11 Skills Every Sales Development Rep Needs to Master in 2021

Jason Richman
Jason Richman



From where I stand — as the manager of an inside sales team — one thing about sales development has become increasingly clear.

Two men shaking hands discussing skills sales development rep needs

The standard process for sales development representatives or business development representatives (or whatever your organization calls them) of sending out sequenced emails, calling, leaving voicemails, rinse and repeat? It’s no longer working well.

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SDRs have a unique opportunity to help account executives close deals. While the traditional way of doing outreach might work for some businesses, there are a few hard and soft skills SDRs can apply that will yield your inside sales team even more success.

If you’re new to the SDR role, or if you’re leading a new team of SDRs, let’s start with a simple definition of SDR sales. Then, we’ll get into the 11 skills every sales development rep needs to master.

Before we discuss how to develop critical skills for SDRs, let’s review how the SDR position differs from other sales roles.

What does a sales development representative do?

Sales development reps are measured on their ability to move leads through the sales pipeline. They focus on nurturing quality leads over closing deals. On the other hand, sales reps are measured on their ability to close deals that meet or exceed their quota for a given time period. Although the two are different, these roles rely on each other to meet both their individual and business goals.

From start to finish, the inside sales team structure functions like this: The marketing team sends lead information to the SDRs. The SDRs are responsible for qualifying and nurturing leads until they’re ready to make a purchase. Sales reps take over at this stage to position the right products at the right time in order to close the deal.

This workflow is simple and serves as the foundation for most sales operations, but that doesn’t mean an SDR role will be a walk in the park. To become a successful SDR, you’ll need a specific set of soft and hard skills. 

Our in-house sales experts cited these 10 skills as the most essential for a sales development representative in 2021. If you're an SDR, bookmark this list for reference. If you’re a manager, you’ll want to share this list with your team in your next sales meeting.

1. Video Prospecting

"Video prospecting" is a buzzword that’s been floating around for a few months, but it’s popular for good reason. Simply put, video prospecting is customized outreach in a short, two-minute max, video format. Unlike a phone call or an email, the prospect gets to connect with you on a more personal level without the time commitment that comes with scheduling a Zoom call.

At HubSpot, we've seen great results with video prospecting. My team uses Vidyard — an easy-to-use tool that lets you quickly create videos using your webcam and screen share function. There are several software options that can be used for video prospecting including Loom and Soapbox by Wistia.

An SDR doesn’t need to be a technical master or Oscar-worthy movie star to create effective videos. They only need to be comfortable on screen and interested in meeting the prospect in a follow-up conversation. Practice creating short, engaging clips during which you introduce yourself, deliver value with a quick tip, and ask to schedule a call.

The more videos you make, the more efficient your workflow will be. In time, you should be able to whip up customized videos like they're emails.

2. Highly Customized Outreach

As an SDR, balancing quantity and quality when prospecting can be tricky. On one hand, you want to build a healthy pipeline for your sales rep. On the other, you know that connecting with qualified leads takes a little more time. I'm seeing that balance shift — the most successful reps are actually slowing down, spending more time on outreach and connecting with fewer prospects.

Brandon Kirsch, an Inbound Growth Specialist at HubSpot, is a fantastic example of someone who balances quality and quantity in his outreach efforts. His emails are personalized and timely for the prospect, and he always addresses an immediate need they’ve identified (this is sometimes called a “hand raiser.”) Here's an example:

Quality matters just as much as quantity in sales prospecting. During my weekly one-on-ones with SDRs, I do a pipeline review to understand how a rep is allocating their time compared to the quality of the leads they usher through the pipeline. I often find they're spending too much time qualifying leads before initiating connect calls with them. Allocating their time based on lead quality is very important, but any good skill is only honed with practice. This includes leaving voicemails.

The benefits SDRs achieve by practicing calls and leaving voicemails include hearing their prospects' most common objections, understanding which soundbites resonate best with different buyer personas, and gaining confidence in their ability to communicate the next steps in the sales journey.

So with that in mind, I'd recommend developing a scalable process for writing customized emails and doing prospect research. LinkedIn Sales Navigator can help you do this. Using this tool, you’ll learn important information about a business in one glance and receive notifications when they've had a notable change that could affect your sales pipeline. Once you’re prospecting is underway, a tool like HubSpot’s free meeting scheduling can help you plan connect calls.

3. Active Listening and Adaptability

How can SDRs continue to add value to a sales process that is becoming more automated every year — especially in the prospecting stages?

To me, one of the answers is active listening. A chatbot might be able to qualify a lead, but nothing asks questions and listens to information like a human (at least not yet). The interaction between a prospect and an SDR should be genuine and helpful, not robotic and forced.

No matter what your company sells, you must be highly attuned to phrases that indicate a prospect could be a good fit for your product. This is where active listening comes in. An adaptable and empathetic SDR focuses on gathering valuable information that will help a prospect further down the pipeline as opposed to checking lead qualification boxes.

For example, during our weekly SDR "film club," we listen to a seasoned SDR's recorded call. In one of the call reviews, this SDR discovered that the prospect's company offered a freemium version of its product. The prospect confirmed the annual value of an average new customer, and the SDR immediately moved on to the next topic.

