It’s all the rage nowadays. Build a team of Sales Development Reps (or SDRs) to multiply the productivity of your salespeople.

Thing is, as anyone who’s watched Boiler Room knows, this is not exactly a new idea. Boiler Room features a New York bucket shop that uses a call center and high-pressure sales techniques to move stocks of lesser-known companies. In the movie, junior salespeople make hundreds of calls, attempting to engage prospects, then, once they have engagement, they transfer those prospects to more experienced closers.

Today’s SDR is the same basic idea, with a fresh lick of paint (and a cool infographic). From the customer’s perspective, the experience is comparable. And from the organization’s perspective, SDR’s are a needlessly expensive way to improve salespeople’s productivity.


I’m a fan of applying division-of-labor to sales (after all, I wrote the book that advocates that). But I’m not a fan of the SDR idea.

Two reasons why:

  1. Your most valuable prospects find junior salespeople’s qualifying questions insulting and resent that these individuals cannot (or will not) answer technical questions
  2. Because SDRs churn through hundreds of prospects, your approach to the marketplace ends up being totally untargeted

The qualification fallacy

The SDR idea appeals to those sales managers who believe that you canqualify sales into existence. That is to say that they believe the essential nature of the sales process is to filter-out all those prospects who will not buy — leaving only the sure things, standing, with their credit cards at the ready.

In most environments, though, prospects cannot be qualified into purchasing — they need to be convinced, or actually sold. And the most critical selling conversation is — you guessed it — the very first one.

My advice, then, is that you should insist that your experienced, capable salespeople have those critical initial conversations with potential customers.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking! How do you avoid your salespeople’s limited capacity being consumed by people with no potential to purchase (non-prospects, in other words).

The answer is simple: don’t push non-prospects into your salespeople’s opportunity queues. The thing is, it’s actually not that difficult to differentiate between prospects and non-prospects. The key is a combination of targetingand research (neither of which require SDRs).

Targeting and research

Step one is to have your promotions team design tightly-targeted campaigns. For example, rather than targeting HR Directors with a general software pitch, target HR leaders in a specific industry who must solve a specificcompliance problem in the next 30 days.

Step two is to compile a list of only those HR Leaders, in that specific industry (with that specific problem). Now, it’s probably not possible to purchase a list that’s this targeted. So, that’s where research comes in. Your promotions team will need to commission a mix of web and phone research to hunt down that small group of individuals to whom this campaign is targeted.

Where phone research is required, it’s important to point out that your researchers should not attempt to speak directly to your target customers — in most cases, they can gather the necessary answers from junior people in your target’s departments. And, if your researchers do happen to talk to your target, then they should make it clear that they are only collecting information (not selling).

No free lunch for management

With more finely-targeted campaigns, your salespeople’s jobs becomes easier. Engagement is easier and the odds that a salesperson will find themselves talking to a non-prospect are dramatically reduced.

The approach I’m advocating still features division-of-labor. I’m just drawing the demarcation lines in different places.

In place of a team of SDRs you now have a larger (and better integrated) promotions department and possibly a small team of researchers (most of our clients outsource research).

This approach is obviously less costly than a team of SDRs but it does force management to shoulder more responsibility than they are used to (and often more than they are comfortable with). Specifically, management must become actively involved in the campaign-planning process. To enable the kind of micro-targeting that I’m suggesting, changes to your core offering are often required and, typically, only senior management has a large enough mandate to approve these kind of changes.

For, example, in the software for HR leaders example above, I’m imagining that the organization might be giving away a software utility that can assist with that particular compliance issue.

What about inbound?

This same advice applies when you are generating inbound opportunities. Rather than churning out content that’s optimized for clicks, your promotions team needs to design content (and campaigns) that appeal only to the specific individuals — in the specific environments — you are targeting. If your promotions team is offering an ebook entitled Twelve Social Skills from Jay Z, should you really be surprised to discover that the quality of your opportunities is lacking?

A problem here is that marketing folks’ dogged devotion to the inbound religion is causing them to try and squeeze blood from the inbound stone, rather than switching to outbound when they encounter diminishing returns.

But, what about Salesforce?

Now, the most common defence I hear of SDRs is that Salesforce (or HubSpot) is doing it. (Sometimes I get the feeling that every B2B startup in Silicon Valley is employing SDRs right now purely on the basis of this observation!)

I can think of two reasons why these organizations have SDRs. One is that their product is just so damn popular that there’s a genuine requirement for crowd-control, upstream from their sales team. This means that prospects allow themselves to being interrogated by overcaffeinated 22 year-old SDRs — just as iPhone devotees will queue for hours outside Apple stores.

The other reason is the one I touched on above. Promotions and sales departments pursue their own local optima — meaning that sales needs a team of SDRs to filter out all the non-prospects pushed to them by promotions in the latter department’s rabid pursuit of clicks.

Whatever the reason, it’s certainly a mistake to assume that you need SDRs just because Salesforce has them. And, if you take my advice, you’ll give careful consideration to whether you need them at all!