Why you probably have the wrong ratio of SDRs to Marketers
I’ll cut right to it: SDRs should not be the default way to ramp up your GTM. They are part of a bigger GTM system, they aren’t THE system. So, you probably have too many SDRs and not enough marketers. If this is the case, your GTM team is inefficient, and no one wants that, especially in a downturn when cost cutting is key.
While this post may be slightly one-sided because I am a marketer, I feel strongly that having a large SDR team and a small marketing team is a highly ineffective way to build a B2B business. SDRs simply cannot be effective without marketing as you scale past 1 or 2 SDRs. At that point, it’s better to hire a marketer than to add another SDR. I’ve worked at startups at various stages of growth with bottom up, top down, and B2B2C, and this general advice has always held true.
Quick note: I’m using SDR (Sales Development Rep) to mean SDR or BDR (Business Development Rep). You say to-may-to, I say to-mah-to, let’s call the whole thing off.
In this newsletter
If you take away anything from newsletter: Do not layoff a bunch of marketers and keep all your SDRs in this downturn. Marketers improve the efficiency of your SDRs. Costs may go down by cutting marketers in the immediate, but efficiency in acquiring customers (aka CAC) will go down soon after and the impact on brand will be felt long after. You can get more meetings out of the same number of SDRs when marketing is creating content, automating emails, increasing web conversion, etc.
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Marketers : SDRs
Breakdown of marketing & SDR responsibilities
Why you need clear rules of engagement
How to get the ratio of marketers to SDRs right
Opportunities for marketers
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Appendix because I have a lot to say on this topic
More thoughts on SDRs & marketers
Fail modes across SDR & marketing teams and how to fix them (paid only)
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The problem: You have too many SDRs
If you continue to add SDRs when you don’t have a properly scaled marketing (and rev ops) function, you won’t improve efficiency—you’ll decrease efficiency. In other words, if you have 5 SDRs sending slightly iterative versions of the same email to a random smattering of prospects and aren’t testing, learning, and systemizing at scale you’re doing it wrong.
Here’s why having too many SDRs is a problem:
Email chaos: You’ll contact some prospects way too often, SDRs will send emails manually that could just be automated, and messaging will be inconsistent. Even worse, SDRS and marketers often email prospects at the same time when you don’t have a good system in place. This is a waste of time for both teams and a bad prospect experience.
No “Fuel”: Most prospects aren’t immediately ready for a meeting. SDRs often try to drive straight to that meeting, when many prospects need to read content, download a resource, or attend an event first. You need a marketing team to create this value-add content. We’ve all seen “meeting bribery” towards the end of the quarter and bad discounts that just tarnish the brand and waste money on the wrong prospects. More on balancing the fuel and the engine here.
No testing or scaling: With SDRs sending out individual email campaigns, you won’t be able to test and scale what’s working as quickly. What’s working for SDRs should be automated if possible, and without marketing and rev ops, this won’t happen. You’ll be stuck adding new SDRs forever and won’t achieve economies of scale.
Meeting focus vs. full-funnel conversion focus: SDRs will often over-index their lead gen and outreach on the audience that gets them meetings. This could mean they focus on an audience that is totally divergent from your actual ICP. If you book meetings or sell to the wrong ICP this will have long-term negative effects on retention. Marketing tends to take a more full-funnel approach.
Siloed marketing and sales teams: When the balance is off, one team typically overtakes the other and you don’t get the benefits of both teams’ perspectives.
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Why you have the wrong ratio of SDRs to marketers
Why do some companies end up hiring SDR after SDR and get the budget/headcount plan approved for more SDRs before they even have a marketer? Here’s my take.
Everyone’s calculating SDR headcount based on # of AEs. When you Google “SDR to marketing ratio”, you get a ton of results for AE to SDR ratio, but basically nothing for SDR to marketing ratio. (I guess there’s an SEO opportunity here that I might be able to capture.) To create a well oiled GTM machine, you need to get the ratios right across all teams: Marketing, SDRs, AEs, RevOps, and Customer Success.
