The SDR outreach guide for startups

Published on Jan 11, 2024

The SDR outreach guide for startups

Guest authored by Stuart Watson, Sales Leader and GTM Advisor

How do you jam your foot in customers’ doors to kick off a sales conversation? It comes down to a mix of preparation, brevity, and a seamless handoff from SDR to founder or salesperson. Startups and their founders need to understand the basics of the SDR outreach motion to ensure they can turn leads into sales. 

In the previous posts in this series, we discussed how to know if your startup is ready to hire your first sales development representative (SDR) as you move beyond founder-led sales, and then how to hire, onboard, and manage your first SDR. Now it’s time to lay out tactical best practices for SDR research, prospecting, and outreach. 

Here we’ll lay out strategies for the five core tasks of an SDR:

  • Target account and prospect selection
  • Prospect research and message integration
  • Email, phone, and voicemail outreach
  • Outreach sequence/cadence structure
  • Meeting/opportunity handoffs

Account and prospect selection

Early-stage SDRs frequently help with building account lists and selecting target contacts, but it’s crucial that you or your seller review and guide their selections. 

Being so early in their sales careers, it’s uncommon for SDRs to understand how buying occurs within organizations, they may not appreciate who actually has the power to get a deal done within a company, and they frequently conduct mental gymnastics around how a given account, which is a poor fit for the business, could possibly buy.

‎The best partnerships between SDRs and sellers or founders involve frequent daily collaboration on target account lists, progress updates around contact engagement and next steps, and the sharing of objections and bottlenecks.

Be deliberate with the titles and attributes that you want your SDR to pursue. A good thought experiment is to challenge them to think like an account executive. If the SDR was getting paid off of a won deal, instead of just by the meeting, would they still set up the meeting as is, knowing what they do or don’t know?

Prospect research

It’s table stakes that SDRs have a strong understanding of your target personas and how your company fixes your ideal customer’s pain points, as well as a strong ability to communicate them.

But when it comes to targeting discrete prospects, SDRs must also be able to effectively research the companies and individuals in question and integrate that research into outreach copy and live conversation, to ensure that your outreach is as effective as possible.

When conducting this research, it’s important to develop a working understanding of the prospect’s business, including their products or services, industry, market position, competitors, and the challenges they might be facing. Make sure you can answer the question, “how does this company make money?”

Research areas to consider

General public information

  • Review recent news articles, press releases, or blog posts about the company that might be pertinent to your outreach, going beyond just the information presented on their website.
  • Utilize public financial information.
    • If the company is publicly traded, their financial reports and investor presentations can be a goldmine of information. 
    • In earnings calls and press releases, companies will typically call attention to major new initiatives, opportunities they see in the market, as well as headwinds that they may be facing—all of which provide fantastic information to integrate into your outreach messaging. 
    • For private companies, you can still find some financial information in business databases and news articles, as well as more general industry trend information that you can integrate into your outreach messaging.

LinkedIn

  • Has your prospect worked at previous companies that might be relevant (e.g., those currently partnered with you or in an opportunity cycle)?
  • Is the prospect connected with any current customers or advocates of yours?
  • Review your prospect’s LinkedIn posts and engagement—leveraging discussion topics they’re interested in is an effective way to get a reply.

YouTube

  • Search YouTube for interviews with the founders/CEO. What are they excited about? Are there specific initiatives they’re pushing that you can integrate into your messaging?
  • Perhaps your target prospect has a presence on YouTube that you can take advantage of as well.

Twitter/X

  • Check to see if your prospect actively posts on X. What are they talking about? Can you integrate it into prospecting messaging?
  • What is the CEO or founding team saying or retweeting on X that you can integrate into your messaging?

When conducting research, make sure you come away with a good understanding of how the target company makes money, what trends and events are likely affecting the company and its industry, what pains and challenges your prospect is likely facing that you can alleviate (better yet if they say them specifically online or in an interview!), and who might be a mutual connection or reference to facilitate the conversation. You can also use sales research tools like Poggio. This information will lay the groundwork for outreach that ensures you break through the noise.

An illustration of a document, labeled with value props A, B, and C

Outreach best practices

How do you make first contact with prospects once you’ve done your research? Each SDR will develop tactics tuned to your product and their strengths, but following are some generally successful approaches.

Email

  • Keep your emails “above the fold” by limiting them to three to five sentences. 
    • If you have more to say, reserve it for future emails to the prospect.
  • Subject lines: there’s lots of good advice and data on subject line composition, but in general, keep it brief to avoid seeming overwhelming or getting truncated, and consider asking a question.
  • Do not send the same email to multiple prospects within the business at once (and avoid noncustomized outreach more generally). 
    • Any guilt or responsibility a prospect might feel about responding to you disappears if they think of you as a robot and not as a real person who deserves a response. 
  • Avoid general, industrywide statistics.
    • We’ve heard from executives that they usually don’t believe vague or general performance statistics included in outreach emails (“we increase sales by 30%!”) and/or are suspicious that similar results would apply to them.  
    • Instead, use specific customer anecdotes if you can, ideally in the same industry as the prospect.
  • Do not resort to gimmicks. 
    • You might get a laugh and maybe even an email forward, but you still won’t likely get a response.
  • Do not ever say something to the effect of “this is my last outreach.”
    • You’re merely making a liar of your future self.
  • Think about the authentic emails you get from real people that you actually respond to. What do they typically have in common?
    • They’re brief.
    • They have a relevant observation.
    • They have an effective question or call to action.
    • You should strive to compose your prospecting emails like this as well.

