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SDRs And AEs, Do We Have Things Backwards?

by David Brock on October 9th, 2022

I’ve always had a contrarian opinion about the roles of SDRs and AEs. While these roles can be very important, often, I think we have our ideas about these roles backwards. As a result, we set both up for failure.

First, let me focus the discussion. For highly transactional, inbound buying. Perhaps the current approach works. It might work better, though.

But for complex B2B, particularly outbound, the model is set up for failure. Of course, many of you will talk about your success in implementing this, but I suspect you could be much more successful. And the data shows increasing preference by customers for eliminating these interactions, engaging sellers near the end of the buying process. So customers seem to be expressing a preference for something different.

Prospecting is, probably, the most difficult part of selling. Why do we charge our least experienced people with this responsibility?

Let’s dig into it a little.

First, I’m a little old school. I’m not sure we do ourselves any favors by separating prospecting responsibility from the rest of deal management. Particularly, in complex deals–we have to engage multiple people at the customer as we prospect. We need to build credibility and trust in that initial engagement process. We need to build our understanding of each person and how they interact. Then we have to continued to manage the process and the relationship through the buying process.

Yet, we tend to implement a model based on series of hand-offs. We’ve created specialists, focusing on our efficiency. Each person does their job, hands the customer to the next person, and the next, but we aren’t helping the customer do their job.

I tend to argue the responsibility for finding the opportunity and managing it is the responsibility of the AE. Those AEs need support in the process and tend to act as orchestrators. But they are a constant, both for the customer and our organization in helping them achieve their goals.

Some of you will argue that AEs don’t have the time to do this. I don’t buy that. In complex B2B selling we are looking at higher average deal sizes. Salespeople don’t need to close hundreds of deals to achieve their goals. Probably, it’s a few dozen, which means they may be managing a hundred or so opportunities. (the better they are, the fewer they need to manage.) Not all of those are active at the same time. So I don’t buy the argument they don’t have the time to prospect. (I do agree they don’t want to prospect.) Based on my experience with organizations selling complex B2B opportunities, I’ve seen AEs manage the whole process effectively. There’s more, but I’ll stop the argument here.

But, there is an argument for SDRs, even in very complex B2B solutions. But the problem is, we have the wrong people in those roles. Most organizations consider the SDR role as an entry level role. We bring in brand new people, train them, and expect them to make cold calls. We may expect them to contact mid-level to senior people in our customers. We want them to engage the customer credibly, talking about their business challenges, understanding their goals and problems. Perhaps we want to incite our these people to change.

The toughest part of selling is actually engaging the customer, initially. Getting them to engage, getting them to think differently and gaining their interest in continuing the conversation.

This requires great business acumen and experience. The SDR has to be capable of engaging the prospect in a business conversation. But, if our philosophy is staffing these roles as entry level positions, we are being unrealistic–it’s not the fault of the SDR, they just don’t have the experience and knowledge. It is strictly a management issue, we don’t understand where and how we create the most impact for buyers.

What if we reversed things? What if we used the AE role as an entry level selling position? As they develop their experience and capabilities in working with customers, what if their career path included moving into an SDR role?

They could leverage their experience as AEs in prospecting far more effectively. They will have the experience in working with customers to understand the problems, the challenges they face, and how they buy.

Some might say, “We can’t afford this. These SDRs require much higher levels of comp?” But if they are producing many times the results, producing higher quality opportunities; they are actually far more productive. (For those who haven’t seen my discussion on this, look at, “My $500K SDRs.”)

Somehow, the current approach to SDRs and AEs, seems broken. It might be better to rethink the approach. We would create more success for the SDRs/AEs, we would be more helpful to our customers–particularly in inciting them to change, and we would produce far better results for our own organizations, both more effectively and efficiently.

Isn’t it time to change our thinking? Our current approaches, increasingly, are not producing the results we want.

From → Leadership

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