Sales Development: Then, Now & What To Expect

A Dramatic Illustration of an Alarm Clock Halfway Submerged in Water

A lot of strategies have come and gone in the world of sales development. What we thought worked a decade ago could now be considered archaic, while some practices have withstood the test of time. We’ve come a long way from the boiler room call centers to present-day Account-Based models — but there was a lot in between as well.

The Ghosts of Sales Development Past

Let’s go through a quick word association. I say the words “sales development” and you say the first thing that comes to your mind. A lot of you will say “boiler room” or “cold calling,” some might think “smile and dial” and “appointment setting.” If you did, then I have some news for you — that’s old school sales development, and it won’t work anymore.

Appointment Setting Won’t Cut it Anymore

If you’ve seen The Wolf of Wall Street then you can imagine what I’m talking about. For those who haven’t seen the movie, a young Jordan Belfort gets hired by a firm on Wall Street and is told that his job will be to “call 500 clients in a day” and that his superior “didn’t want to see his face until lunch.” If that doesn’t embody “boiler room”, I don’t know what does.

More importantly, all the conversations that Jordan Belfort had were scripted. I, like most former or current SDRs, shudder at the thought of making 500 scripted calls in a day. What am I, a robot? These were the dark ages of sales development.

Luckily, the world isn’t like it once was. Everything you saw in the movie was once common practice — tons and tons of scripted calls, a focus on appointment setting, and little to no qualification questions to be found. The results? Not so great. People were being inundated with these cold calls and SDRs who couldn’t talk their way out of a paper bag. It was easy to make up for a lack of training and skill with sheer volume, but the lack of quality was apparent.

How About Now?

Unfortunately, some of these archaic methods have wormed their way into the present day. Call centers and cost-per-lead companies still exist and there’s an ever-present market for them — some companies need to supplement their targeted prospecting efforts with appointment setting bandwidth. Without it, the in-house methods they have aren’t enough to supply sales with viable leads. Without leads, there are no sales. Without sales, there’s no company.

So what has to happen to move away from these older practices? Teams need to adapt. Sales development is becoming more targeted and personal. People want to be treated like people and not just a name on a list. Leaders have a better idea of whom to target, what companies would benefit from their product, and be the most accepting of their message. In a nutshell, research is in and blind dialing is out.

The Current State of Sales Development

Phasing out the old methods of business development is primed to be a long and arduous process. We’ve seen progress, and the way that sales development is handled today is vastly different from a handful of years ago. However, traces still remain. If companies want to continue improving their sales development function, they’re going to have to leave the old ways behind completely (easier said than done).

How Inbound Marketing Changed the Game

As the shift from an activity-heavy and untargeted focus to a more personalized and thoughtful approach emerged, something else was bubbling in the sales development world.

The rise of inbound marketing and its empowerment of the buyer has dramatically shifted how we go about sales development. Gone are the days where SDRs make 200 dials straight down a list, in are the days of educating the prospects who have indicated they’re looking for more information.

Graphics like this one from 2011 were taking the industry by storm. People were asking themselves, “why bother reaching out to prospects when they can just reach out to me?” The old methods of lead generation — high volume, disruptive marketing — started to look archaic and ineffective. That was both good and bad – good because the industry desperately needed to shift away from those old methods, but bad because it de-emphasized the need for a sales development rep.

Consumers are now more in control of the flow of information than ever before, and by choosing what information they want to receive negates the need for someone to deliver it to them. What does this mean for sales development? It means that when someone wants to learn more about your product, they’ll let you know. Whitepaper downloads, attending webinars and live events, and engaging on social media are ways that customers let you know they want to be prospected.

Pitfalls of Inbound-Only Follow-up

The rise of inbound and the empowerment of buyers has changed the flow of information, but it certainly hasn’t killed sales development.

There are a finite amount of prospects within your potential universe, and even less who are actually interested. While it’s great that the leads you get have noted interest, the overall amount that need followup is significantly less. It’s very difficult to support an SDR team with only inbound leads.

Since buyers are coming to the table with more information than previously, you also need to adjust the approach of your SDR team. Reps have been (historically) trained to educate prospects on their solution. Now, as prospects come through inbound channels, they’re further along the buyer’s journey than previously. A lot of teams have failed to make the adjustment on their end and continue to train inbound reps on high-level education. Teams need to make sure their SDRs are delivering messaging and value that prospects can’t easily find online (otherwise, why bother having an SDR?).

So What Do We Do?

