Why Every Founder Should Take on the Role of Sales Development Rep (SDR) at Least Once

I’ve seen it multiple times — companies are post-P/M fit, and suddenly the amount of generated leads decline or the marketing engine sputters. But did it ever really work? Because however neglected, the fact is there were higher priority areas to solve. But the truth is that this issue should be on the top of your TO-DO list as founder because it is ‘urgent and important’ to map it on the Eisenhower matrix.

In this article, I will lay out:

1. Why a lot of lead generation engines are sputtering

2. Why this is so important to crack

3. What are some ingredients for success in B2B enterprise marketing

4. Why a founder/CEO should be involved and why it requires his attention

Why Marketing Engines Never Ignite

Let’s start with the beginning behind why marketing engines break or never ignite. In fact, there can be multiple reasons why the lead generation engine is not performing well. Still, the outcome will always remain the same: The amount of generated leads per month is not enough to feed the account executives. Throwing more money and resources into marketing is likely not going to solve the problem. This problem will directly impact the company’s performance (Fewer bookings) and will reduce the growth.

Potential signs that your lead generation is not working:

  • The incoming leads are too expensive. This relates to absolute cost (e.g. SEA/SEO cost) or the resources it takes to generate a qualified lead.
  • Account Executives (A.E’s) are complaining about the TOFU (Top of The Funnel), and there are not enough SQL’s (sales qualified leads) generated month over month.
  • The conversion ratio from lead to deal is way too low.
  • The marketing department is blaming problems on the lack of budget. I’ve heard it multiple times: “If we had a larger marketing budget, we would be more successful.” In most cases, it’s actually the opposite. The more complex you make it, the more difficult it is to solve and glue it all together, especially if the fundamentals were not working.
  • You are capturing contacts, not contextualized leads. Leads should be actionable and qualified to a certain extent. A contact is simply a name and an email address.

Cracking the Code

Let’s zoom in on the reasons lead generation engines are often not working. It are often the same problems that come back as main reasons as to why the lead generation engine is sputtering:

  • Only bringing lead generation theory into practice. This is wrong because there is no silver bullet. It’s not just because you’ve read a great book by Aaron Ross (The Predictable revenue) that your lead generation machine will be efficient and effective.
  • Best practices from a different market are applied. A B2C is completely different than B2B. There’s no luxury in B2B, for example, so you should adapt to your reality and face the facts.
  • There is a disconnect between your company and the customers you’re targeting. And this could have multiple reasons.
  • Your target audience is too large and too diverse, and there is no common understanding of who you’re trying to target.
  • Your assumptions about your prospects are entirely wrong.
  • Your target audience does not understand your message (too visionary, too technical,…)
  • Your marketing message is way too generic. If 74% of consumers say they’re frustrated by irrelevant marketing, it should have your complete attention.
  • The prospect does not trust you or your company. SDR’s (sales development reps) are important, but prospects want to talk or learn from peers or people that truly understand their challenges. An SDR who can’t speak on the same level as you? To give an example: A data scientist reaching out cold to a data scientist will get a much better conversion than an SDR reaching out to a data scientist without the necessary general domain expertise. As an SDR, you should embrace this and get your relevant domain expertise on a level where you can have a dialog as peers.
  • Not having an effective call to action (CTA) is also still a common reason why lead generations fail.

Ingredients for Success

What, then, are strategies for success? Well, as I previously mentioned, there is no silver bullet, but I’ll sum up a few strategies that have worked for me in the B2B enterprise environment:

  • First, have a working process and strategy in place. Technology comes second — not first. Make sure you have the engine running before you bolt on the wheels. Technology should come into play when you can optimize or automate your own work, but it can never take the thinking and brainwork away.
  • More personalization and less automation. If 91% of consumers say that personalization makes them more likely to buy, this should be a core attention point. Spend more time per lead if it will or can increase your conversion ratios. Don’t let people throw the Turing test to you: people want to talk to a human, not a marketing automation system.
  • Your content to guide prospects through the buyers’ journey and engagement should be on point. According to Marketingcharts.com, the most successful TOFU demand generation tactics include in-person events (not obvious since Covid-19), lead nurturing campaigns, webinars, case studies, and videos.
  • Your buyers’ persona(s) should be crystal clear. A Buyer Persona is a dynamic creation based on a real person, backed by data, and represents someone’s buying behavior in your target audience. In B2B, it all starts with an understanding the individual’s KPIs. A KPI is something a person is hired (and accountable) for, fired for, and measured upon.
  • Segmentation is significantly related to buyer persona’s, and by respecting that, you can reach out with relevant use cases. Again, generic is not what you’re aiming for here. Different markets could have other use cases or slightly different messaging.
  • Don’t just ask or expect people to convert. First, give, then ask. Establishing trust is the first essential step. You do this by being relevant and by educating people rather than directly aiming for an appointment. Don’t be pushy: Festina Lente — Latin for make haste slowly.
  • Don’t ignore the data. When targeting higher-educated people, the average lead-generation conversion is only 2.6%, whereas it’s 5% in travel. (Source UNBOUNCE) This should be your absolute bottom scenario. And if you operate in a small market, you will not make it with 2.6%. That’s just not good enough. Sooner than later, you will run out of leads. My golden rule is: the smaller your market, the more time you have to invest in any potential account (=> ABM — account-based marketing), and the fewer leads you can lose.

