The Best SDR Might Be Your AE

By Chris Beall, CEO, ConnectAndSell
People standing on ladders putting icons with pictures of people on them into the top of a funnel with gold coins coming out the bottom of the funnel.

Aaron Ross’s book, Predictable Revenue, popularized and put math behind the idea of functional specialization in sales – instigating the era of the SDR (sales development representative).

In the decade since, sales development has gone from being a leading-edge foundation for the scalable sales machines – desired by growth-at-all-costs companies funded by venture capital – to a standard.

As of 2021, if you don’t supply your full-cycle account executives (AEs) with SDRs to prospect for them, you are at the deep end of the old-school pool. After all, why should you have AEs prospect for themselves when you can have someone less expensive do all the research, emailing, calling, and social outreach needed to set meetings?

Like all ways of seeking the benefits of functional specialization, though, the standard SDR model has some challenges. Here are a few:

  • SDRs tend to not last very long in their role. Even if they don’t wash out in a few months (an all-too-common occurrence), they have a strong tendency to either leave for greener pastures or get promoted to their dream job as an AE.
  • SDRs are not easy to find, onboard, train, and (frankly) manage. Combined with the first challenge, this means the functional life of an SDR is often quite short – measured in months, not years.
  • The SDR’s job has, interestingly, morphed into a generalist role, requiring a wide range of skills, including researching, writing compelling emails, and engaging socially (often as a pseudo-peer of prospective executives very senior to them). And there aren’t many great generalists available for hire.
  • The meetings set for an AE by an SDR (sometimes seen as “their” SDR) often get a negatively biased reception by that AE. Why? Because in sales, as in golf, the fine art of making excuses for one’s failures is always being perfected. We don’t have to re-watch Glengarry Glen Ross to recognize the phrase, “The leads are weak!”
  • SDRs aren’t actually as inexpensive as advertised. With billions of dollars of venture capital flooding the startup market – and every startup having a bottleneck at the top of the sales funnel – it is hardly surprising that the price of a good SDR has been bid up to the point where there isn’t a big wage gap to support the economics of functional specialization.

But what is the alternative? It’s simple: Provide your AEs with everything they need to set their own meetings without wasting their time. Fortunately, they really need only three things:

  • A list of targets: These are people worth talking to within their territory.
  • A message: Cold and follow-up calls need a different message from discovery calls.
  • A conversation accelerator: An AE’s time is too valuable to be wasted dialing the phone and navigating 20 or more phone calls to get one live conversation.

For AEs to succeed, their critical threshold is around one net-new discovery meeting per week – requiring around six to 10 conversations. Using conversation-acceleration technology, like ConnectAndSell, reduces the time to reach that goal to less than 15 minutes per day. A list of targets plus message development takes another couple of hours, but it only has to be done once. Then results begin to appear immediately on the AE’s calendar.

As with any functional analysis, it’s key to break the job down into its components and then try to fit them back together to make a functional flow that can be resourced and managed to maximum advantage.

Here’s the standard breakdown:

  • SDR – Does everything needed to identify, approach, engage, and qualify prospects from the sea of all companies, roles, and individuals that have the greatest chance of being taken from discovery to closed/won by an AE.
  • AE – Conducts discovery conversations, qualifies for further engagement, engages, negotiates, and closes deals.

Here’s an alternative functional breakdown. Admittedly, it requires additional technical machinery as well as identifying, hiring, onboarding, training, and managing two additional functional roles.

  • Market strategist – Converts the firm’s go-to-market strategy into prioritized lists of target companies and role definitions.
  • List manager – Converts the output of the market strategist into dynamically managed lists of contacts, with contact information and supporting information.
  • Call navigator – Navigates phone systems and gatekeepers to convert a target contact into a conversation, if available.
  • Appointment setter – Converts conversations with target contacts into scheduled meetings with the optimal AE.
  • AE – Conducts discovery conversations, qualifies for further engagement, engages, negotiates, and closes deals. (Just like above!)

The alternative looks more complicated, doesn’t it? However, it has huge advantages over the standard “two generalists plus a handoff” sales-development model. One only needs to note that the role of the appointment setter can be filled as easily by an AE as by a specialist SDR for one reason: The market strategist, list manager, and call navigator work in concert as true functional specialists to completely eliminate the hours wasted trying to get a conversation.

That is, give an AE with the power to push a button and have a conversation with someone they really want to talk to (as determined by the company, in the form of the market strategist, represented as a validated contact by the list manager, and delivered effortlessly in real time by the call navigator), and they can be their own SDR! After all, the SDR’s ultimate job is to get meetings scheduled on their calendar – and who better to execute the conversation portion of doing that job?

With the addition of this new functional breakdown, we now have two additional ways of achieving the goal of having enough meetings for AEs:

1. Provide AEs with the means to efficiently be their own SDR by eliminating all list definition, contact management, and call navigation. Let them do their own talking – end to end. Here’s what this looks like for two months for 71 AEs who need one meeting per week:

  • Average Prospecting Hours Spent: 8 hours, 14 minutes (11.7 minutes per day)
  • Average Meetings Scheduled: 7.67 (about one meeting per week)
  • SDRs Employed: 0

2. Provide AEs with a smaller team of SDRs who focus on one thing – having conversations that convert to scheduled meetings. It’s even possible for these SDRs to be true professional appointment setters rather than the usual short-timers on their way to another job, allowing their skills to develop even further as they perfect their craft through hundreds of conversations. Here’s what this looks like for two months for eight “conversationalist” SDRs, each with a goal of 11.5 meetings per week:

  • Average Prospecting Hours Spent: 187 hours, 30 minutes (4 hours, 46 minutes per day)
  • Average Meetings Scheduled: 117.11 (about 14.6 meetings per week)
  • SDRs Employed: 8

So, it is possible that your best SDR might be your AE. Just take away the company strategy work, the data management work, and the call navigation work, and you are left with the need for conversational skill – which AEs have in abundance. As do great “conversationalist” SDRs. The choice is up to you.