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Strategies for Becoming a Top Performing SDR

The way we think about a problem has an impact on our ability to solve it. To be successful as an SDR, work backward from the end goal.
Patrick William Joyce (PWJ)

Careers in SaaS sales tend to go through the Sales Development Representative (SDR) position. For this article, please allow SDR as a blanket term for similar roles like Business Development Representative (BDR) and the like. It is impossible to talk about this role meaningfully without considering the historical context in which it originated.

In 2011, Aaron Ross and Marylou Tyler published “Predictable Revenue,” which detailed the best practices used at Salesforce while scaling revenue to $100M. In short, the SDR was created to augment the prospecting efforts of the sales team. This role came about when they noticed the reps were spending a significant amount of time prospecting, and then gave themselves enough work closing deals that they didn’t have time to prospect anymore.

A Word of Caution

Why is it essential to think about this? In 2002, cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) tools did not exist. Every business needed one, whether they knew it or not. The product-market fit (PMF) was undeniable. PMF is the most important aspect of hitting your quota. It is the concept of market demand for the product you’re selling.

So many SDR guides skip over this note or assume a well-established product-market fit, or are written from a narrow selling perspective. Someone talking to you about how they were successful in their niche and trying to generalize the concepts does not necessarily translate into success in your particular market. 

There’s good reason to lead with this point when discussing how to hit quota. If you’re pushing on a rope, it’s going to be difficult. The author’s advice has been forged from the worst possible scenarios where PMF is not established and the outbound sales motion is a brand new concept for the company writing the paycheck and establishing the quota.

There are only so many things we can control. Identifying the parts of the process within our dominion and optimizing them for success is the only path. Quick fixes and elaborate schemes that advertise seemingly unattainable results should raise suspicion and be scrutinized accordingly.

The doom and gloom portion of the article is now behind us. To find success as an SDR and hit quota consistently, the following categories build a respectable framework for finding success.

Mindset and Tactics

The way we think about a problem has an impact on our ability to solve it. To be successful as an SDR, work backward from the end goal. Quota assignments are unbiased and unforgiving. The game is not even fair sometimes. It may seem like others have an advantage, and that might be true. But to hit quota reliably, things like this must fade into the background. Focusing on the goal and determination to complete appropriate steps should be the only significant priority. Spending effort thinking about obstacles should be focused on how to get around them, not on how unfair they are. 

Things worth thinking about:

  • Set the most meetings
  • Meetings per overall time spent 
  • Best conversion rate from conversation -> meeting
  • Best positive reply rate on asynchronous messaging
  • Best conversion rate from meeting -> opportunity
  • Lowest no-show rate

Everything else is background noise. Notice the lack of technology-oriented topics. Sales technology was made for the sales rep; the sales rep was not made for the technology. Eric Steeves, a revenue consultant, says, “Learn how to vet systems for their usefulness to you rather than accumulating too many layers of strategy and technique too quickly and getting lost in the weeds- get solid in fundamentals and learn how to learn.” 

The list mentioned above starts with a narrow, top-down approach with the ultimate goal in mind, and then builds toward efficiency. Technology is helpful in maximizing efficiency, but can often get into a situation where time is spent on activities that are not directly related to the goal. 

Regardless of the technology combination used to get there, Abhishek Basu, a top-performing SDR, adds, “Always aim for more, go multichannel.”

This brings up two great points. First, always assume you want more meetings no matter how many you have or how much of the month has passed. The goal should be to get a manager to tap out or say “uncle,” as Miles Veth put it in a recent LinkedIn post. Until then, keep going. The work stacks on itself month over month, and it can get to a point where many things hit at once, and the cumulative effort bears fruit.

Second, leave no stone unturned. Use the phone, email, and social media (LinkedIn). The target does matter. Go where your prospect is.

KPIs and Metrics that Matter for SDRs

Focusing on the number of dials and emails sent can be a good way for management to track activity and make the output of the team more predictable. This is not a good way to measure for a top performer, though. The conversion metrics are the next most important thing to measure besides meetings set. 

On the phone, you should shoot for booking 1 meeting in 4 conversations for a conversion rate of 25%. By improving the targeting and honing in on your ideal customer, as well as sharpening the talk track with a crisp understanding of the prospects workflow and your proposed future state, top reps can realize conversion rates north of 50%.

The best way to improve conversion on the phone is to have as many conversations as possible. Record them and analyze every call. Keep a journal tracking the date, the company, who you spoke with, whether it converted, and a self evaluation. Make it short and sweet. One common practice is to write down something to do more of, something that should be left behind, and something that went well and should stay the same. Being the best takes extra work.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Steve Richard, Founder at ExecVision (and my favorite sales trainer), says “At any given time in any given marketplace: 3% of the market is actively buying, 40% is poised to begin looking, 57% is not”.

This could explain the industry average on cold email conversion at a dismal 3%. However, the best reps are getting between 10-20% positive replies. There are many factors at play. An average rep will convert 10-15% on a cold call, and the phone converts at a higher clip since it is a live conversation versus a static, asynchronous message via email.

