Learn the optimal process to source, interview, and hire Sales Development Representatives (SDRs).
Jason Dorfman is the CEO & Co-founder of Orum and has spent 10+ years in startups, sales, and sales development. Previously, he was the first sales hire at Rubrik, where he built their inside sales and corporate sales teams, taking them from $0 to $600M run rate in less than six years.
One of the most important steps to setting up a successful sales org is getting the right team in place. Hiring the wrong Sales Development Representatives (SDRs) can have devastating consequences. Here are just a few side effects:
Here's the good news: if you hire the right people, you will not only build an awesome team, but also an incredible network of talent that you will carry with you for the rest of your career. The goal of this article is to provide a basic overview of the in's and out's of interviewing and hiring SDRs.
Hiring SDRs is fundamentally different from hiring for any other position in the company. Not only do many SDR candidates lack a work history to refer back to, ensuring that they have the basic skills to do the job, but you are also making a bet on their drive to stick with it when times get tough.
To further complicate things, if you are hiring an SDR who has a background in sales development, it begs the question: “Why do they want to do this again?” If they have the skill, it may be a sign that they no longer have the will, and if they have the will, they may not have the skill.
Luckily, skill can be taught, the will to do something can not. In startups, you want to hire candidates that want to “punch above their weight class,” and therefore, I’d recommend building a team of entry, or semi-entry level SDRs with few exceptions.
With this in mind, it is important to look past the pattern matching that is common when hiring for other positions. Career Account Executives (AEs) with good track records have a fair chance of performing well at your company, but when it comes to hiring SDRs, you have to rely on cues that are less obvious.
In the beginning, you need a large pool of candidates to get a sense of what good looks like. This means you should be doing at least 10 to 15 phone screens a week with new candidates. I highly recommend contracting with at least two recruiting firms to ensure that your top of funnel stays full. While this might be a hard thing to sell to your management team, the money spent here has a fantastic ROI. As discussed earlier, hiring the wrong person or hiring too slowly can have catastrophic consequences and it is unlikely that a manager will have a network of entry-level candidates to build this type of pipeline.
Signing up with an experienced recruiting firm like Betts Recruiting and another local recruiter of your choice is a great first step. Without sufficient sourcing, you will not have access to the amount of talent needed to make a proper hiring decision. It is important to get your management team on the same page, and help them understand that this is not the same as hiring for other positions that can come through the company’s referral network.
When interviewing entry-level candidates, the first thing you need to understand is that interviewing itself is a skill. At a high-level, being a skilled interviewer means being able to separate your perception of the candidate from what they actually bring to the table long-term.
I remember being particularly terrible at interviewing as an entry-level candidate, largely due to the fact that I never grew up around the tech industry or the corporate world. I did not know how to “speak the language,” and I really didn’t understand what the hiring manager was looking for. Conversely, a candidate who was brought up around the industry will understand the nuances that hiring managers look for and play into them.
Given that there is usually not a lot of relevant work history or performance metrics from which to base your decision when hiring SDRs, it is especially important to get a sense of the candidate's life story to understand their work ethic and motivation.
After some small talk, I like to start off my interview by asking the following question:
“I’d love to start this interview by getting to know you. Maybe you can walk me through your life story, starting with where you grew up, your life experiences, school, etc., leading up to why the SDR position is the right next step for you.”
This question has multiple benefits. First, it allows you to evaluate their innate story-telling skills, a trait that all great sales reps possess and is hard to acquire through training. It also gives them a chance to speak openly and confidently about a topic they are familiar with, which gives you a way to evaluate their communication skills and offers a glimpse of their motivations and drive. The key to evaluating someone’s life story is not to just analyze its content, but to identify the narrative and role that they play within it. Ask yourself: “Are they the hero of their own life story?”
In comparative mythology, the “Hero’s Journey” involves a protagonist that goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed. This form of story-telling is indicative that the person in question is someone who defines themselves by overcoming challenges, even when things get difficult. This is the exact trait needed while pursuing success in the SDR role. If their narrative is uninspiring, or that of a lost and wandering victim, it is a sign that they are still trying to discover their purpose and motivation in life. A sales development team is a competitive and tough environment and is not a good place to cultivate this trait.
A candidate’s life story also exposes their life-defining adversity and accomplishments. A follow-up question I always ask is:
“Give me an example of a time where you did something that was really hard or challenging, where you came out on top as #1.”
Without exception, every great SDR I have hired has had a fantastic answer to this question. It is important to remember that you are not trying to hire everyone who wants the job, but you are trying to hire someone exceptional. Unfortunately, there are many young people who have been wandering through life, and have never truly accomplished anything exceptional. Your job is to find the diamond in the rough, and find candidates that have outstanding drive, motivation, and talent.