It’s perceived as easier to prove the effectiveness of SDRs. Plus, headcount planning for SDRs seems easier: “Add 1 SDR, output x meetings,” they say. But it’s really not this simple. Messy attribution and “cannibalization” of marketing activities by sales may inflate SDR numbers.
Messy attribution: If you are using last touch or first touch attribution, you will likely over-count SDR impact. Getting customers is a team sport and attribution is rarely clean and very rarely mutually exclusive. The meetings booked by SDRs likely would have happened anyway if marketers set up automated prospecting, email marketing nurtures, and high quality content with inbound forms. All of these methods are more scalable and efficient than hiring a bunch of SDRs.
The idea that SDRs = outbound and marketing = inbound limits your efforts and impact and can lead to the wrong hires. Marketing can be really helpful with automated outbound. SDRs can be helpful in qualifying inbound and contacting inbound when they drop out of automated processes. When you team up in the right way on inbound and outbound it works better and you need fewer humans.
Startups often overvalue “engine” and undervalue “fuel”: When you overvalue “engine”, you think adding more people and sending more emails and doing more cold calls will keep working without diminishing returns. It won’t. More on fuel and engine in this MKT1 post
Marketing is thought of as “just top of funnel”: When marketing gets pigeonholed as only driving top of funnel growth and just “handing off” prospects to sales to close, it might seem logical to just have SDRs cover top of funnel and eliminate marketing. But in reality it’s the opposite, marketing is set up to cover the entire funnel and SDRs are best utilized as assistance in a specific area of the funnel. See the funnel diagram below.
Sales want a “feeder” role for AEs: It’s easier to hire SDRs and choose the best ones than it is to hire AEs in many cases. If trained and invested in, this works well. That said, I think we are over-reliant on this method of sales hiring without thinking about the ramifications on prospect experience, marketing and sales silos, and the overall inefficiencies created. As an aside, I’ve transferred a few SDRs to growth marketing roles, and this works well too, but shouldn’t be the only reason to hire another SDR.
What should SDRs do compared to marketers?
In a traditional definition of an SDR, they are responsible for prospecting, cold outreach, and qualifying leads for sales. The problem with this definition is that much of prospecting, outreach, and qualifying can be automated by a smaller number of people with the same effectiveness of having a large SDR team. Marketers and revenue operations teams are often better suited to do this automation, so you might need to shift headcount to those teams away from SDRs.
In my definition of SDRs, they handle one to one communication to drive leads to sales, when automation doesn’t work. They are a (marketing) channel for high-touch, bespoke, personalized communication. This isn’t a punchy definition or a super riveting job description, but nonetheless I believe this is what’s needed. To use an engineering analogy, think of marketers as AI and SDRs as the human-in-the-loop. To use a hospitality analogy, marketers are online booking and the front desk team and SDRs are the concierge. When you think of SDRs in this way, you’ll realize you need fewer SDRs.
Breakdown of responsibilities between SDRs & Marketing
Note: this is not comprehensive on all of marketing’s responsibilities, just those that directly relate to the SDR and sales process.
Marketing and sales have different skillsets and incentives, this is a good thing
There are some critical distinctions for understanding the breakdown of marketing and SDRs role responsibilities that may get lost in this Venn diagram:
1. Marketing typically owns 1 to many communication across the entire customer lifecycle. Sales owns 1:1 to or 1 to a few communications in between lead and meeting.
This makes sense since:
Marketing can best segment your audience with a marketing automation tool
Marketing is used to setting up a/b tests and optimizing accordingly.
Various marketers come together to make these communications happen: Product marketing, content marketing, growth marketing (and depending on the medium, design).
Marketing typically owns positioning, messaging, and brand, so it’s easier to get the message right.
Similarly, marketing also creates the content that can be used in these communications (think blog posts, templates, webinars), so marketing has a stronger understanding of what to link to or include in emails rather than just “Do you have time in the next few days to schedule a meeting?”.
2. Incentive structures and compensation are different. Sales obviously gets commission based on revenue, typically on a quarterly basis. Marketing doesn’t.
