior. Working in a sales department where you can succeed at an individual level (perks, prices, etc.) while positively affecting the overall organization should be a priority. If your sales frontline has the ability to close, you might also want to consider training them on that. This will also help your company simplify the sales internal process and help your prospects decide whether or not to buy your product.
Now that you have optimized for performance with the proper training, cooperation, and figuring out what motivates them, think about comfort. Remember that these frontline workers are people with their own sets of skills and particularities. They are creative and can, for example, improve upon the copy you have written or your pitch. Let them be. Let them become the best version of an SDR each can become so that they grow into the role and improve their performance.
Trying too hard to standardize your workforce only works if you work with robots. Humans, conversely, are complicated creatures that need to feel motivated to excel. We're not saying you should let people run their playbooks as they please or freestyle calls. It means you develop your sales frontline enough so they can confidently add their personal touch to every interaction in a way that aligns with the company's goals and boosts their ability to build relationships with potential customers.
Caring for your sales team and ensuring your environment is healthy (avoiding longer hours and the grind mentality 24/7) and exciting (gamifying the experience, providing great perks, allowing them to be independent, etc.) will help them succeed.
2. Accept that not everyone can sell, and not every product is worth selling
Not everyone is cut out for sales. It is a challenging route that some are naturally good at, some can learn and grow into, and some will dread every step of the way. Beyond how hard sales are, however, there is another reality that no one wants to admit but is common in tech industries: not every product out there is ready to be used by people.
Let's explore both of these ideas.
In an economic landscape drastically shifting from venture capital and a game of fools to a camel startup mindset, what matters is adding value, not so much pursuing your passions. They can be one and the same; in fact, that's kind of what the contemporary work playbook is all about (this is an entirely different essay). But they aren't necessarily connected.
The economic bandwidth and flexibility that we had in the prosperous couple of decades where money was free (VC irresponsible investments to reckless startups just because it was possible) doesn't exist anymore. Instead, we are facing a new economic paradigm with:
Technologies we are incapable of fully understanding and controlling (AI and AGI)
A West vs. East cold-war revival (Ukraine-Russia/China-Taiwan)
A need to understand and accept how the world is changing, given the rise of China as an economic superpower
Trade relations fracturing and dependencies shifting (BRICs)
Climate crisis looming
And, our personal favorite and the most dangerous of all: permanent distraction.
With that context, who wants to go through a qualification call? Very few.
Still, sales, whether inbound or outbound, do work, but they do because people who work in that field focus on the possibilities and opportunities of genuinely helping someone. How? By selling them a product, building relationships, and by personally loving the thrill of impacting the revenue targets for the organization and feeling validated.
That is a rare skill. It requires relentless focus and hunger to prove to themselves (and to the world) that they can persuade people to solve their problems using a particular product. It requires understanding the obstacles, the benefits, the market, and the personal triggers that would help someone go for it despite it all.
Can anyone do that? That's for you to answer, but it's unlikely. What you can control, however, is your capacity to build a system to find these people. A few things you can do are:
Using psychological tests to match candidates with specific abilities that the role requires. We like this one in particular because it lists your strengths (helping you identify your strong areas and those you need to improve). It's free.
Have potential new hires do a paid test to see their performance before hiring. This is true for most organizational roles, especially small orgs that can't afford to hire the wrong folks.
Hire people with experience and give a chance to those hungry for growth. Both are great hires. You just need to make sure they have a sales mindset.
Have the right tools to help them succeed. This does not apply to most large orgs, but it's standard for smaller "scrappy" companies to see sales frontlines doing magic tricks to do research via free trials with multiple tools. The job is already hard enough. Please.
Build a clear career path for your sales teams. We're all driven by future scenarios and the idea that we can improve and grow professionally. Build that and a transparent and accountable system that anyone can understand. Celebrate wins and inspire them. Motivation is a puzzle, but you can do things to make it more straightforward.
Build a marketing+sales process that improves success and reduces frustration. We will go into this next, but honestly, doing sales with an aligned team is 10x more effective and less frustrating.
Now let's talk about broken products. Many apps are far from product-market fit, have fundamental flaws, or use confusing contracts to force people to continue paying as long as possible. The list of issues some products have that would make a rational person think this is not a functional product is massive. But still, in the golden era of free money and millennial subsidies (that no longer exists), it made sense to push riskier products. After all, that was the game as long as you had runway and a creative team that could make investors believe they would make it. Many did, many didn’t hop well.
How can you ask a sales frontline worker to push an undesired product and expect great results? Does every product deserve to be sold? Are SDRs machine-like workers expected to ignore these realities and continue grinding daily?
These are rhetorical.
