How to Build and Optimize your Outbound SDR Team in 2021

By: Phil Stern  |  March 31, 2021

Mainsail Partners hosted a webinar with The Bridge Group’s Sally Duby and Mainsail’s Phil Stern to discuss key best practices for building a robust Sales Development Representative (SDR) team. Sally is a long-time sales leader and consultant and is experienced in inside sales and SDR team development. Sally and Phil talk about effective training and teambuilding methods, pipeline measurement, and how to address the high rates of attrition inherent to this role.

In addition, Sally reveals key findings and insights from The Bridge Group’s biennial survey on SDR teams, which studies hundreds of B2B tech companies.

Mainsail’s key takeaways are below. You can view the complete webinar here:

Train your SDR teams to be more effective

The role of an SDR involves researching prospects, attacking prospect lists, qualifying Marketing Qualified Leads (MQLs) and more. Ultimately, the goal of an SDR is to get qualified prospects to attend demos. In pursuing this goal, the biggest mistake an SDR can make is to lead with the product pitch, rather than leading with an attempt to connect with the prospect.

To avoid this common pitfall, Sally recommends including these three lessons in your SDR trainings:

  • Engage with your prospect first; pitch your product second. Sally stressed the importance of enabling SDRs to know their prospects’ businesses ahead of all other skills. The most successful SDRs can empathize with their prospects rather than simply delivering a product pitch.
  • Define (and be consistent with) your messaging: Clearly define your brand messaging and how your product helps customers. SDRs should be able to explain the value of your product by tying it to customer pain points and goals.
  • Experiment with different mediums to target your ideal customers: The Bridge Group found that, in 2020/2021, executives are not readily responding to emails. Cold calling has been increasingly effective, as has mixing up the mediums through which your message is delivered. Sally recommends experimenting with a combination of video, phone calls, LinkedIn and email. In all cases, emphasize the importance of your SDRs presenting a message—and a medium—that resonates with the specific buyer persona.

In practice, Phil recommends structuring your SDR training program so that it begins with defining your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) and explaining key differences in buyer personas—and then expands into training on the product. By presenting your SDR training in this order, you reiterate to your SDRs that they must put the buyer first.

Before you start hiring, analyze your pipeline and invest in your process

Before you start hiring, determine how many SDRs you want to hire and what their quotas should be. To do this, review your company goals, sources of revenue, and sales cycles, then work backward through the sales funnel to calculate how many wins you need for the year and what percentage of those need to come from your SDRs.

Says Sally, “Break down your calculations by: How much revenue do your sources provide? What are the conversion rates at each stage? How many opportunities are needed within each stage of the sales cycle to reach your numbers? How many opportunities do you need an SDR team to work on, and how many can each sales rep tackle every month?”

Measure and analyze your SDR-generated pipeline
According to The Bridge Group, the average SDR generates $3 million of new pipeline per year, with a typical range of $1.8M to $4.7M. There is a wide variance based on your average deal size, company maturity and target market.

To understand how much pipeline your SDRs are sourcing, Sally recommends parsing out SDR pipeline from, say, MQL pipeline. Track conversion rates through the sales cycle, average deal size, and close rates. Pay special attention to what new SDR-sourced business is sticking, and what is churning. Revisit these metrics frequently and, over time, observe the trends from this pipeline to determine where you want to invest, based on success metrics.

Looking to increase your SDR’s pipeline?
According to Sally, “There is no silver bullet in sales. Changing one aspect of your process will affect multiple areas because sales does not exist in a silo. What’s really going to make your SDRs efficient and effective is to train them on how to have conversations with prospects. Whether it’s over email, on the phone or on LinkedIn, you need your SDRs to be able to handle those conversations.”

(For more on this topic, check out Sally’s recent article in Forbes)

Not sure where to start? Invest in a scalable sales process.
For companies in the earlier stages of building an outbound team, you may have only 2-4 SDRs on your roster. At this level, what should you prioritize?

Sally recommends investing in repeatable, scalable processes and sound infrastructure that will enable you to succeed as you grow.


  • Provide the SDRs with content they can leverage to sell.
  • Create email templates and teach SDRs to personalize per buyer persona; teach them how to gauge when it’s not worth it to personalize per individual.
  • Offer sales tech tools and solid training.

