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grow your sales career

A playbook for the impatient SDR: 4 key tips to grow your sales career

Main illustration: Olenka Malarecka

There’s been a lot of discussion around the role of sales development reps in modern sales, and what’s changed about the role over the past decade.

Buyers now have more information than ever before, inbound and outbound SDRs have to change their approach to capture buyer interest and add value, and the skill set needed to be successful has changed. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the following: almost every SDR’s goal is to be promoted into a closing sales role, usually as fast as possible.

There are a few reasons behind this. In most sales organizations, SDR is a foundational early sales role, the day-to-day work of an SDR can feel repetitive, and closing roles usually offer higher compensation than SDR roles. On top of that, SDRs tend to be driven, ambitious, competitive, and impatient individuals.

This combination invites conflict – when you place a competitive, driven, and highly ambitious person in a junior role which can feel monotonous, it’s a recipe for tension. The good news? It’s the exact same tension everyone who’s worked as an SDR has felt, and it’s possible to reframe the problem and overcome this obstacle. Here’s a playbook for impatient SDRs on how to fully grasp the value of the SDR experience, and prepare themselves to advance toward a closing role.

The virtue of patience

There’s no shortage of advice for SDRs online, so it’s easy to find nuggets of wisdom to help in your sales career, but unfortunately there’s also a lot of bad advice. Why, you might wonder, am I remotely qualified to talk on this?

“I expected to be promoted into a closing role in three to six months … Then, I was an SDR for 15 months”

For starters, I was the most impatient SDR. I was in your same shoes when I began my sales career in an SDR role at a fast-growing tech “unicorn.” When I joined, I expected to be promoted into a closing role in three to six months. I was wildly impatient (still am), really ambitious, and hyper-competitive.

Then, I was an SDR for 15 months.

As you might imagine, this was a period of tension that involved a good deal of soul-searching. At the time I didn’t fully value the SDR experience or the skill set I was developing. On top of this, I didn’t grasp the true purpose of SDRs in a healthy sales organization, nor the factors that played into my career advancement. I was laser-focused on getting a promotion to a closing role, and achieving this as fast as possible. Looking back now, with the benefit of eight years of sales and management experience, I can say it was 100% the wrong way to approach career advancement in sales. Here’s why.

1: Focus on impact instead of activity

The ultimate job of an SDR is to generate more qualified leads for a sales organization. This is accomplished through inbound qualification, or from outbound outreach to prospective customers. If an SDR team generates more qualified leads for a sales organization, it means closing reps will better prioritize their efforts to close more revenue in a shorter amount of time. It’s that simple: more and better-qualified leads = more revenue and shorter deal cycles.

Why do SDRs (including me) fail to grasp this concept? As an SDR, it’s easy to feel disconnected from the business results of your work and thus forget the impact of your role on the business. Think about it – the primary measure for most SDR roles is the number of qualified opportunities that an SDR sources. In order to source more qualified opportunities, SDRs will usually track activity metrics: how many calls, emails, messages, or texts are they sending to qualify these opportunities? This creates a system where the goal of every SDR is to record more activities than teammates to ultimately generate more qualified opportunities.

The benefit of this approach is it establishes rigor for SDRs (X calls = Y opportunities) and increases the volume of SDR-qualified opportunities. The downside? It’s easy to forget the ultimate goal of any SDR: more and better-qualified leads = more revenue and shorter deal cycles.

“What I was missing was the ultimate measure of an SDR team: did my approach lead to more and better-qualified leads?”

Other sales leaders have identified this gap and attempted to address it. Sarah Affleck, Director of Sales Development at Rigor, said that, “What we’ve learned is that when a new SDR starts at Rigor, it’s important to tell them not just the responsibilities of the job, but why they were hired in the first place. I want them to understand what gap they are filling, so they instantly have a sense of purpose.”

SDRs need more than the “what” their job entails, but the “why” behind it. For me, this manifested by adjusting the criteria of the opportunities I qualified. Early on, I got the feedback that I was too discerning with the opportunities I was disqualifying which negatively impacted my opportunity volume. Later on, I was told that I was passing underqualified opportunities that weren’t converting at the rate we needed. I was confused at the time because I was leading my team in terms of activities logged, and in total qualified opportunities. What I was missing was the ultimate measure of an SDR team: did my approach lead to more and better-qualified leads, which ultimately helped the sales team close more revenue and shorten deal cycles?

My initial approach was helping the reps shorten their deal cycles by passing better-qualified leads, but came at the expense of closing more revenue. Later on, my approach helped reps close more revenue by passing less-qualified leads but lengthened their deal cycles. By understanding this ultimate goal I could have better calibrated my approach, and been a more effective SDR.

The takeaway: SDRs should ask themselves if their approach generates more and better qualified leads, driving more revenue and shortening deal cycles.

2: Hitting your SDR quota isn’t the goal

Around seven months into my tenure as an SDR, I remember asking my manager about my promotion timeline. I was confident going into this conversation because I’d hit or exceeded my opportunity quota in each of my first seven months. When my manager told me that they didn’t know but a promotion wasn’t coming in the next quarter, I was surprised. I’d hit my quota in each month, in my mind I’d clearly proven my ability to qualify leads and shown that I was ready for the next step?

“When I look to promote SDRs into closing roles I start by looking at who is first or second place in the SDR stack ranking”

What I didn’t factor in was my performance relative to my SDR teammates. The fact that I’d hit or exceeded quota in each of my first seven months was less impressive when I considered that five of my SDR teammates had accomplished this same feat, and that the relative performance of my colleagues placed me in the middle of the pack on my team.