Sales are incentivized on short-term revenue. Yes, they should be thinking about long-term revenue and setting themselves up for the next quarter or two quarters out, but usually the focus is on hitting this quarter’s number at all costs—because that’s how you get paid.
Marketing cares about pipeline and revenue this quarter, but they’re also focused on long-term success. They are thinking about building up brand awareness, audience education, the overall prospect and customer experience, etc. Because of this broader mix of responsibilities, some of which are difficult to track in the short term, they aren’t usually working on commission.
To build a sustainable business you need both short-term and long-term focus. If you are only focused on the short term, you will never get efficiency in your system and your growth rate will stall. If you don’t invest in sales AND marketing, you’re hindering your growth potential.
A few other ways to use SDRs
SDRs are useful for filling in gaps automation can’t (like hyper-customized communication to high-value prospects, and making calls). Here are some less obvious ways they can help be manual helpers in a highly-efficient GTM engine:
Finding contact info that Clearbit, ZoomInfo, etc. doesn’t have.
Helping you test new audiences in a manual way to get more anecdotal data, before you build out all those automated drips. This is the case for hiring an SDR early on or putting an SDR on a new product line or audience.
Making sense of a complicated org chart to get to the right buyer for a key account.
Prospecting when you can’t scrape or find a list that covers your TAM.
Sharing feedback directly from customers that can inform other GTM efforts, especially when they have an organized way of sharing it.
SDRs can be effective content distributors and event promoters when they send targeted content to the right prospects.
Inbound SDRs can also be used as “order takers” when you don’t have a self-serve flow built out but you have people who are ready to “buy now”; this can be done through on-site chat or a quick call. This also helps SDRs start to build skills they will need to be an effective AE.
SDRs can join networking apps and communities for events and message people and book meetings through that channel, which helps you get more out of the event than just showing up.
The solution: Clear rules of engagement, a well-balanced team, zen vibes between SDRs and marketing
Much like I talk about balancing the fuel and engine within marketing, you need to get the right balance of marketing, sales, and RevOps teams to drive efficient growth. The answer to determining who is needed across all go-to-market teams: clear rules of engagement. With a mapped-out funnel and process, each team can do what they are best at and you’ll end up with a lean team across all of marketing, sales, and RevOps.
Creating a clear system for who owns what
Some might call this system a marketing-to-sales hand-off, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. To close and retain a customer, there are typically many hand-offs in multiple directions. We’ll just call it rules of engagement / the funnel.
Below is an example of rules of engagement defined by funnel stage for a company that relies on both inbound and outbound for their hybrid sales motion. In this model, SDR outreach is the exception, not the rule. SDRs are brought in (via automated handoffs) when there is a high-value lead or account or a “leak” where leads aren’t progressing through the funnel with the core nurturing campaigns.
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Here’s what happens with this hand-off structure:
Marketing creates initiatives, campaigns, and content that drive awareness, with a goal of getting prospects to the website (or to be warmed up when sales reaches out)
Marketing is responsible for the core email nurture flows (these can be text-based and appear to come from a person) across the entire funnel, unless a lead gets passed off to SDRs when one-on-one outreach is needed.
For leads or accounts identified as high value or enterprise, they can be automatically routed out of the core email nurture flows to SDRs for individual, white-glove outreach and cold calling.
Similarly, for leads or accounts that don’t move from one stage to the next within a certain number of days, they should be moved to an SDR for individual email and phone outreach if highly qualified or recycled (where they will get less frequent nurturing emails from marketing until they re-qualify)
Call out: If SDRs find specific patterns and processes that work in their individual outreach, marketing should then automate these into the core flow. This often gets skipped because SDRs fear they will lose commission once it gets automated, but it is best for the business overall to automate what’s working. Incentivization for this should be built into commission structures.
Note: If SDR prospected leads are the source of 90% of your meetings, you are lacking efficiency.
How to get the ratio right
Hopefully I’ve convinced you that marketing and RevOps can do many tasks in an automated and efficient way that SDRs do manually. But there’s still a place for SDRs in many GTM organizations, so how many SDRs do you need?
