A few weeks ago, I shared my research on the failure rate of SDR-to-AE promotions. (Executive Summary: 26% of SDRs who take on an AE role fail. The shorter the SDR tenure, the higher the failure rate. The post-promotion failure rate for SDRs with 11 or fewer months experience was 55%. The failure rate for SDRs with 16+ months experience was just 6%.)
A few dozen InMails and 1.5K+ social shares later, I’ve concluded that this topic hits a nerve.
The most common feedback I heard was “Yes! I’ve seen this too. What can we do to address it?” I wanted real practitioners to share advice so I reached out to Kevin Dorsey, Head of Sales Development and Enablement at ServiceTitan, and Natasha Miller Sekkat, VP of Demand Generation at ClickSoftware. Rather than post the full transcript, I’ve grouped their thoughts below.
Why risk promoting SDRs to AEs at all?
Natasha Miller Sekkat: Successful SDR-to-AE transitions are key to making sales development economics work. Unless you’re selling a high-ticket solution into the enterprise, I’ve found it’s hard to financially justify the existence of an SDR organization. But, when you factor in potential savings on AE recruitment plus productivity gains from successful promotions, the equation flips to positive.
You’re looking for the "the trifecta" from your SDR-to-AE promotions:
- Lower attrition rates than external hires
- Higher performance versus goal than outside hires
- And a lower cost per $ sold than external hires
In the best scenario, an internally promoted SDR-to-AE will cost less, stay longer, and sell more.
How do you reign in the need for speed?
Kevin Dorsey: If you’re moving an SDR to AE in under 6 months, it’s too fast. I know your SDRs are screaming “NO, I’m ready!” But they just aren’t. It’s something I’ve witnessed working with hundreds of SDRs—watching some transition successfully and some unsuccessfully. At least 1 year as an SDR is a good benchmark.
Yes, it can happen faster, but only for over performance. And what over performance means needs to be outlined from the very beginning in black and white. Achieve X and Y and you can qualify for the fast track; if not, sorry.
How do you structure your SDRs' first twelve months?
Natasha Miller Sekkat: There are four quarters in a year and the focus for each one is slightly different.
- 1st Quarter- new SDRs don't know anything (What is a lead? What’s Salesforce? What’s a gatekeeper? And so on.)
- 2nd Quarter- the performing quarter (It’s time to take off training wheels and be a monster SDR.)
- 3rd Quarter- start to pick up their heads a bit (Experiment with different approaches. Try more advanced qualification. Take on mentoring responsibilities.)
- 4th Quarter- the earliest to start thinking about what's outside the SDR domain (OK, now what's selling? What does it mean to ask for an order? What does owning a territory look like? PLUS keep doing your SDR job.)
The next few months or quarters are about showing an ability to succeed while both doing the SDR job while also owning and closing smaller deals. The challenge is no one wants to hear "you aren't ready to be promoted." I tell reps, "Your career is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve got another 30+ years ahead of you. What percentage is 6 more months over 35 years? It’s a drop in the bucket.”
What’s the biggest skillset mismatch facing newly promoted reps?
Kevin Dorsey: It’s often that from the outside looking in, being an AE is easy. No more cold calling. No 100 dials a day. Just taking meetings and closing business. SDRs have spent months, if not years, looking at AEs and thinking “I could do that sh*t.”
But they fail to realize that being an AE requires significantly more skill.
You can brute force your way as an SDR. Make more dials, send more emails, and results go up. Playing the AE game at the level needed to advance a sale, manage multiple decision makers, navigate RFPs is different. There are so many places that things can go wrong and most SDRs don’t realize this. Plus as an AE, the rejection is more personal. When you’re rejected as an SDR, there is always another fish in the sea to target. It’s nothing personal. When you’re rejected as an AE—after you poured your blood, sweat, and tears into bringing that deal across and it doesn’t happen—you start to question yourself. I tell reps, "Come in thinking it will be easy, you will fail. Come in thinking it will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and are ready to work like it is, and you’ll succeed."
Natasha Miller Sekkat: The biggest missing piece is the blocking and tackling of selling. How do I go from “set a demo” to “signed PO”? There’s so much even the most senior SDRs have never had firsthand exposure to. They understand qualification criteria and pipeline categories, but not how to run a deal, how to identify the economic buyer, how to understand decision criteria, and so on.
How do leaders make SDR-to-AE transitions successful?
Natasha Miller Sekkat: As a hiring manager, you have to ask yourself how do I minimize risk? One way is to only hire people who’ve done the job before. Another is to modify the SDR role to begin to include some selling activities.
Leaders should identify ways—even if comp and title don't change—to let reps run smaller deals on a non-commission structure. There are a lot of hard lessons in sales that need to be learned firsthand. Let your reps fail safely on the things that don't matter. Give them support (pre-sales, an AE mentor, their manager), but the SDR themselves must play quarterback.
Kevin Dorsey: AE training that starts after promotion is already too late. You need a 2-3 month transition plan to get them ready. Ours starts 2 months out with AE-related trainings. These aren’t optional. If they don’t complete them, they don’t get the promotion.
Also, skipping new hire training is a huge mistake. The amount of SDRs that are expected to just “GET IT” is scary. Just because they’ve been at your company for a year doesn’t mean they know how to be an AE. They need to get the same onboarding training as an external hire. They need objection training, pipeline training, proposal training, closing training, pitch training, demo training, the works!
Ideally, they’ll have gone through some of this before they were promoted and you’ll test how well they’re performing before giving them deals to close.
Any advice for SDRs aspiring to become AEs?
Kevin Dorsey: You want to be a closer? Then start studying how to be a closer! Watch your current AEs. See how they manage their tasks. Study time management and how to time block (Jeb Blount’s Fanatical Prospecting has some great tips here). Think of how much further ahead you’ll be when promoted.
Also, start to think like a closer. Have you been creating just OK opportunities because that was your job? Or have you really taken pride in what you’ve created? If you focus on creating great opps, you will be a better AE because of it.
Finally, don’t wait for the company to train you. Start training yourself. Listen to calls, read closing books, watch demos, go for ride-alongs. Start doing all of that training ahead of time! Doing this, WHILE still maintaining your SDR quota will also set you up for all the multi-tasking you’ll need to succeed as an AE.
The post-promotion failure data are concerning.
But as you can see, there are steps you can take to address it. A huge thank you to Kevin and Natasha for sharing their thoughts on the approaches, actions, and investments Sales Leaders can take to set SDRs up for successful promotions.