Calls

  • Call with the actual intention of reaching your prospect. If your one goal this week was to reach a particular prospect by phone, you would act very differently than if you were merely trying to place another call.
  • Respect your prospect’s time.
    • Get right to the point of why you’re calling.
    • Bring a compelling observation or timely reason for why you’re trying to connect with them now.
    • Let them know the 2–3 ways you typically alleviate pain for someone with a role like theirs and ask for permission to explore that further with them.
  • Keep your phone number consistent.
    • If you want to use your own number, an area code for your company’s HQ or the area code for the prospect’s HQ, fine, but changing your phone mask or proxy every time you try to reach a prospect is irritating for them.

Voicemails

  • DO leave voicemails—as we’ve moved away from desk phones, many SDRs have stopped leaving voicemails entirely. Don’t do this.
  • Instead, use a brief voicemail (30 seconds or less) to call attention to emails and InMails you’ve already sent the prospect.

Sequence structure best practices

There are a lot of good examples for effective SDR outreach sequences online. The best ones generally have the following in common:

  • They are spread out across 2–4 weeks.
  • They comprise 8–13 calls, emails, and other tasks like InMails, LinkedIn connections, and sometimes video steps (Loom, Vidyard).
  • They strike a balance between reusable structure / value propositions and unique observations the SDR has made after researching the prospect and company.
  • They strive to add value or bring new observations to each step in the sequence.
  • They have a definitive call to action or request an introduction to someone who may better benefit from a partnership discussion. 

Handoff process

Qualification

The initial meeting qualification process for your SDR can be modest or relatively flexible, but in time, you’ll want to have some structure in place to make the most of the meeting for both you or your seller and the prospective customer.

Organizations can vary in their approach, having very firm minimum qualification requirements, employing an elaborate scoring system, or having something as simple as only requiring a satisfactory title at the target company.

A frequently used qualification criteria is BANT:

  • Budget: Does the prospect have the financial resources to purchase the solution or product?
  • Authority: Is the individual an influencer or decision-maker in the buying process?
  • Need: Does the prospect have a clear business need or pain point that the product or solution addresses?
  • Timing: When is the prospect planning to make a purchase or implement a solution?

Some companies choose to forego budget and timing for an initial meeting when using this style of framework.

Alternately, more mature and enterprise-focused organizations frequently use MEDDICC (or MEDDPICC) for their sales process and require SDRs to meet some of the selected categories (conducting enough discovery to fill out all seven areas is overkill for an SDR):

  • Metrics: Quantifiable measures of value that your solution can provide
  • Economic buyer: The person with the overall authority in the buying decision
  • Decision criteria: The various factors your solution will be judged on
  • Decision process: The series of steps the buyer will follow to make a decision
  • Implicate the pain: The process of getting customers to identify and reflect on the pain your solution solves
  • Champion: The person who has power, influence, and credibility within the customer’s organization to sway a buying decision in your favor
  • Competition: Any person, vendor, or initiative competing for the same funds or resources you are

Additionally, SDR organizations frequently document or require qualification around the following:

  • Firmographic criteria:
    • Company size
      • Does the company fall within the target size (e.g., number of employees, revenue, or number of a specific role like software engineers) for the product or solution?
    • Industry
      • Is the company in a target industry or sector?
    • Location
      • Is the company located in a geographic region the business serves?
  • Technographic criteria
    • What technologies or platforms does the prospect currently use that might be relevant to the product or solution?
  • Current solutions
    • What is the prospect currently using to address the problem or need?
    • Are they using a competitor's product? If so, are they looking to switch?
    • Are they facing any challenges with their current solution?
  • Buying process
    • How does the company typically evaluate and buy solutions?
    • Are there any anticipated obstacles in their buying process?

Scheduling

Establish with your SDR how you would like prospect meetings to be set up and what role they play in helping you or your salesperson prepare for the meeting.

If you require stringent notes from your SDR, respect the prospect’s time and ensure you or your seller read and reference them. 

When thinking about the scheduling process, put yourself in your SDR’s shoes:

  • How do they know when you or your seller’s calendars are free for a new business meeting? 
  • Are the calendars kept up-to-date? 
  • Do they know when you’re traveling or have higher priorities than taking new meetings?
  • Do they know you or your seller’s preferences on what time of day or day of the week to book meetings, and whether you want breaks between or back-to-backs?

Lastly, workshop an ideal scheduling workflow with your SDR and be sure to iterate on this process to keep the whole process running smoothly.

Who follows up?

While this is where an SDR’s tasks usually end, consider whether it would be valuable to them to manage portions of the meeting follow-up process. If this constitutes a sizable part of their workflow, consider incentivizing them for their work or including this as part of their management by objectives (MBOs).

Sales is a life-long craft, and each practitioner should build their own playbook of what strategies best match their personality and workflow. But with these basics, you should have a solid foundation for converting cold leads into warm ones.

*Portfolio company founders listed above have not received any compensation for this feedback and did not invest in a SignalFire fund. Please refer to our disclosures page for additional disclosures.

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