3. ABM is a mindset, not a tool. Use it.
The debate around ABM is confusing. Some think it’s a platform, some think it’s a way to do marketing, some think it’s both. Instead of solving that enigma, let’s consider ABM marketing that happens in an organized way that focuses on accounts rather than individuals.
Above is a graph that explains how the RevenueHero team runs its ABM playbook internally without purchasing an ABM tool. To them, ABM is a mindset and a way to make sure everyone is aligned in the organization to accomplish the best results possible.
As you can see, there are multiple dimensions at play. First and foremost, a clear ICP becomes the backbone of the Hubspot list RH uses to reach out to its prospects. Using tools and multiple channels, they connect this information with their website to push for conversion or deanonymize IPs that are then plugged back to the Hubspot list. This process is iterative and permanent, enriched via Apollo.io to ensure that company and contact details are clean and extensive.
The most important win, however, is that sales frontlines can have meaningful conversations with prospects already somewhat familiar with RH.
Regardless of the source (Direct, organic, social, and so on), once the SDR reaches out to the person on the other end to pitch RH, there is an apparent brand halo effect at play that makes their job a lot easier. Rather than saying, "Hey, you don't know us, but we're a competitor of X, and we want to offer you a better solution," they can share a narrative that resonates with the ICP because they have already "seen them."
On top of that, there are three things RH does to maximize sales frontline effectiveness that you should start considering as well:
Sales frontlines sit on the sales department on paper, but marketing owns messaging: One of the things that RH does a bit differently than other companies is that sales work is interdepartmental. While they follow the overall principles of the sales department and are responsible for sales, whatever they say and how they add their own personal spice to the conversations is part of the marketing dept responsibilities.
This way of managing sales allows them to have more control over what exactly is being pitched, the way it is being communicated, and, more importantly, it connects back to their marketing efforts. This allows RH to try out a new benefit or feature via LinkedIn ads for a particular quarter while doubling down on the effort via SDR interactions. This connection between sales and marketing brings us to their ABM playbook's second and critical aspect.
Marketing and sales share the same pipeline and objectives. We know this may not work for larger orgs, but a single sales and marketing pipeline can significantly simplify your life and growth if you are in the early stages. Sometimes marketing and sales like to work more independently because individual success (from the marketing and sales leaders) is a priority, and no one wants to lose their job. In smaller companies, say $1 to $3Mn ARR that doesn't matter as much as you would think. You are either on the same page, or you could jump ship.
This radical alignment gives sales frontlines more clarity on the objectives and what is perceived as an internal win. They can also be research associates that inform back on sales and marketing whatever they find insightful when interacting with customers.
Your company will have more than enough time to specialize and develop departmental objectives once it has more runway. But, if you are in a very competitive niche, finding PMF or just starting, less but with more focus is better for everyone.
This alignment may not work for all products and teams, but it’s essential for RevenueHero. Part of their core strategy is to use their own product to instantly qualify and book meetings with the right sales rep. In a way, they see alignment as part of the cultural byproduct required to ensure their efforts are successful.
Measure performance like your growth depends on it. Even though there is a single pipeline and objectives are shared, you must still track activities. In fact, campaign performance and SDR outreach need to be monitored and shared constantly.
For example, if a particular SDR finds an angle that rarely fails (an objection with a quick counter-argument that helps them close), they should inform marketing so they can explore building a campaign around that. In the case of marketing, once you find a particular campaign that is a clear winner, SDRs must also be informed because it may be easier to build rapport and find bridges with potential customers.
Communication between both areas while thoroughly measuring all activities is the key to unlocking success. A single pipeline and objectives when you’re small simplifies work. But making sure information is accurate and shared among teams is the thing that would help your sales frontline teams shine.
Celebrate sales frontline wins. Always. It's a hard job, we already talked about that, but it's much more challenging if the wins go unnoticed. Please remember to share the spotlight with every success from your sales dev team. No matter how big or small. Their motivation always needs to be as high as possible, and in many cases, internal visibility and genuine appreciation are the secret ingredients (not just the financial perks).
Bonus* what else can you do to increase chances of success for your frontline sales workers? (most applicable to small orgs)
Don't get caught up in sales vs marketing. When you're small, sales and marketing are better off working together because they are both responsible for the organization's growth. You know you nailed this when either sales or marketing start doing something differently without telling the other dept, and red flags start popping.
Forget about attribution. Larger companies need to figure out exactly what is working and why. That way, you can determine internal budgets and investments. If you're small, attribution is less important than being aligned.
Stop chasing shiny objects. This is a rule for life, but in sales in particular, it's crucial to have both short and long-term perspectives. Don't just kill initiatives because you found a new playbook. Instead, have an experimental mindset and double down on what works. Be patient, and also move fast to test your ideas.
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