Sales development has gone through two extremes – on one side you have strategies that emphasize volume (throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks), and on the other side you have strategies that emphasize quality (content marketing and lead magnets). Picking what to keep and ditch from each will help determine the direction of sales development for the future…

The Future of Sales Development

As teams phase out the archaic methods of sales development and embrace the new, empowered buyer, they have to look to the future. What are we seeing in the current environment that looks like a fad, and what are we seeing that we can start adjusting for in the future?

The Empowered Buyer is Here to Stay

Let’s start with the basics – the empowered buyer isn’t going anywhere. In fact, they’re probably going to become more self-sufficient as time goes on. So how do you adjust your practices for that?

Like it was touched on before, training and coaching are going to become much more important for SDR teams. A rep that you pull straight out of college and plop down in front of a script, phone, and computer is no better at educating a prospect than your website or a whitepaper. You’re going to have to prepare your reps to make up that delta between what your prospects already know and what they need to know to fully understand your product’s value. A great example of this is shown in the way Josh Braun “makes deposits” to his prospects.

Not only will they need the knowledge base to have fruitful conversations, but they’re going to need to remain authentic and personal while doing it. Buyers aren’t just expecting to be educated en masse (that’s what your marketing content is for), they want to know how your solution can specifically help them. It’s like what was touched on before – SDRs can no longer just toss leads over the fence to their AE counterparts, they have to dig into the WHY. Why did this prospect agree to talk with me? Why should I be talking to this prospect? It forces the SDR to think critically about the situation and tailor their message/value to the prospect’s situation.

Tier Your Outreach

If reps aren’t tiering accounts, you’re going to have a bad time. Bucketing or tiering your accounts allows for your reps to spend the most time with the right prospects while still executing enough activities to hit their quotas. That question of “why” is important, but it’s definitely a lot more important for some accounts than others.

A simple tiering method that you could employ is a “good, better, best” system. Let’s start at the top:

“Best” accounts are your target accounts. They match your ICP so perfectly it’s hard to imagine them not being your customer. These are the “I can retire early if we get X as a customer” accounts. The “wall of fame” accounts. The ones that haven’t outright told you they’re interested so you make it your mission to get that answer (and make it a yes).

These are the leads you want your reps to spend the most time with because they have the opportunity to yield the most revenue. They should be account mapped, researched, and sent personalized messages regularly. You absolutely should have a “why” in mind when reaching out to these accounts – they’re on your “best” list for a reason.

You’ll probably have the least number of these accounts, so your reps can’t burn through them too quickly. Toss the call plan out the window (be creative and take your time) and definitely don’t bombard them with messages. Think: low volume, high quality.

“Better” accounts are organizations that fall within your TAM and have some buying indicators. Maybe they’ve taken action on your website or downloaded some piece of content. Their company profile might match a lot of your current customers, letting you know they would theoretically be a good fit but you just haven’t found out yet. They could buy, but if they don’t they would be great companies to keep in your pipeline and nurture along.

These leads deserve regular follow-up and account mapping to help you build out more information on those buying indicators. You might not fully know the “why” for all of these accounts, so the more outreach and research you do the better. They’re perfect candidates for a standard call-plan/cadence and nurture campaign.

You’ll have a good amount of these accounts in your database, so it’s possible to churn through them at a decent clip. They’re also pretty easily replaceable, so if you disqualify one then another one can easily take its place. Think: a good mix of quantity and quality.

“Good” accounts are organizations you could reach out to (they fall within your Total Addressable Market or TAM), but they might not fall in line with your Ideal Customer Profile. Maybe they’re using a competitor you rarely win deals from, or they don’t have the budget, or they’re in an industry you haven’t sold into yet – either way, something about them hasn’t set off your buying indicators. They’re great accounts to nurture along and keep in touch with but often aren’t immediate opportunities.

These accounts are perfect to contact en masse – think call-blitzes and mail merges. If you can group them based on persona or other commonalities you can dial yourself back to the ghosts of sales development past and try to touch as many accounts as possible. You probably don’t have a great “why” in mind when reaching out to these accounts, so relying on basic qualifications is the name of the game here.

You’ll have the most of these accounts in your database, and the faster you can get through them the better. Every time you qualify/disqualify an account you learn something new about an industry, title, company, or your product, and that can influence how you build messaging for higher priority accounts (shaping your “why”). Think: high quantity, low quality.


The days of “boiler room” sales development are over. It’s no longer all quantity, no quality.

The days of inbound-only follow-up are over. It’s no longer all quality, no quantity.

What is here is a solid mix of the two plus a dash of creativity, a pinch of authenticity, and a strong focus on empathy. Sales development today is about connecting with the right person with the right message at the right time, and to do that you have to employ tactics from the past and present to succeed.

Research empowered buyers have changed the game, and how you respond as a sales development team will determine whether or not you’ll see the future or get stuck in the past.