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The more things change, the more they stay the same: Aaron Ross and Drift’s David Cancel on the future of sales

Collin Stewart, CEO

29 August 2018

It’s hard to imagine given the complex sales environment we’re currently navigating, but once upon a time, sales methods were exceedingly simple: you either called a prospect on the phone, or you went to visit them.

That was it.

Sure, closing those deals still required finesse and stalwart sales skills in negotiation, but there were no tools to help with qualification, list building, or demo presentations. It was just unmediated, human-to-human selling.

“I did door-to-door sales in high school and college. I had a painting gig, and did ad sales for the Stanford University newspaper. When I think about sales, that’s really where I started,” says Aaron Ross, in conversation with Drift CEO David Cancel, on a recent webinar presented by Predictable Revenue and Drift.

“Today, there is some things that have changed a lot – tools, techniques, and social channels, for instance. But, people are people. That doesn’t change. How people interact with other people stays constant.”

Like Aaron, David’s professional journey began long before the Internet became an omnipresent force. Although trained as an engineer, David says he enjoyed talking to sales and marketing professionals – understanding what they do, and how often difficult day-to-day could be improved.

“I’ve never been in sales. I discovered I had this talent as an engineer, but I really liked talking to sales and marketing people,” says David.

“And so all the sales people I would work with, they would always told me I should work on their team. I never did, but I’m on my fifth company now, and each of them have been in the sales and marketing space to some degree.”

Marketing Qualified Lead vs. Product Qualified Lead vs. Conversation Qualified Lead

During David’s tenure at Hubspot (his company Performable was acquired by the inbound marketing and sales juggernaut in 2011), he says he and his team were obsessed with understanding, and perfecting, the Marketing Qualified Lead and the inside sales model.

The MQL, and its related processes, represent a landmark philosophy still widely used in the world of sales today. Instead of picking up the phone and cold calling unsuspecting prospects, why not entice potential customers with tailored marketing activities, have them share their contact information (captured in a form of some sort), and then call them?

A warm lead is better than a cold one, right?

But, just as Hubspot was focused on the MQL, other companies such as Evernote and Dropbox were also refining interesting sales concepts such as the Product Qualified Lead, says David. And he, and his team, was inspired by their work.

“We had this MQL model working pretty well. But, then we started thinking about the Product Qualified Lead. We were looking at Dropbox and Evernote and thought they were trying to build something like a PQL,” says David.

“They would get people in the door using the product for free, or from free trials. Then they would nurture them enough, send out enough signals, that they would convert to paying customers.”

Over time, adds David, he began to design another type of lead: the Conversation Qualified Lead. The CQL, as it were, is just like a Marketing Qualified Lead, but instead of designing intricate nurturing processes for inbound leads, the CQL gets qualified by a quick conversation once the lead is captured by a form.

“Why try and spend all of our time thinking about what prospects want, when we could just ask them?” says David.

“Of course, we tested and researched a lot, but that was our thinking.”

The Importance of the SDR

Working all of these warm leads, and cold outbound ones too, is the Sales Development Representative. Like the creation of the MQL, the growth of the SDR is a critical development in the evolution of sales.

Gone are the days of cold calling a prospect, and then getting in your car to visit their office to close the deal. Now, a veritable army of trained prospectors qualify leads, learn their prospect’s needs, get them excited, and then hand them off to an Account Executive to close the deal.

The system has proven so popular that nearly every modern tech company uses it (one glance at job postings reveals no shortage of SDR openings). At the risk of sounding arrogant, part of that popularity is due to our very own Aaron Ross. But, warns Aaron, there are potential dangers in the SDR-AE framework.

“It can be done well, and it can be done poorly. One of the dangers is when AEs think they don’t need to prospect anymore. That’s not true,” says Aaron.

“You have to watch out for people over relying on their colleagues.”

Another challenging aspect of the SDR position, adds David, is measuring their success accurately. In fact, David says he’s never been able to do it properly and, as a result, never been convinced of the importance of the SDR in the first place.

“I’ve never been a huge fan of the SDR. At Hubspot, we had a lot of them. Now, we don’t have any. It needs to be measured correctly. People overreact to things – everyone says they need SDRs. And AEs think so too,” says David.

“In the past, we were never able to really prove the profitability of the SDR. For me, I heard all of lines: you need them to prospect for enterprise deals, or it’s a great breeding ground for developing AEs. But, I was never really able to define the business benefit of them.”

(Editor’s note: we chatted with Jaimie Buss, VP of North American Sales at Zendesk, on a previous podcast about the importance of the SDR. According to Buss, her company saw a 25% lift in revenue after instituting an SDR team. You can listen to our chat with Jaimie here, or read about it here).

Drift’s Use of Bots

You read that right – David’s company Drift, which develops a cutting edge sales and marketing platform, doesn’t have any SDRs. None. How is that possible?

Bots… that’s how.

“When we started out, we figured chat messaging could be used for sales. It never really worked in the past for issues such as qualification, but we wanted to see what we could do. So, we created this bot,” says David.

“I hated the idea at first, and I didn’t like what I saw of the bots in the market. In my experience, bots were always trying to convince you they were human. They were given a name, for instance. But, it didn’t take long for you to realize they aren’t human. So, what we did was make sure it would always acknowledge itself as a bot. And, we thought that would change people’s expectations.”

A fundamental component to the success of a Drift bot, adds David, is the consistency of experience it provides. For example, when someone comes to the Drift website, the bots can ask the same qualifying question an SDR can. And, at some point, when it decides the person is qualified, it routes them to an AE.

The company has also connected its bots to a booking system so a lead can easily book a meeting with an Account Executive. If a Drift’s AE isn’t available for a proposed meeting, the bot facilitates a booking for the prospect at a better time.

“The first magical thing that happened at Drift was when our first rep came in to the office, and their whole week was full of qualified demo ops that the bot qualified for them,” says David.

“And that can happen 24/7, 365.”

A Human Touch

If this sounds like Drift has replaced SDRs with bots, it’s because they have. David says his company has been able to place salespeople “in positions further down the funnel” because they haven’t needed to hire prospectors.

But although some of the fundamental tasks of the SDR has been replaced by Drift’s bots, don’t count human out just yet. We still need ingenious humans to close deals, and come up with the breakthroughs that will change the space again.

“I think we see the advantage of AI. But, we also need things to stand out. If AI is doing everything, it will all seem the same,” says Aaron.

“But the intuitive breakthroughs will always come from humans. It’s humans that come up with the ideas and projects that have never been done before.”

David agrees.

“The more we automate, the more we need human creativity. We need to stand out. As people go to different channels or trends, we need humans to make the leap to something new,” says David.

“And, of course, it’s still people buying from people.”

For more on David and Aaron’s detailed, wide-ranging chat, check out their discussion on a recent edition of The Predictable Revenue Podcast channel.