What is a Sales Development Rep? How to Get a Job and the Skills You Need

Sales Development Rep

Originally a niche role used in a few tech companies, the sales development representative (SDR) is now a key position in countless businesses across multiple industries. 

This post will help you decide if becoming a sales development rep is the right career for you and, if so, how to stand out from the competition. We’ll also cover what sales managers should look out for when hiring. 

Table of contents

What is a sales development rep?

A sales development representative is primarily an inside sales role that focuses solely on outbound prospecting, with the goal of generating a sales pipeline for the rest of the team. 

To achieve this, SDRs will typically research potential prospects before reaching out to them. Their specific objective is to pass on leads that match designated criteria as sales-qualified leads (SQLs) to an account executive (AE) to close. In most cases, the SDR will take the prospect to the point of booking a meeting, at which point the AE will take over. In other words, the SDR sales role centers on outreach and qualifying leads, while the AE’s focus primarily on closing deals.

Sales development has remained popular with businesses as it allows them to have groups within the sales organization that specialize in one particular aspect of the process. This concentrated and segmented effort permits sales teams to adopt a divide and conquer strategy, ultimately streamlining processes and maximizing value. 

The role is generally seen as an entry-level position and widely believed to be a good way of getting started in sales, with high-performing SDRs going on to become AEs, sales managers and other sales roles.

What does a sales development rep do?

Depending on the company, SDRs may deal with inbound prospects (also known as marketing qualified leads or MQLs) who’ve already shown interest, or they may be expected to go out and find their own outbound leads. 

Lead generation and lead qualification

As an SDR, it’s your job to reach out and connect with prospects, whether via inbound or outbound channels. Before you can do that though, you’ll need to carry out some research. Prospects that share similarities with your best existing customers, such as industry, company size, role, etc., are more likely to be a good fit. 

For example, you’ll need to consider:

  • Does the prospect match the company’s buyer persona?
  • What are the prospect’s priorities? 
  • What are they trying to achieve? 
  • What are their most pressing challenges? 
  • Who is the decision-maker at their company?
  • What tools (if any) do they currently use to try to solve a problem?

A great deal of the lead qualification work can be done before you even reach out, using BANT (Budget, Authority, Need, Timing) or other similar criteria to determine who is most likely to buy. 

Initial outreach

Once you have found a promising lead, you can then use your research to determine the best way of reaching out. Depending on where your leads are available or spend most of their time, you might end up reaching out to them through cold email, cold calls, or via social media

Within each of those channels, you’ll have different potential approaches:

  • Will you use a plain-text email or a video message? 
  • Will you talk to them over the phone directly or leave a voicemail? 
  • Will you send a connection request over LinkedIn or comment on their Facebook post? 

In most cases, rather than picking one channel, you’ll find that having multiple touchpoints over multiple channels is the best course of action. 

Whichever channels you end up using, your research will enable you to personalize your messaging. This will mean going beyond general industry information and doing targeted research on the specific lead and the company they work at. 

This isn’t just a case of adding a {{FirstName}} or {{CompanyName}} merge tag to your email though; when your prospect receives your email, it should be relevant to them and the challenges that they’re facing. As a bonus, dropping in little details you’ve found in your research demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to look them up, rather than sending the same message to everyone on your list. 

Lead nurturing

Even the most enthusiastic inbound leads are unlikely to be ready for a meeting after just one call. On other occasions, the timing might be wrong but the prospect is otherwise a good fit. At this point, you’ll have to nurture those new leads and further educate them on your product or service. 

This is not the same as pitching. If everything you say comes across as salesy then the prospect is unlikely to be impressed. On the other hand, if you’re able to offer real value and help them with their most pressing challenges, then the prospect will be more likely to trust you and believe that you’re genuinely interested in achieving a positive outcome for both parties. 

Moving leads through the pipeline

Once the lead has been properly qualified, they are then passed onto the AE. As this is the main objective of the SDR role, most sales organizations reward SDRs based on metrics that reflect this, such as the number of booked meetings with sales-qualified leads (SQLs).

25 qualities salespeople

What skills does a sales development rep need?

Here are the key skills that are needed to excel in a sales development role:

  • A gritty mindset
  • Excellent communication skills
  • A never-say-die attitude (i.e. resilience)
  • Endless curiosity and creativity
  • Active listening skills
  • The ability to multitask
  • Empathy and self-awareness

To summarize, SDRs need many of the traits that make a good salesperson.

