Guest Post by Kaulana Shum

I have this memory seared into my brain.

The year was 2013, and we were standing in a large group around the VP of Sales’s office. “I just don’t feel like anybody gives a shit about what we’re doing. I’m ready for AE,” Joel (name changed) whispered to me.  We had just “rung the bell” and speakers were blaring “La Bamba” by Richie Valens. We were SDRs for Domo, a growing, scrappy, well-funded SaaS startup in American Fork, Utah.  

He was right. The AE I was assigned to had just closed 6 deals that month, 4 of which were found by me. The average number of deals closed by each AE per month was 1.3. My AE had crushed his quarterly number in a single month. While my paycheck was going to be great (Domo never had a problem with paying fairly), what really chapped my hide was that our VP of Sales had just announced my AE’s deals, but left my name out. I was feeling pretty unloved and… squeezed dry.

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This was a career change for me – as a 31-year-old father of 2 young boys, I had made the risky pivot to this entry-level SaaS sales role after years of success – and lessons learned – in the B2C sales world. But at the rate I was going, I didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. When would I finally get my chance to prove that I had what it takes to be an AE? Did the executive team even know that I had produced highly-closable sales opportunities, and that I had the skillset to run my own deals? Whatever the case was, my motivation was at an all-time low.

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My experience was not unique. Hundreds – maybe thousands – of SDRs across the globe are asking themselves similar questions right now. Since that time at Domo, I’ve had the opportunity to see it from both an AE and leadership perspective. Candidly, my heart still bleeds for the SDRs’ plights, and taking a step away from it has helped me see why Sales Development is arguably the hardest role in any company – it’s not a destination, but a temporary stop that highly impacts the rest of their careers, and executives aren’t investing enough in them during this fleeting timeframe

I’ve discovered the ingredients to create an environment where SDRs can belay their feelings and put in more time during this stop in their career and actually enjoy the journey; it’s how I’ve managed to keep my SDRs engaged during the last 2 stops in my career. I call them, undramatically, The Five Pillars To Keeping Butts In Seats

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Let’s set some context.

In my experience, it takes a brand new hire 3 months to ramp, being able to produce the expected results starting the 4th month. From there it’s another 4 months before they are “fully effective”, meaning they don’t require their manager for things (help with emails or prep for discovery calls, etc):

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The Bridge Group estimates that the average tenure of an SDR is 1.5 years. Let’s call that Expiration Date 18 months. In many cases, productivity will gradually decline from their “fully effective” production:

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In some cases, when the exec team gets it and invests in the SDR program, although the Expiration Date doesn’t change, the productivity remains at the same level as “fully effective”:

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And, if the SDRs are having a particularly good experience, then we can extend their Expiration Date out to 24 months: 

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Two side notes:

  • If you have a particularly ambitious SDR who is an all-star, this entire time frame shifts to the left… meaning they ramp quicker, are fully effective in a shorter period, but then their expiration dates also come up faster.  
  • If you promote an inbound lead response SDR to outbound, the entire time frame similarly shifts to the left – although in my experience, the expiration date remains at 18 months.  

So, let’s get on to the actual pillars:

  1. Paycheck
  2. Recognition
  3. Promotability
  4. Leveling-up
  5. Culture of Winning

Pillar #1: Paycheck

At the heart of our jobs is the ability to make money and provide for our families (present or future). I’ve found that when this ability is compromised, chances of attrition in any job increases. For SDRs, not only do they need a realistic quota that is attained by 70-80% of the team, but a comp plan that correctly ties their production to commission.  

At Mavenlink, I had found that the comp plan that existed when I arrived (which paid on two stages in an opportunity) paid more on down-funnel results and less on the portion that the SDRs actually had control over. Let me give an example of how this affects the rep: Inspired by his manager, one of my SDRs was busting his butt, staying late and doing a ton of activity to chase a number that he had never hit before. On the last day of the month, he triumphantly walked to my desk and gave me a high five.  

“I hit my goal,” he said, a look of pure bliss across his face. We celebrated right there with a dab or two.  

But then I looked at his commission report the next day. He had blanked on his down-funnel results (which he didn’t have much control over), so his commission check totaled a measly $300.

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What??? If the SDR had bills to pay, and he couldn’t cover his nut from this commission, how many months would he last with this level of effort with little reward?  