Ready to hire? Follow this Order of Operations

Start-ups with an ARR of <$20M tend to be in the mindset of moving quickly to grow rapidly which can make it challenging to be methodical about growth.

Nonetheless, Sally presents her ideal Order of Operations for hiring an SDR team:  

  1. Set your sales strategy: What are your right quotas and KPIs? What does the team need to be successful? (See above.)
  2. Define hiring criteria and process: What kinds of people do you need? Screen well and move quickly when you like a candidate.
  3. Update your CRM to support SDRs’ needs and workflows: Before you launch the program and ramp it up, make sure you are set up to measure the correct KPIs. Track layouts, fields, process, and reporting with SDRs in mind. Have your target accounts loaded and your inbound routing ready. If you set this up six months after launching, it will be too late.
  4. Build the sales dev tech stack: Invest in sales tools and processes.
  5. Nail your onboarding process: Ensure the onboarding and training for the SDRs is focused on your buyers, their challenges, and your business value before focusing on your product offerings (see above).
  6. Build out cadences and sequences: Build out buyer personas, and share their pain points, messaging and value prop with every SDR.
  7. Begin hiring: Get the right people in place and invest in them.

It may take up to two months to solidify your processes and prepare your infrastructure before you’re ready to hire. However, without this foundation in place, and without the tools to support them, your SDRs won’t be successful long-term, which can lead to extended ramp periods or higher turnover.

Account for attrition when planning capacity and headcount

Over several years, The Bridge Group’s data has found that a mature SDR team employs 3 SDRs for every 1 Account Executive (AE). This ratio varies based on the team’s size, tenure, goals and go-to-market (GTM) strategy. Lower revenue companies might invest in more SDRs and have a lower ratio of SDR:AE to help kickstart the business. Whatever your ratio, your SDRs should be fortifying your AEs such that their only task is to sell and close deals.

Maintaining this ratio is complicated by the fact that The Bridge Group shows an expected SDR attrition rate of 30-40% a year. “Some of this we’ve made ourselves because we only want people in the role for a year or two; sometimes it’s a promotion; sometimes it’s performance-based,” explains Sally.

Interestingly, the overall attrition rate reduced to 26% in 2020, likely due to people wanting to keep their jobs during COVID-19.

To create a capacity model that accounts for this level of turnover, Phil recommends (a) keeping an evergreen pipeline of candidates, and (b) breaking down your team into categories:

  1. Ramping-up new reps (plan for lower capacity)
  2. Ramped reps (plan for maximum capacity)
  3. Ramping-down reps (plan for lower capacity)

By having a backlog of new talent, and proactively recognizing when a rep will attrite, you can maintain consistency in your team’s performance.

Cold calling is not dead (and more myth-busting)

Sally wraps up the webinar by busting a few commonly held myths around outbound sales. Spoiler: Cold calling is not dead and you don’t need to customize every email.

Top sales myths of 2021:

  • Cold calling is dead: The highest impact channel is still outbound phone prospecting.
  • Full-cycle AEs work better than the SDR/AE combo: SDRs are better at focusing on prospecting while AEs focus on closing.
  • Every email must be customized: Email hasn’t been effective in 2020/21, and it’s a waste of time to try to customize every single email.
  • Having a green SDR managed by an SDR manager will make outbound prospecting work: You have to have an experienced SDR manager who’s invested in the SDR team to succeed.
  • SDRs love WFH. Not true.

What we learned  

An SDR team can generate increased revenue—but only if you support them with solid infrastructure and smart training. Before hiring a team, ensure you have in place a sales strategy, sales goals, and repeatable, scalable processes. Equip your new team with a “SDR-ified” CRM and a set of sales tech tools. Hire intentionally and keep a backlog of hirable talent, knowing how high the attrition rate can be in this field.

Above all else, continue to emphasize to your SDRs the importance of being able to connect with your prospects. By relying on a strong foundation and acting on smart sales training, your SDR team can help convert prospects for your product.

Phil is a Operating Principal at Mainsail Partners. He leads the firm’s Center of Excellence for Sales and is responsible for helping Mainsail’s portfolio companies optimize their growth strategies and deploy sales practices.
More by Phil Stern
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