David Dulany, founder and CEO of Tenbound, believes that there are three key areas any SDR should develop as part of what he calls the “successful SDR trifecta”:

“SDRs can set themselves apart from the competition with a gritty mindset, sales skills and buyer-persona knowledge. The right mindset is critical, having a never-say-die attitude to get things done and using creativity to make it happen. Sales skills ensure they can properly handle conversations and move sales cycles forward. Then buyer persona knowledge means they know the problems and pain points of their prospects, and can articulate how they can help.”

You also need to be a skilled researcher if you’re going to uncover all the information you need. While there are plenty of tools that can help reveal demographic details, it will take a little more digging to reveal the deeper psychographics. 

Communication is the most important skill for a budding SDR to master. This isn’t the same as having a great script or email template full of persuasive power words. By actively listening to what your prospect has to say, rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next, you’ll be in a better position to help them. 

While SDRs might only cover one part of the sales process, you’ll still have a lot of tasks to take care of, many of which are time-sensitive. SDRs will soon find themselves juggling research, outreach and follow-ups. If you’re not prepared, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. As a result, organization and time management are valuable skills for any SDR. Embracing natural curiosity will also help you stay motivated as you try to learn more about the industry, your product, the customer and their pain points.

Decision-makers are usually exceptionally busy people with overflowing inboxes, endless phone calls and plenty of demands on their time. To stand any chance of getting their attention, you’ll need to be creative to stand out from the noise. This might take the form of finding a way to make your message more attention-grabbing.

For example, Jon Buchan, director at Charm Offensive, is well-known for using humor in cold emails to secure meetings with senior decision-makers at companies including RedBull, Symantec, Hewlett-Packard, and more. Others have found that under-utilized channels, such as handwritten notes or personalized video messages are effective. 

Finally, one quality successful sales professionals need to have is empathy. Rather than being cold hard closers, an SDR’s success depends on treating prospective leads like real people who have their own tasks, challenges and objectives. By using your communication skills to find out what’s important to your prospects, you can then use empathy to act in their best interests.

Getting a job in SDR sales

In the US in 2021, a sales development rep salary ranges from $35k to $60k in base salary. However, most companies will offer commission-based incentives and other bonuses for high-performers, raising the average total pay to the $38k to $75k range. 

When scanning sales development rep job descriptions, be aware that some companies use the term ‘sales executive’ as an alternative title for SDRs. Others use ‘business development representative (BDR)’—although this may also be used to describe a more fundamental sales role wherein reps identify and connect with new markets, or for a rep who focuses exclusively on outbound prospecting. 

Lead Development Rep (LDR) is another title you might come across, a position that’s usually assigned to follow up on inbound leads. Different titles come with different base salaries, with BDRs earning between $33k and $80k, while LDRs can earn between $31k to $70k—slightly lower that the range for a sales development rep salary. 

For many people, the biggest appeal of the SDR position is the career path opportunities it provides. While the exact amount of time you’ll spend as an SDR will vary depending on the company you work for, an SDR who regularly hits their numbers can expect to be promoted quickly. For example, VC company Bowery Capital looks for nine to twelve months of consistent quota achievement from the SDRs before they’re ready to be promoted to AEs. 

Traditionally, SDRs could expect to work in an office putting in a 9-5. However, the demands of the job mean you might end up having to set the alarm earlier or working into the evenings, especially if you’re trying to contact potential customers in different time zones. 

Additionally, as more companies embrace remote work, there’s an increased chance you’ll be working from home. While this has its benefits, such as greater flexibility and no commute, it also comes with challenges. As with any remote role, working in a room on your own can get lonely. Without the team environment and in-person training, it can be difficult for new SDRs to get up to speed and stay motivated, something that’s critical in such a difficult role. 

How to stand out from other candidates 

The good news is you don’t need to have any existing sales experience. As an entry-level position, hiring managers are more interested in seeing candidates with the right skills, which they’ll often include in the sales development rep job description. Along with the skills we’ve already discussed, companies are also looking for individuals who are motivated and willing to learn. 

Kate DiCioccio, Associate Recruiter at Greenhouse, looks for the qualities of hunger and coachability. “We’re really looking to see how well someone can hear feedback, absorb it, and deliver on it.”

To stand out from the other candidates and get an interview, Sam Nelson, SDR leader at Outreach, recommends taking the initiative and using your SDR skillset to get your job

“Being a self-starter, doing your research, finding SDR strategies, and then using them to get the job can be really positive for you.”