We updated our comp plan and quota – and now 70% of the team is hitting 100% of their number. This means that covering their living expenses and providing for their families is handled, and now they just need to focus on improving their craft. And for those who are absolutely motivated by making $$$, they can focus on over-attainment and hitting accelerators.

Pillar #2: Recognition

On every sales team is the rep who wants their face up on the flat screens around the office, or their name mentioned in executive meetings, or the big-ass trophy sitting on their desk. 

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It’s important to have that recognition program in place for those reps. But on the other hand, SDRs want – no, crave – acknowledgement that their jobs are hard and fraught with rejection, and yet despite all this, they’re able to come back from the hunt, quivers empty, with a few qualified sales opportunities slung over their shoulders.

This acknowledgement helps them know that their jobs are important, and a crucial piece of the business. They’re not “doing their time”, like it’s some sort of cost of entry into the sales org. They need to know that the executive team views this as the company’s life blood.  

Please don’t leave this recognition on the shoulders of the SDR managers – they fight the same battle and need to be recognized too. This recognition needs to come directly from the CEO all the way down to the bottom. I’m not talking just an occasional email expressing gratitude or recognizing achievement (it still helps)… but taking time out to spend time with the team. Denny, the CEO of my last company, Hixme, would occasionally make the 3 hour drive down to Irvine and spend a day with us, and take us out to lunch. He’d tell us what was going on in the company, and share his apprehensions and the company’s successes. He made my team feel like privileged members of the company – and it inspired us to work even harder for him.  

Having that drive to make the company successful because of their leaders will keep SDRs engaged with a different purpose.

Pillars #3 and #4: Promotability and Leveling-up

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Every SDR at some point thinks it’s time for them to move on to the coveted AE role, with more commissions and more glory… but AE managers are concerned that SDRs are ill-prepared to handle real discovery and managing a sales cycle. 

In order to give them a sense of career progression and promotability, I believe SDRs should get skills-based “micro-promotions”, or small promotions that unlock different assignments or rewards. Each level can come with its own base salary and quota. For example, an “SDR 1” might require an AE to run the discovery, but an “SDR 2” may run their own discovery calls. Maybe “Sr. SDRs” train and certify new SDRs, and demo the product. Just ideas.

These incremental promotions will bring structure to the experience for the SDRs, and help them level-up their skillset at a measured pace.  

At Mavenlink, we give newly hired SDRs the tools to jump in quickly, but we prep the AE to take the discovery calls and have the SDR observe. This allows the SDR to just focus on prospecting. Once their manager feels that they’re ready for the next step, we train them on Discovery Calls. Our most senior SDRs are doing weekly training with the AEs to prep them for their eventual promotions. They learn how to demo the product and start learning how to have conversations surrounding the impact/implications of the challenges/pain the prospects are experiencing.  

Pillar #5: The Culture of Winning

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to identify this last Pillar. For the longest time, I was preaching the story of “The 4 Pillars”, but I always felt like there was something missing.  

Then I read Mike Weinberg’s book, Sales Management. Simpified., and he nailed it – it’s the Culture of Winning. This culture cannot exist if the other 4 Pillars don’t exist. And this Pillar doesn’t even materialize unless everybody in the organization is bought in: from the CEO all the way down to the SDRs.  

Everyone in the company needs to know that they’re on the same team – and that management is for the sales team, not against it.  

Sure, the SDR organization needs to take ownership in creating its own Culture of Winning. This includes fostering an environment where the entire team knows that feedback and communication is not personal, but in each other’s best interests. This culture requires accountability and ownership, and wild celebrations for any milestones. There shouldn’t be any egos in the way of building a competitive workplace.  

But although the SDR team may have shared values, goals, and practices, if the executive team finds ways to nickel and dime SDR commissions, or roadblock efforts, then what message does this send to the SDRs? Or on a grander scale, if the executive team allows complacency to exist in halls and cubicles of the company, is this organization truly one of a winning culture?


By basing your management style around these 5 pillars, you’ll find that your teams will line up behind you on any initiative, and stop worrying about the grass being greener on the other side.   

Happy managing.

Kaulana Shum is Manager, Commercial Sales at Redpoint Sofware and Founder of Kaulana Shum Consulting. He helps small- and mid-size SaaS companies create, revamp, and guide their lead response and outbound prospecting strategy. He’s done it all – and experienced what works, and what doesn’t.

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