The Evolution of the Sales Development Rep: Beyond Smile and Dial


Bryant Lau


This article was updated in July 2022.

The way the Sales Development Representative (SDR) role has been built for the past 20 years looks something like this: 

You hire X number of SDRs, and give them a call and email quota. You upload a large list from some data provider and put them to work. They make X number of phone calls, yielding a 6% call to meeting conversion rate. They also do X number of emails, with a 2% conversion to meeting rate. 

The goal is to establish a very predictable level of productivity--and revenue--for each sales development rep and therefore for the company as a whole. There's even a book about it. "Predictable Revenue" came out of Salesforce in 2011 and laid this down as the foundation of the modern SDR definition and building successful B2B SDR teams. Basically, you plug them in and as long as they make their outreach quota, revenue magically drops out of the pipe and onto the P&L. Most companies today start their go-to-market efforts using this same approach. 

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The Sales Development Rep Role is Changing

The end of mass email

However, this approach has become less and less effective over the past five years, and COVID may well be the last nail in the coffin. The SDR of the future isn’t going to be a $45,000 a year, smile-and-dial type of position. These are going to be six-figure positions, with SDRs having their own domain expertise and audience within a certain vertical. Companies that do not change their SDR role description will start to fall behind within the next two or three years, because the world is changing.

We’re coming to the end of the effectiveness--and even the ability--to do mass emailing. 

Now we’re in a situation where spam filters are getting better all the time, requiring careful management to avoid being blocked out of certain accounts, or blacklisted entirely. If that happens, you can’t even market to your opt-in list. And, with new data privacy laws, there are some pretty significant penalties for actively marketing to people that are not opted in. That makes it much riskier to send big batches, unless your list is super clean and double opt-in. Typically when you're dealing with sales prospecting, it’s not.

Phone isn’t working the way it used to either. With people working from home, you can no longer count on that 6% answer rate. “Even if they’re having calls forwarded, SDRs are finding many phone trees difficult to navigate,” says my colleague Matthew Iovanni over at FullFunnel, an outsourced sales and marketing services provider.

Trying to reach people on their personal phones isn’t a viable option. Personal phone numbers are much harder to come by; spam filters for phone calls are getting better too, and really, doing cold prospecting to someone’s personal cell phone probably will backfire on you. 

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Community Development Reps?

So what’s left? Personalized communication that builds relationships and communities. Really, that’s what we should have been doing all along, and it’s where most organizations arrive after four or five years of the smile and dial approach. This shouldn’t be rocket science.

Most people would know intuitively how to strike up conversations, make connections, and even build community in person. But some weird thing happens when we put our sales and marketing hats on, and we think it's best to just send everyone the same message a few dozen times and see if we can get a couple of people to respond. We hate being on the receiving end of that, and yet we go and do it to other people, because that’s the way we’ve incentivized people to behave. We’ve become conditioned to it.

I’ve seen first hand that sales development teams are far more effective when they're sending personalized emails rather than behaving like quota driven robots. We have to make a management as well as a technology shift that allows for them to spend their time building relationships and communities, and measures the kinds of behavior that lead to success with those efforts. We could start by calling them something different--Community Development Reps (CDRs).

The path to personalization

You can build out a pretty decent, scalable process for sending customized communication. It depends on how customized you need the communication to be, but you can always start by doing some basic research on each person. Most people today have a LinkedIn profile and a Twitter handle. You can see what the person is talking about and is interested in, and find something relevant to say in your outreach.

You can even create a set of templates for different situations, with room to customize just one or two sentences for each person. 

Tool Tip: Chrome plug-in Crystal, which helps you match your vocabulary and phrasing to the prospect’s communication style. Crystal comes up as a sidebar while you’re looking at a person’s social media profile, parses their language and makes suggestions. 

Obviously this isn’t going to work in an environment where your SDR role description includes sending hundreds of communications every week. But your hit rate should be much higher, so you don’t need quotas that high. I almost always respond to an email when a sales development rep actually calls out something unique on my profile and shows that they've put in some effort--even if I don’t need the product. I might even book a demo if they’ve really done their homework, but at minimum I’ll have a short conversation and accept their invitation to connect. You might be the same way.

Constant conversation

Community building is a little harder, as it requires you to be much more active on social media, commenting on posts, sharing relevant content, and even creating thought leadership content of your own--such as the article you’re reading now.

You have to engage in the conversation that’s taking place in the marketplace, participate in groups (and maybe even start your own), and put on events that bring community members together. You’re sharing knowledge and expertise, not necessarily selling. Performance measurements could include how much engagement their posts are getting on social media, and how much content relevant to buyer pain points they’re producing.

If you’re thinking, that’s a very different SDR role description, you’re right. The SDR definition is changing. Going forward companies will have to hire people that are great storytellers, relationship builders and community builders. There are already a couple of companies that are doing a great job at this. and Drift come to mind. Drift is a great example because they’ve infused this throughout their entire company. There’s a representative from every function of the company doing thought leadership and community building. 

These people are harder to find, and they’re much more valuable. Because they’re in constant conversation with the marketplace, they’ll be capable of having those personalized conversations and feeding those learnings back into the company, enabling marketing to create much more relevant content. It’s hard to do that when you’re sitting in front of a screen pushing out mass emails trying to meet your quota. It’s a more critical role, and ultimately a more rewarding one--both for the business and for the SDRs.

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