Another layer of the same principle applies to LinkedIn DMs; the conversion rate will be a little higher than email since it is a slightly faster method of communication and the type of people who interact on the platform are likely to explore new ideas. The caveat is that the audience must be active on the platform.

Two scenarios can play out:

1) look for leads on LinkedIn and work back to email and phone from there.

2) start with the accounts and contacts you are assigned and see if they’re active on social media.

Email is potent, however, because it is typically available while the phone number might not be and the person might not be active on social.

Messaging

Focus messaging on the outcomes being achieved for current customers that look like the potential customers and pain points your current customers are overcoming by leveraging the product being sold. Stephen “The Artist Formerly Known as Weasel” Chase writes in, “Know your target(s), what pisses them off. Then turn that into messaging.”

This applies to both calls and email or social messaging. Keep it brief and get to the point. Use the least amount of words possible. Personalized messaging has its place, but is not sufficient for opening meetings. Spending too much time in 1:1 personalization without much to show for it will not result in being a top performer. The only right answer is the one that results in a positive outcome. 

Converting to Opportunities

The last two points about converting from meetings to opportunities and improving show rate are related to identifying pain points and potential outcomes. One of the best ways to improve show rate is to get specific problem statements and the desired future state from the prospect in their own words, and the best way to do this is on the phone. So if a meeting is booked via email, pick up the phone and call to confirm.

Start the conversation and find out why they agreed to take the meeting. If the first touch is on the phone, make sure the prospect isn’t saying yes to get off the phone, dig for details and “peel the onion”. Double click on everything the prospect says using mirroring a la Chris Voss and open ended questions, base follow up questions on their initial responses. 

Pro Strategy for Discovery Calls

Same rules apply for the discovery call. If the prospect feels like they’re being interrogated, the result is left up to chance. The seller loses control over the outcome once self interest has been established. The vendor who takes the time to understand the buyer the most will win the business. Understanding the buyer means prioritizing their needs and showing a true cognizance of the forces at play. In order to demonstrate this to the prospect, the seller must find out why. 

A sales manager will ask questions like, do they have budget, need, access to the decision maker? What is their timeline? These are seller centric questions. They are factual pieces of information that need to be elaborated on. A true top performer will find out why the deal is going to get pushed to next quarter and will win the business anyway (on the prospect’s timeline).

Instead of handling the objections, seek to understand the root cause with genuine curiosity. Do not show up to a discovery call with a list of questions to ask like it’s speed dating. There’s only one question and the rest will follow based on what the potential buyer is telling you: “Why are we here today?” Everything else the seller says should be based on what the buyer says back. While some key information might need to be mined, lead the conversation in that direction with a line of questioning. 

Think Matlock (look him up, young ones). A smooth operator will be able to seamlessly penetrate the natural buyer defense and establish trust up front. The only way this is possible is by seeking to understand the perspective of the buyer, and this exercise pays dividends in more than one way. As the seller makes switching perspectives with the buyer a habit, they develop a stronger command of the workflow and likely scenarios the typical buyer is experiencing, which also stacks over time since it enables more conversations to happen.

A positive cyclical feedback loop is established and top performer status is inevitable.

Referrals and Networking

Marcus Cauchi, one of the best sales trainers in the world and former CRO, says “Ask for referrals on every call and make two referrals before 11AM every weekday.” This is excellent life advice and will accelerate career development. When he says every call, he means every call. Get a “take me off the list” response? Ask for a referral. Book a meeting? Ask, “Hey thanks (name), is there anyone else you know who might be interested, too?” Ask for a referral on positive signals after the discovery call. If they decide after a demo it’s not the right time or not for them, ask who else they know that might be looking at some problems that could be solved with the product or service in question.

Going in the other direction, giving a referral is when a connection is made between two otherwise unrelated parties and someone besides the referrer makes money. Connect someone looking for a job to a recruiter looking to fill a position. Connect a rep selling a competitor to someone mentioning a buying cycle with the competitor.

Making the referrals builds social capital and strengthens the personal network of the seller, which does not usually have a short term outcome directly associated with it. It does, however, have drastic and lasting long term impact. 

Mindset is the most powerful tool in becoming a consistent top performer. A reputation quickly builds when these skills are mastered. In “How to be a Great Salesperson by Monday Morning”, David R. Cook suggests repeating a mantra when waking up, before doing anything else. Something like “I will be a top performer” until the goal is achieved and then switch it to “I am a top performer.”

In closing, a poem from Joseph Campbell:

“It is by going down into the abyss

that we recover the treasures of life.

Where you stumble,

there lies your treasure.

The very cave you are afraid to enter

turns out to be the source of

what you are looking for.

The damned thing in the cave

that was so dreaded

has become the center.

You find the jewel,

and it draws you off.

In loving the spiritual,

you cannot despise the earthly.”

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