Are you setting your SDRs up for failure?

Peter Nieuwenburg, Account Executive

November 12th, 2019

Searching for your first gig after university can be a daunting experience. What do I want to do? Where do I fit? Who will give me that all-important first shot?

Starting out in sales as an SDR can be extremely exciting and rewarding, but also soul crushing when things don’t click. After chatting with hundreds of CEOs and sales leaders over the last couple years, I know they too feel the pressure when things aren’t working because, ultimately, the buck stops with them. However, unlike those in leadership positions, a junior SDR tends to be pointed in a specific direction by a superior and will, by default, trust they’re being pointed in the right direction. 

So when things aren’t working, it’s easy to take it personally. You must be doing something wrong, leadership could never be wrong, right?

At the start of my career, I got super lucky: I didn’t have any sales experience or education, and I landed at Predictable Revenue. As far as I was concerned, there was no better place to learn the ropes and get my sales career started. I was on my way – immediate success was inevitable.

At least that’s what I thought. My early days at Predictable Revenue, however, were anything but triumphant. 

Collin Stewart, our Founder and Co-CEO, thought a good early task for me was to carve out a new vertical for the company: biotech. The idea made sense – we already had a great client in that industry, a stellar case study, all the strategies and Predictable Revenue best practices, and all the data sources we need to build a great list.

Unfortunately, after three months of hitting the phones, sending emails, and working every biotech message and angle I could think of, I had not made quota. Despite all the grinding, and there was a lot, I was nailing 200 calls per day at one point – I was not even close.

I was feeling pretty dejected. The company had taken a chance on me, and I wasn’t yet contributing to its bottom line. But, luckily, Collin has been watching closely and knew my lack of success had little, if anything, to do with my output. In fact, he shouldered the blame for pointing me in the wrong direction.

(Editor’s note: we had Robby Allen on the Predictable Revenue podcast a while back to discuss what is expected of sales leadership as a company grows. You can read about our chat here, or listen to the whole interview here).

We were, unfortunately, just chasing a vertical that wasn’t a good fit for us (biotech firms exist for lengthy periods of time in “pre-revenue” periods, so needing an outsourced sales team isn’t on the top of many biotech companies’ to-do lists). It was an unproven market and we simply  couldn’t replicate the success we had with our lone biotech client.

So, as a team, we pivoted and I started working prospects much more in our wheelhouse. And, as I had hoped would happen three months earlier, I started booking meetings. And those meetings started becoming qualified opportunities. And, finally, those qualified opportunities began to close.

It felt great.

Sales, of course, is a very busy job – one that requires juggling numerous responsibilities – and once I was in the groove, it was months, maybe close to a year before I had the time to reflect on my initial on-the-job experience.

When I finally sat down to reflect, I realized I learned a lot of fundamental lessons during that time: it is critical to have a supportive and understanding boss, the onboarding period is a formative one for young SDRs and needs to be structured to ensure maximum learning, and quota, or lack thereof, isn’t necessarily the only metric to look at when determining if your outbound program has promise.

But chief amongst the lessons I learned during my early tenure was the value of validation. Companies can hire SDRs and give them all the lists and tools they need to prospect, but if you’re not 100% sure about the space you are targeting, you are not setting them up for success. You may think you are – after all, it is the SDRs job to execute – but failing them in that regard will not bring you the results you want, nor the clarity you need to assess your team.

In the most perfect of scenarios, outbound sales is hard. It is a fluid, dynamic, and often-shifting practice that requires dedication and commitment for the long haul (well, at least 6-9 months to begin seeing results). Too often companies blame the SDR for not figuring out the outbound puzzle on their own and shelve their outbound dreams as a result. 

Now, imagine that environment without a validated strategy to chase? It would be impossible to succeed. 

I’m lucky: success wasn’t impossible for me. It just took a bit longer than I hoped. I was able, with the support of my team, to begin contributing after months of banging my head against the wall.

So take it from me, and don’t run the same risk we did. Validate your outbound strategy, and test your assumptions. Heck, even do some prospecting yourself (I’m looking at you CEOs of the world) before hiring a team a team of reps or launching an outbound machine. Your business, and your SDRs, will thank you. 

By the way, this May we started offering a new service to our clients we call Outbound Validation, where we brainstorm a market fit theory and then run up to 40 campaign experiments to quickly test what does and doesn’t work with different target market segments. It’s probably the fastest way to ensure that your resources are focused on an outbound strategy that works, and if my team had done this before I joined, my first three months would probably have gone a lot smoother.