When you hear an exceptional answer to this question, it should be obvious, and one of the primary things you remember about the candidate. I’ll use an example from one of my early SDR hires at Rubrik, Sara Bookhammer.
It was clear that Sara had a drive that went well beyond the average student. She went on to have a successful career at Rubrik, becoming a senior manager.
Another example, that is less obviously related to sales, was another early SDR hire, Andrew Novich.
Andrew became a field AE at Rubrik and is now a regional sales manager at Zscaler. Andrew was not a normal kid, he was exceptionally competitive and driven.
Hire normal people and get normal results. Hire exceptional people and get exceptional results.
Hiring a diverse team is not just the right thing to do, it also has a positive influence on performance. Building a diverse team requires you to be proactive and put additional thought into your interview. We tend to be attracted towards people that remind us of ourselves, both physically and mentally. By frequently reminding yourself of this tendency, you can develop your senses more acutely to ensure you are judging people on merit. As an additional precaution, make sure your interview panel is diverse itself to safeguard against this bias. Having diversity as a goal is another great justification for using external recruiters, since they will send you candidates that are outside of your personal network.
Many of us grew up in homogenous sales organizations and it can be hard to mentally remove that association when hiring entry level sales reps. I’ve seen this type of bias even amongst hiring managers who do not fit this description themselves. When thinking about whether this individual is cut out for sales, you might say something along the lines of “Yeah, I see it...” which is based on the visual memory of the sales floor you were trained in. I find it helpful to get the hiring panel in a room and white board out the pro's and con's of a candidate to make sure your decisions are objectively defined.
SDR teams have the opportunity to be more diverse than the broader company, since they can come from all walks of life and you are not limited to a niche hiring pool that is already skewed by the historical makeup of the tech industry. It's especially important to make diversity a proactive effort within your SDR recruiting initiative.
After you have determined that the candidate in question has exceptional character and drive, it is necessary to determine if a career in sales is a fit for them. While I have had many SDRs that have moved on to have successful careers in other departments within the company, I do believe that it is important that you hire SDRs that explicitly want to be in sales. If they decide later on down the road that they want to shift their career path into customer success, marketing or something else, that is fine, but you need to make sure their intentions are aligned right off the bat.
The SDR position is simply too hard if they are not driven to master the craft of being a sales professional. If they view the SDR position as a way to get a foot in the door and pursue other departments in the company, you will have a rep that is more interested in networking than being insanely successful at their job. Candidates that are interested in sales (above all else) are usually attracted to the competitive and performance based nature of the job, and are highly motivated by success, recognition, and money. Some of the most dedicated reps I have ever hired held jobs in the past where they sat at a desk and were not paid based on performance, which greatly frustrated them. Great sales reps simply can’t see themselves doing anything else within a company. Their life story will illustrate that they tend towards being the “hero” in anything they try to do. Most candidates (especially if they have been coached by a recruiter or family member) will claim that they want a career in sales, which makes this screening more difficult. A good work around here is to ask:
“What about marketing? Would you be open to opportunities there? Why do you want to do sales specifically?”
If their eyes light don't up or they do not have a good justification for being in a performance based environment, it is usually a sign that they are not fully bought in.
Once you have identified a super talented candidate, it is likely that they will end up with multiple job offers. As the hiring manager, it is your responsibility to convince the candidate that working for you will be an awesome, life changing experience. It is important in this phase not to oversell the opportunity and set the wrong expectations of what the job will look like.
In fact, I think it is beneficial to reiterate the realities of the job as a further screening mechanism and to set the stage for a transparent relationship. I’d say something along the lines of:
“I’d like to reiterate that this is an extremely challenging job and career path. If this is what you have in your heart to do, then I think you will be a really great fit here.”
Natural sales people respond well to this and you will set yourself up for an easier time managing expectations down the road.
As with every hire, it is important to sell them on the vision of the company and help them understand that they can be a part of this vision. See our guide to Selling While You Hire for more guidance.
Hiring the right people is not the only thing that matters, but it is a necessary foundation for success that nothing can replace. By making decisions that expand your top of funnel and using techniques to get to the bottom of a candidate’s ethos, you can put the odds significantly in your favor. As years go by, the benefits of having a network of talented people that you initially recruited will pay back many fold. Many of these SDRs will end up working for you in different capacities if you move on to start your own company, and if they are really successful, they may even end up hiring you. Choose wisely and good luck out there!