If there is a moment in a company’s lifecycle where a Founder/CEO could spend time on such an activity, it is during the pre-product-market fit. I said ‘could’; however, I would instead change my word choice here to ’should’ where I can highly recommend that every startup CEO play SDR him or herself.

Mastering the Process, Yourself

You can’t create a solid playbook for lead generation if you didn’t master the process yourself. Bringing theory from books into practice is a start, but you can’t generalize where markets, persona’s, and products are completely different. Let me give a couple of arguments why you should spend your weekends or evenings scraping and acting as SDR:

(For the arguments below, I focused solely on the use of a LinkedIn sales navigator. There are many good prospecting tools/mechanisms, but a professional social network with 740Mio members gives a pretty good sample.)

  1. Your market intelligence will grow
  • When you focus on a specific vertical/persona, you’ll come across new and interesting market players along with competitors you have never heard of. But you’ll also start identifying potential partnerships — both from a commercial and a technical standpoint.
  • You’ll grasp the market size in absolute numbers of potential accounts in a particular territory. By studying these numbers well, you are not only going to get a good view on TAM/SAM/SOM, but you’ll also start to see a difference between a TIER1 customer and a TIER2 customer. The global workforce size is a good metric to create discrete classes.
  • You’ll learn the difference between your customers. For example, Company A has 5x more people with a data science background than company B. This reveals that Company A is much more advanced on the analytics maturity curve.
  • By playing with titles and/or keywords in filters, you’ll start to see a pattern of what titles/roles are used in the market. Digging deeper into this and reading profile details of relevant people will help you create realistic personas. There’s a lot of telling information on a profile that will help you form a view: education, background, demographics, average job rotation speed, skills published as endorsements, keywords used, etc.
  • If you benchmark actual company reports versus LinkedIn counts, you identify what percentage of the workforce is active online. Once you are connected, you can check the likes, shares, and posts of prospective leads. You can also learn what people are interested in, and you’ll discover who is present online or who is just there in passively.

2. If you are networked, you will see 2nd-degree connections that help create a personal entry or ask a 1st-degree connected business friend for an introduction.

3. When you walk through all the steps yourself and you capture the data, this is the ideal basis for your target setting. How many enriched UQL’s (unqualified leads)can be scraped in an hour? How many leads do you need to scrape every week? What’s a decent connection ratio? What’s a proper opt-in ratio?

By A/B testing, you’ll figure out what content is needed to create leads and what the conversation structure looks like. If you are planning on making a sales playbook, you can even build a flow chart to guide the SDR through a lead process.

4. You’ll be likely to start taking lead generation personally. Your leads will become faces and names, not simply numbers in a CRM system if you navigate long enough through LinkedIn and engage with people. With the right determination and patience, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll crack the code for getting opt-ins.

5. You’ll experience first-hand how important personalization is if you investigate the data and experiment yourself. An earlier experience has me betting that real personalization is the right approach when operating in a smaller niche/market. Here are some real metrics for the two approaches.

  • Real personalization: Research per potential lead and a connection attempt with a note added. *100 prospect connects. 63% connected → 30% answered → 10% converted
  • Tailored automation: Automated sequences with tokens and segmentation. *100 prospects connects. 41% connected → 13% responded →2% converted

Conclusion

A lot can be said about this topic. Personally, I think that 50% is art and 50% is process/science, so make sure you get the process right to lean as little as possible on the ‘art’ side. This will create predictable results and fewer variances between SDRs. I hope it’s at least transparent that founders understand why they should own this process. I wish all the early-stage founders out there good luck with fine-tuning their lead generation engine!

Serial Entrepreneur & VC. Knowledge domains: AI, ML, Data Quality, Low Code AI, Data Engineering, Big Data and IoT.

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