Now, when I look to promote SDRs into closing roles I start by looking at who is first or second place in the SDR stack ranking, rather than who has hit or exceeded their SDR quota. Why? This is shows me that an SDR has distinguished herself beyond her teammates, and is demonstrating the drive needed to be successful in a closing role. Intercom’s Global Director of SDR Mike Weber likes to say, “Hitting your quota is a start and not the endpoint.” Once I grasped this concept I became a better SDR and sales professional.

The takeaway: Hitting your quota isn’t the end goal, becoming the consistent top-performing SDR on your team is.

3: Promotion Timeline < Promotion Readiness

Like many SDRs, I believed I was ready for a promotion a few months into my role. Not only did I erroneously think that I’d mastered the job, but I worried that being an SDR for longer would negatively impact my career arc. Both assumptions were incredibly wrong, more on that shortly. Because of this thinking, I became overly focused on my “promotion timeline” – a concept I now reject.

Why is the idea of a “promotion timeline” so dangerous for SDRs to focus on? It’s true that every SDR’s end goal isn’t to be an SDR forever, and planning for one’s career progression is an important and necessary topic for SDRs to consider. However, the concept of a “promotion timeline” is flawed because there are a series of factors outside of someone’s control that can affect this timing.

“My assumption that spending more time in the SDR role would negatively impact my career trajectory couldn’t have been more wrong”

“Promotion timelines” assume that a promotion is the sole measure of someone’s effectiveness, and diminishes the importance of developing skills or driving business impact. For anyone early in their career, skill development and business impact are far more important than your job title. Additionally, the timing of a promotion timeline can be delayed or derailed by a number of factors outside an SDR’s control. Business needs and team headcounts will change as a company matures. This means that if an SDR shows she is ready for a promotion but headcount doesn’t exist for the next role, she will not be promoted until that headcount opens up.

Lastly, my assumption that spending more time in the SDR role would negatively impact my career trajectory couldn’t have been more wrong. The Bridge Group conducted research that suggests that 55% of SDRs with less than 11 months of experience failed in their post-promotion closing role. That failure rate dropped to 6% for SDRs with greater than 16 months of SDR experience. I saw this play out firsthand as an SDR, where people who were promoted too early were overwhelmed by their post-promotion role and wound up leaving the company or transitioning careers as a result.

The takeaway: The majority of SDRs aren’t prepared to be successful in closing roles with less than fifteen months of experience. SDRs are better served by focusing on skill development, and maximizing their business impact than their “promotion timeline.”

4: There’s more to closing than beating your SDR number

A common misconception from SDRs looking to move into closing roles is the following, “I’ve beaten my quota for X months, therefore I’m ready for a closing role.” The reality is that there’s more to being achieving success in a closing role than someone’s ability to qualify new opportunities, and it’s critical that an SDRs looking to make this jump demonstrates an understanding and aptitude for what will be required at the next level. To be successful in a closing role, sales reps must:

  • Conduct deep discovery with customers to understand their problems and motivations
  • Set mutual close plans with customers and maintain urgency throughout a deal
  • Negotiate thoughtfully and understand the difference between a good and bad deal
  • Accurately forecast their business and deeply understand impact deals

Most SDR roles don’t require these four qualities to be successful, but they are critical components to every closing role. So the question becomes: How do I showcase these skills as an SDR when they’re not a part of my job?

“Candidates who know what skills they need to develop and have started taking action are more compelling to hiring managers than those who haven’t”

Sandy White, who leads Intercom’s North America Sales team, says “Every tenured SDR should make a point to shadow closing reps and ask thoughtful questions about closing. When an SDR is interviewing for the next role, they should make sure to showcase their understanding of the sales process and the skills they’d need to develop to become successful.”

SDRs who do this perform better in interviews and differentiate themselves from candidates who have similar quota attainment numbers as SDRs. Remember, hitting and exceeding SDR quota is table stakes for a promotion. However, there’s more to closing than beating an SDR quota. Candidates who know what skills they need to develop and have started taking action are more compelling to hiring managers than those who haven’t.

The takeaway: Exceeding SDR quota is step one for a promotion to a closing role. The most compelling candidates identify the skills they need to be successful in a closing role, shadow closing rep counterparts, and highlight this during their interviews for a closing role.

Learning lessons the hard way

Let’s recap:

  • SDRs should ask themselves if their approach generates more and better qualified leads that ultimately drive more revenue and shorten deal cycles.
  • Hitting your quota isn’t the end goal, becoming the consistent top-performing SDR on your team is.
  • Most SDRs aren’t ready to be successful in closing roles with less than 15 months of experience. SDRs are better served by focusing on skill development and maximizing their business impact than their “promotion timeline.”
  • There’s more to achieving success in a closing role than qualifying opportunities, identifying these skills and shadowing closing reps sets qualified SDRs apart from other candidates.

These were lessons I learned the hard way, but ultimately I was better off as a result. Once I realized the ultimate goal of the SDR role, I found the right balance of qualified opportunity volume and quality to drive more revenue and shorten deal cycles. After realizing that hitting quota wasn’t the end goal and that stack ranking mattered, I focused my efforts to become a consistent top-performer on the SDR team and strengthened my case for a promotion. And most importantly, by working and developing as an SDR for 15 months I was better prepared to be successful in my first closing role, where I achieved 163% to goal in my first year.

Most importantly, if you’re an impatient SDR reading this and any of my experience resonates with you, please take away the following: you’re not alone in this. You’re not the first SDR to feel this way, nor will you be the last. Try reframing your approach around the above, and feel confident that the hard-won skills you’re developing today will make you more successful in the long run.

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