When an AE becomes an SDR: Here’s the Biggest Lesson I Learned

Nine years ago I managed a direct marketing team for a small agency. We were a hybrid agency in a sense. What we delivered to our clients was a mixture of appointment setting and deep research into the specific accounts we targeted. If you just wanted one or the other there were tons of other agencies to hire. If you wanted to really understand your market and get a head start in the lead department, there was no one better than us.

I took this role after being an outside sales rep for over three years. After all the glory of closing deals I was thrust into a cold calling seat for the next 18 months. For that year and a half, running the team meant running with the team.

Early on I learned a crucial lesson, one I wish I had truly understood while I were responsible for finding and closing new business. That lesson?

It’s more important to understand your prospects and your market than it is to close a deal.

If you’re wondering… JV, do you really mean you’d be willing to trade a meeting, a next step, or even a deal, just for new information?

Yes, absolutely.

One of the biggest areas I see SDRs (and AEs who prospect) struggle with is playing the long game. Focusing on something other than getting the next step.

I get it, you have a quota for RIGHT NOW. This month. This quarter. There’s no guarantee you’ll be in your seat tomorrow if you can’t deliver something today. Sales is all about answering the question, “What have you done for me lately?”

Here’s my issue with that mentality. Getting new, important information is actually going to help you more, right now, than getting one more meeting.

Your best leads aren’t going to suddenly go cold on you because you took a little time to get to know them and understand their needs.

Put yourself in the prospect’s shoes for a moment. Who would you rather do business with, the rep who’s always asking for the sale or the rep who’s always trying to help you out?

Who are you going to give time to, the rep who’s had a little back and forth with you and can show you something genuinely interesting to you, or the rep who closes every email with “Can I have 15 minutes?”

“But JV, I can help the prospect! I just need… well, 15 minutes to do so!”

Yeah, but how are you going to PROVE it if you can’t spend a little up front effort understanding the prospect?

We’ve become more interested in the transaction than the relationship.

This was a cardinal sin as an outside sales rep. I didn’t get new accounts shuffled into my name if I wanted them, I owned my territory and the actions I took inside of it.

If I ticked someone off? Well, I have to hope that (a) no one else in the company found out and (b) that person would change jobs before I’d get another shot. I couldn’t simply give that account back to Marketing and get a new one.

I see so much “I want mine” in SaaS sales that I really question if it’s harder to sell software, or if companies just stopped teaching basic sales skills like building a relationship within an account.

By trading information for taking a shot, you’re taking that shot at least partially blindfolded.

Here’s the other bone I have to pick: who’s better off when you go for the close instead of trying to learn a little bit up front?

The prospects who say yes to the “15 minutes” request are already warmed up in a way. They’re looking at vendors. Or they’re bored and want to take a look at your demo so they can regurgitate your pitch and look smarter internally. You’re not selling anyone, you’re just tripping over good leads.

I’ve sat on both sides of the table and I hate to say it, but it’s hard to buy software. Everything looks so cool yet rarely works half as well after you sign on the dotted line.

Reps have fallen out of my personal buying process because they focused on their product instead of my needs.

Even if it means passing on the best damn product out there, I’m a stickler for working with a company that’s going to put their best foot forward to understand my world.

More information leads to being able to do a far better job targeting prospects, developing a relationship, and ultimately close deals you would have lost.

Odds are your prospects are all similar, or fall into specific categories.

Would it be easier to sell to them if you took the time to listen and understand what’s going on across each segment so that you could go into your next call already knowing what to expect?

Yet the problem is that you’re not going to gain that level of understanding if you’re always trying to get one more prospect to close. It takes a number of conversations and some diligent note taking to start to make connections that will win you more deals. There are nuances you won’t pick up on without having those conversations.

The rep who can head into a call with that level of insight and be able to call some of the key shots is going to look far better at each step of the process.

Here’s a good example: what’s your go-to line when a prospect hesitates?

If you’ve had these conversations then you know exactly why the prospect hesitates, the real motivation behind it. You’re not depending on objection handling techniques. You can call it for what it is and have a more open dialogue about what’s causing it.

The rep who’s using a script will have to depend on the script and not their own personal experience.

Which also means that rep can be replaced with someone else who can use the same script.

You have to bring something to the table other than your ability to talk and overcome objections to be successful in sales over the long haul.

If you understand your prospects and your market, if you have ideas as to how to sell them better than you were trained, then you’ve gained an upper hand that no one can take from you.

The sales professional of the future will be the one who has the rolodex, who knows the prospects and companies inside and out, who has had hundreds of meaningful conversations and can tell you all the subtle things that will lead to a deal.

It won’t be the rep who can send customized emails. It won’t be the person who does demos. Both will be replaced by software.

It will be the rep who has real conversations and understands the market in a way that no piece of software could replace.

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