From Telemarketing to a Seat at the Executive Table: The Evolution of the SDR

In the seemingly ever-expanding world of startups and tech sales, it’s hard to envision a time before the critical (and esteemed!) role of Sales Development Representative had become a must-have in every sales org.

Today, a quick look at any – any – startup hiring for sales roles will yield at least one opening for an SDR. But it hasn’t always been that way.

In fact, sales development, as we’ve come to know and love it, is a relatively new role. When Lars Nilsson, CEO of Bay Area sales consultancy SalesSource was building a team of development reps at Portal Software in 1997, they were considering telemarketers by the company.

Mind you, they were executing sales development tasks – qualifying inbound leads and doing some cold outreach on behalf of the company’s quota carrying reps. It’s just that Portal Software didn’t have a better name yet.

That is, not until Nilsson’s team members renamed themselves.

“My team felt the name “telemarketers” wasn’t right. So we whiteboarded, over pizza and some drinks, a number of different names. And we settled on Account Development Representatives,” says Nilsson, on a recent edition of The Predictable Revenue Podcast.

“It felt great to have a name that better reflected what we were doing for the quota carrying reps. And, I’ve been iterating on the ADR / SDR model for 20 years now.”

What’s in a name?

In addition to Account Development Representative, this job has enjoyed a number of other similar titles: Business Development Representative, lead Development Representative and, of course, the now ubiquitous Sales Development Representative.

But regardless of what you call the gig, Nilsson says it is instructive to have a clear-cut definition of the role in order to understand how it supports the sales team, and the company as a whole.

“Really, it’s a non-discrete quota carrying role, that has been put in to either manage inbound leads, or to generate the colder outbound motion,” says Nilsson.

“But, it’s done in a controlled way – for target personas, at target accounts.”

The importance of the SDR

When a company is just getting off the ground, its sales team, however large, is on the hunt for any customers that will give them money. And, according to Nilsson, a startup can operate like that for a while. At that point, any logos that can go up on the website are a big help.

But at some point, adds Nilsson, you have to start looking at fundamental sales concepts such as Total Addressable Market and Ideal Customer Profiles more closely, as well as structuring your sales development team so your reps aren’t juggling both inbound and outbound leads at the same time.

It’s time to start growing in a more strategic, and scalable fashion.

“The sooner you can get to that, the sooner you can outline the right contingency of accounts, the sooner you can start getting your message out to those right constituents,” says Nilsson.

“At Cloudera, we spent a little too long on the new logo hunt period of our growth. Eventually, we had original customers churn, and until we took a look at why, we didn’t realize that many of the customers we sold to initially didn’t have the in-house knowledge or expertise to operate our software. That realization helped us understand that our TAM was actually in the Fortune 5000 companies, rather than the Fortune 10,000. That was a pretty big realization – it allowed us to focus our efforts on a smaller subset of companies and, more importantly, the personas in those.”

Fostering a culture of mentorship and communication

More so than any other role in a company, SDRs are on the front lines of any company’s growth, and, as a result, are engaging with a significant volume of prospects each day.

To help with what can often be heavy workload, numerous sales enablement tools have been developed, promising everything from delivering personalized emails at scale to AI-assisted prospecting.

Many of those tools are great, says Nilsson, but before we start collectively preparing for AI to take over the world of sales, we should cultivate a culture of mentorship and open communication to help SDRs grow in their careers.

“I think good old fashioned mentorship works. I expect AEs to mentor a young salesperson. They understand what the younger reps are going through. They can help them on their calls, for instance. That’s where the best management and coaching happens,” says Nilsson.

“Of course, some AEs don’t do this. They don’t see the SDR as a valuable resource. But, I want AEs to care about SDRs as much as the SDR Managers do.”

Clear, supportive communication isn’t just the responsibility of SDRs and AEs, however. Nilsson believes both the marketing and sales departments, as a whole, need to hold regular meetings to discuss leads.

Sales and marketing are two points on the same continuum, and need to make sure they are on the same page at all times.

“I’m a fan of marketing getting in front of SDRs and asking about what worked, and what didn’t. This is a huge help and will continually push the company forward,” says Nilsson.

“They just need to sit together in a room, share pizza, and talk.”   

Getting a seat at the table

Having a place – and a voice – amongst the executives in a company is an important venue for all departmental leaders to discuss the projects they’re working on, as well as learn from other senior colleagues.

Sales development leadership is no exception to this rule. It is true that sales is always included in executive-level strategy and meetings, but that representation often comes from the Account Executive world.

But prospectors are critical sources of information, and should have a voice not just amongst sales leadership, but the organization as well.

“I told the CEO at Cloudera that I wanted a seat at that table. It was to listen, and learn, but also to teach others about what the SDR team will be doing. SDRs speak with people outside the company more than anyone. They know what is working, and what isn’t,” says Nilsson.

“That information will help the team, without a doubt. There is no reason why the sales development function should be in a side pocket somewhere.”

For more on Nilsson’s thoughts on the role of the SDR, as well as his chat with Aaron about prospecting best practices, check out his full interview on a recent edition of The Predictable Revenue Podcast.




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