Expert advice: How to build a strong relationship between your AEs and SDRs

Editor in Chief, Sell to Win

Whether you’re a sales manager, an account executive, or a sales development representative, you play an integral role in making sure that the AEs and SDRs on your team work well together.

Here’s why the relationship between account executives and sales development representatives is critical to your company’s success, and how you can contribute to making that relationship healthy and productive. But first…

What do AEs and SDRs do, anyway?

If you’re new to sales or you’ve just joined a new sales team, it’s important to have a complete understanding of the role each person on the team plays in the sales process. Account executives and sales development representatives each have specific responsibilities, quotas, and key performance indicators to meet.

At the most basic level, sales development representatives (SDRs) are responsible for booking meetings or appointments for the account executives. SDRs serve a very important gatekeeper role, ensuring that leads are qualified through an initial conversation, then passing them to the account executives (AEs), who are responsible for establishing relationships with those leads and nurturing them through a pipeline.

SDRs are often viewed as grunts in a sales operation, but their work is mission-critical; without a steady stream of meetings with qualified buyers, AEs can’t make the sales they need to meet the company’s revenue goals. The two roles need to work hand-in-hand to get their jobs done, and do them well.

Note: The term “SDR” is more common in inbound sales organizations, where sales development reps have to qualify prospects who have already expressed interest. Business development representatives (or BDRs) are more commonly found on outbound teams; while the roles are very similar, BDRs generally have more responsibility to make first contact with prospects.

Four tips for uniting your AEs and SDRs into a championship team

Key article takeaways:

  • Sit your SDRs and AEs together and make them mutually accountable.
  • Decide if you’re going to judge your SDRs by output, team revenue, or both.
  • Make sure everyone on the sales team is using your CRM to log important information.
  • Encourage your SDRs and AEs to support each other beyond the requirements of their roles.

Tip #1: Establish open communication

Creating a successful, collaborative relationship between SDRs and AEs depends on frequent communication as well as candid two-way feedback.

“One thing that works really well to create open lines of communication between AEs and SDRs is to have a weekly meeting where everyone reviews where they are in regards to their goals, including updates on leads that SDRs have passed over,” says Alex Manwaring, ISR Manager at Privy.

“This is a great way to foster mutual accountability, because if an SDR is qualifying leads and AEs are neglecting to follow up with them and nurture them to close, the sales manager is going to be aware and the AE will be held accountable,” Manwaring says. “Conversely, if an SDR is setting up low-quality opportunities, that will come out in the meeting. This encourages SDRs and AEs to work together.”

Manwaring also suggests seating AEs and SDRs next to each other (which is something we advocate for at Nutshell as well). “It’s a great way to foster natural communication, since your AEs and SDRs can have one-off conversations rather than needing to Slack or email each other,” Manwaring says.

Uniting all your sellers into one unit or pod also helps junior team-members develop their skills faster. “Help create an atmosphere where your AEs are responsible for training and mentoring the SDRs in their pod,” suggests Nutshell Head of Growth Mike Carroll. “As a single team, they are responsible for driving revenue together, and that single measurement of success will incentivize their collaboration.”

Beyond physical proximity, you should also encourage your AEs and SDRs to get closer in terms of process. “The AE/SDR relationship is one of the trickiest in sales,” says Tom Briccetti, a seasoned manager of AEs and SDRs who is preparing to launch a consultancy that specializes in scaling the impact of smaller teams. “The AE often holds the keys to the SDR’s commissions and that can create friction. SDRs should have lots of visibility into the AEs pitch and process so they’re not in the dark on the whole thing. Also, making some percentage of everyone’s goals being a team goal—even something small like 10-25%—creates a team-first atmosphere.”

Related: How to assign quotas to teams in Nutshell

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Tip #2: Judge your sales team members by the right metrics

As SDRs and AEs strive to foster good working relationships with each other, it’s important to choose the right metrics by which the members of the sales team are judged. For example, if SDRs are judged by the number of meetings booked for AEs and AEs are judged by opportunities won, these varying metrics could have an impact on how AEs and SDRs communicate with one another and how they focus their time.

There are competing opinions on how an SDR’s performance should be judged. The more traditional and easily measurable metrics relate to output.

“Calls and emails are literally the only two things that are within the SDR’s control,” Briccetti says. “Output should be measured and factored into commissions—at a relatively low percentage of about 10-20%—which will undoubtedly encourage reps to increase output.”

“The metrics which SDRs should be judged are strictly the number of dials and new prospects added into the system,” adds Blake Grundell, SDR Leader at Botify. “These two KPIs are telling signs of a healthy pipeline. The more people we call, the more real conversations we can have. The more new people from our accounts we bring in, the more impactful our message can be. Impactful messaging equates to more meetings booked.”

While the end goal of an SDRs efforts should be booking meetings for AEs, judging SDRs by the number of booked meetings can encourage the wrong behavior. SDRs should always strive to book successful meetings, but if they’re only booking to hit a meeting quota, they might let unqualified prospects through the door, and hinder the sales pipeline. For that reason, judging the sales team collectively by revenue can be a more effective approach.

“Measuring sales activities like calls made, demos given, meaningful conversations created, or even speed to contact will help your team improve their ability to better execute the tactics associated with their role, but the ideal metric is revenue,” Mike Carroll says. “If your team isn’t ready for that, then you’ll want to work backwards from the behavior or outcome you want to see and find the metrics that drive and incentivize that behavior.”

Tip #3: Utilize your CRM as the source of truth

In the hustle and bustle that comes with a salesperson’s life, it’s easy for crucial information such as phone numbers and appointment times to get lost. That’s why your CRM should be your single source of truth across your sales team. SDRs can input all of the information the AEs will need for each prospect and qualified meeting, and AEs can input all of the information they gain from the meeting and whether the prospect will be a good fit.

Sometimes busy schedules prevent SDRs or AEs from debriefing or communicating as much as they would like to. Keeping your CRM as your team’s central source of information when it comes to conversations with prospects and meeting schedules, as well as your pipeline health and the status of your deals will help your team stay up-to-date even during the busiest times of the quarter.

Tip #4: Always look for ways to support each other

Overall, a successful SDR-AE relationship is one in which each person has the other’s back. While each role has their own goals and quotas to meet, the sales team as a whole cannot be successful without each person’s contributions.

“SDRs can support AEs by going above and beyond their stated responsibilities,” Manwaring says. “When I was managing BDRs at Mavenlink, the BDRs were only compensated for opportunities that reached a certain stage, not if the deal closed. Regardless, supportive BDRs would still offer to rope in additional stakeholders and drive deals forward even after they no longer had additional compensation to gain from the deal closing. AEs would in turn support BDRs by helping them prospect and break into accounts even if they were not directly compensated for it. This sense of teamwork and support is a great way to foster a healthy, ‘We’re all in this together’ culture.”

“One of the biggest things an SDR can do to support their AE is to learn how they sell,” Grundell says. “Being able to have conversations with prospects and then transition them into a similar atmosphere with the AE on the next call leads to more natural conversations and a better first impression. On the flip side, an AE properly supporting their SDR depends on remembering what they are doing on a day-to-day basis, and understanding how they get paid and why they are asking for certain things. It’s hard being the tip of the spear.”

“I think the key to supporting your team members is the same for both sides, and it’s the eagerness to learn and get better,” says Briccetti. “AEs can be arrogant. SDRs can be naive. But if both sides check their egos and are genuinely hungry to improve the process on both sides and be there for each other in every way, that will lead to the most success.”

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