For sales managers: What to look for when hiring an SDR

If you’re a sales manager looking to hire an SDR, you’re unlikely to find many candidates with actual sales development experience. Instead, look for transferable skills. 

  • Do they have experience interacting with people, such as working in retail or bartending? 
  • Have they displayed adaptability in previous roles, indicating that they’d be able to look beyond the latest popular templates and find ways to creatively stand out? 

When conducting sales interviews, don’t sugarcoat the challenges that the role presents. Being an SDR is hard work, and if they’re not prepared for that then they won’t last long in the role. 

Use the interview to get an idea of how they’ll talk with prospects. Don’t just pay attention to what they say but also how they say it. Are they a skilled communicator? Do they ask questions? Do they listen? If a candidate can hold a conversation, it’s a good sign that they’ll be able to engage naturally with your potential customers.

The SLD sales toolkit

While the company you work for should supply you with all the tools you need, awareness and familiarity with the typical tools an SDR uses will be beneficial. 

Prospecting tools 

Unless you’re exclusively dealing with inbound leads handed to you, you’ll need a way of finding prospects that match your chosen criteria. LinkedIn Sales Navigator is a particularly popular option that takes advantage of the LinkedIn social platform to find leads, see what they’re up to, and InMail them directly.

You could also try Pipedrive’s LeadBooster and Web Visitors add-ons, which have a variety of features to help you identify and qualify new leads through your website.

Research and data enrichment

You’ll need more than contact details for effective outreach. In most cases, you’ll need to supplement the details from your prospecting tools to learn more about your prospect, their company and the software they currently use. This will also give you ideas on how to personalize your outreach so it’s more relevant to your leads. 

Outreach software 

While you can technically reach out to prospects with nothing more than your phone or a basic email account, having the right outreach tools will make your job a lot easier. A VoIP tool can help you stay focused on your conversations rather than dialing numbers, while smart email automation can help you nurture your leads with tailored messaging.

Another increasingly popular option is to use video software that allows you to send personalized videos in your emails to your top prospects, so you can stand out from the noise. 

CRM software

The most important tool for any SDR is their CRM. When you’re reaching out to hundreds of leads, trying to record everything on paper or remember key details in your head is a recipe for disaster. A well-maintained CRM allows you to see the details for each lead, their current status and what your next steps are. Then, when the time comes to hand the lead over to an AE, they’ll have all the information they need to close the deal. 

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4 ways to stand out as an SDR

Getting the job is just the start. Once you’re a working SDR, here are four ways you can stand out and ensure you’re first in line for a promotion. 

1. Work hard, work smart

Being an SDR is a role that rewards the work you put in. If you slack off, your numbers will suffer, but if you work hard, the results will show it. However, remember to keep a balance. It’s challenging being an SDR and it’s all too easy to burn out. 

Focusing exclusively on the number of calls you make or emails you send can also lead to a pray-and-spray mentality, where outreach is blasted out to anyone with a pulse, with no personalization or relevancy. Just remember you’ll need both quality and quantity to succeed long term. 

2. Build a good reputation

Representing your company as the first point of contact is an important responsibility. As such, you’ll need to work on building a good reputation. This goes beyond your interactions with prospects and includes your online presence. 

If you’re engaging and nurturing prospects, don’t be surprised if they check out your social media profiles—especially if you’re using social platforms for your outreach. Do you look like the kind of person they can trust? If you’re producing high-quality content that can help your prospects, you’re more likely to stand out for the right reasons. 

3. Be a product expert

For any role in sales, including sales development, you need to know the product or service you’re selling. If you want to be a top performer, you’ll need to go beyond the onboarding and truly understand how your product works. 

Be curious about what you’re selling. Use the product. Keep asking questions. Then, when a prospect asks a similar question, you’ll be ready to answer them confidently. 

4. Know your numbers

Rather than relying on your manager to tell you how you’re doing, take the initiative and keep track of your activity and results. How many cold calls do you typically need to make to get one meeting? How many emails do you need to send before you get a positive reply? 

Keeping track of these numbers helps you plan your activity to meet your quota and allows you to see what works best. You can then find ways to further improve your scripts and templates so that they’re more effective. 

Final thoughts

Sales development is an important part of the sales process and a great way to get into sales, even if you don’t have any previous experience. Being an SDR is a demanding role but it can also be incredibly rewarding. 

By developing the right skills, familiarizing yourself with the necessary tools and putting in the hard work, you can stand out and get your sales career off to a great start.

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