Simple rule: SDR team size shouldn’t be larger than total marketing team size, which includes growth, product marketing, content, brand, comms, and marketing ops, ever.
It’s fine if you hire an SDR before marketing, especially if you need someone to help the founder with founder-led sales, but you’ll need to fast follow on the marketing side. SDRs & marketing teams are then semi-evenly sized if you are a top-down or hybrid model. The marketing team should always be larger than the SDR team (if not the whole sales team) in bottom-up models. Past a certain number of SDRs, you get diminishing returns and you need to automate.
Guidelines to ensure SDR teams of various sizes are operating efficiently
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Remember this when making your GTM hiring plan
SDRs should not scale linearly / there are diminishing returns on SDRs
SDRs tend to build out email campaigns in silos, this doesn’t allow you to learn and optimize at scale.
Marketers will improve the efficiency of your SDRs. You shouldn’t hire more than a couple of SDRs before you have an efficient marketing engine.
Basic attribution systems typically over-credit SDRs who prospect and do cold outreach.
Marketers (plus ops) are the automaters and SDRs are the 1:1 communicators
Remember this so SDRs and email & demand gen marketers don’t slip into doing duplicative work.
With automation you can learn faster at scale, with 1:1 communication you can learn anecdotally early on.
Prospects don’t like to be annoyed. So watch out for over-emailing, over-calling, and annoying the sh*t out of prospects
Not adding value when you reach out and asking for a meeting too soon exacerbates this.
What are our SDRs doing that email marketers / demand gen / growth marketers can do? Can 1 email marketer do the work of 3 or 4 SDRs here?
Is cold calling actually working? Would these prospects find out about us in other ways anyway?
Are people complaining about our emails on social media? Are we getting a lot of unsubscribes or responses complaining about volume?
You might be saying, wow Emily really loves marketers. And it’s true, I do. But, I also think the traditional role of the SDR is becoming outdated with the proliferation of marketing and sales software. If we redefine it, SDRs can become a super power for marketing and sales, not a source of frustration and attribution arguments.
Keep scrolling past the jobs for the appendix and paid content (if you are a paid subscriber).
Special thanks to Devon Watts, Reigan Combs, and Jake Levinger (who have led SDR, lifecycle marketing, marketing ops, and entire marketing teams) for their help editing this post.
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Growth & Demand Gen:
SDRs in inbound-driven business models
In self-serve and PLG motions, SDRs are best used in similar ways to top down models: when marketing automation fails or white glove treatment is needed. But the place in the funnel they operate is a bit different. Instead of SDRs doing individual, white glove outreach to leads early in the funnel, their outreach is to people who drop off after filling out a form, going through onboarding, or even when a qualified lead is not upgrading within a given time frame.
Inbound SDRs are also useful in most models, even hybrid sales models. Inbound SDRs are responsible for making sure inbound information is complete so qualification can happen and picking up drop off from the normal nurture campaigns that drive towards meeting set up or sign up.
SDRs as part of sales or marketing teams?
It may be surprising I didn’t cover this in detail. I think this depends. No matter which way you do it, make sure the teams have shared goals and a collaborative culture, and do whatever it takes to get there.
If you have a sales-dominant culture already, put SDRs on marketing to bridge the gap and restore balance between 1:1 prospecting and outreach trying to reach a short-term revenue target vs. automation, brand building, and a balance short & long term growth.
If you’re marketing organization or leader isn’t well-suited to leading a commission-based team and is mainly competent in product or content marketing, keep it under sales.
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Fail modes when responsibilities aren’t broken down effectively
When you don’t have clear owners for marketers and SDRs (especially the responsibilities that fall in the center of the venn diagram earlier in this newsletter) your GTM process will break down. Here’s a table that shows these fail modes and how to solve for them & here’s a preview of that table.
Figma that includes rules of engagement diagram & venn diagram that you can copy and use however you’d like
Spreadsheet that include the 2 tables in this newsletter
Have you encountered scenarios where the SDRs couldn't connect with the prospect because the ICP is too senior?