Swing and...miss.

Any sign of a freemium model should be explored further. Why? HubSpot has a solution that can help this prospect improve lead conversion rates. The SDR should have explored the following with his prospect:

  • How many new freemium users a month do you generate?
  • How do you nurture freemium users? Customers?
  • What percentage of freemium users convert to paid users?
  • What are common triggers for freemium users to upgrade?
  • How do you re-engage users who used the free product once several months ago?

The answers to these questions would have been crucial to understanding how HubSpot could solve a major pain point for this prospect. In general, these questions can uncover a wealth of information about virtually any business that offers a free or reduced-price trial of their product. These questions help an SDR understand not only the opportunities within the prospect’s company, but they also help the prospect reflect on things they may have been putting off for another time simply because no solution existed yet.

Practicing active listening means being adaptable — pivoting away from a prepared checklist and recognizing when an opportunity to dig deeper presents itself. A successful SDR understands the value of being present and having a real conversation.

4. Follow-up

Ideally, SDRs want to speak with a prospect on the phone, but sometimes a voicemail is a next-best option.

I participated in a sales training several years ago, and one of the presenters made a simple comment that stuck with me. “If you leave 25 quality voicemails, you’ll at least have a chance to receive a callback. But if you leave no voicemails, your probability of getting a callback diminishes significantly.”

Leaving a good voicemail is harder than it sounds. In a short amount of time, you have to entice a prospect you've never spoken with to call you back. Some people like to be concise — "Hi, I'm [Salesperson] from [Company]. I would like to speak with you about X strategy. Give me a call back at XXX-XXX-XXXX."

Personally, I like to add a snippet of value to this equation. For example, "I saw X on your site. Here are a few best practices I'm hoping to share with you."

Leaving a good voicemail is an indispensable skill for an SDR, and thus requires practice. Don't simply go through the motions so you can log an activity in your CRM — be committed to quality touch points across all the activities you complete to move a prospect through the pipeline.

5. Resilience

There's no doubt that SDRs have a tough job. Unlike sales reps whose main goal is to close deals, SDRs don't get that type of glory. They usually spend their day sending emails and making calls. That can be exhausting.

In addition to the hard skills we’ve reviewed, staying positive is a soft skill that can’t be learned in a book. Resilience takes practice. If you're flat or discouraged one day, it will translate over the phone and your prospect will pick up on your low energy.

Bad calls happen to the best of us, but we have to bounce back after each one. Whether a prospect was rude or you made a mistake, it’s OK to feel frustrated. However, allowing those feelings to prevent you from picking up the phone for the rest of the day will negatively impact your next 15 calls. Don’t let these temporary roadblocks ruin your day — and don’t let them ruin your prospect’s day either. Resilience is crucial to keeping your head in the game. Developing this ability now will also be invaluable down the road when you have to recover from losing a big deal without skipping a beat.

6. Coachability

One of the most important skill sets we evaluate at HubSpot when interviewing SDR candidates is coachability. Confidence is important, but the ego can cloud an SDR's ability to receive and implement candid feedback. The best SDRs proactively seek out coaching from high-performing peers and crave honest feedback from their managers. Getting real-time feedback is best, but you can also build out a list of all the questions or challenges you faced in a given week and debrief them with your manager during a scheduled one-on-one.

7. Self Awareness

Self awareness plays into resilience and coachability. As an SDR, you’ll want to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses so you can offer the best experience to your prospect. When you know what you’re amazing at and where you have the capacity to grow, you can create strategies for dealing with a bad call or rejection.

For example, an SDR who lacks organization skills might create a physical checklist they can keep handy for every call so they don’t miss any steps. An SDR who is really good at building rapport might need to set a timer for each call so they don’t spend too much time with a single prospect and get off track.

Having this self-awareness will help you and your sales manager analyze your performance, both the wins and setbacks, and reflect on what went well and what didn't.

Self-aware SDRs will ask for feedback from managers and colleagues. Rather than taking negative or constructive feedback personally, they'll have a deeper understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, and areas for growth.

8. Organization

Processes can vary from person to person, but they're key to staying organized. Schedule management allows SDRs to manage their days and prioritize the tasks that are key to their success (e.g., email outreach, calls, meetings.)

Whether they choose to write out their to-do list or use a calendar management tool to create their schedule, maintaining a strict schedule will help them master the cadence for their outreach and interactions with prospects.

9. Curiosity

Successful SDRs are curious and eager to learn. Being curious about learning a new product, industry, or organizational knowledge can help them in their current role, but it will also help them as they grow in their career.

SDRs should know the products and services they sell both inside and out while maintaining a clear understanding of their buyer personas, and the common challenges prospects face. Gathering new information is relatively easy and oftentimes free through internal resources offered by your organization, online research through blogs (like HubSpot), training sessions from sales professionals, industry events, and meetings with their colleagues. Learning is a continual process that great SDRs should prioritize.

10. Relationship-Building

As an SDR, your job is to prime a prospect for the sale before turning them over to your account manager to close. Effective SDRs are able to build genuine relationships with prospects and build trust.

To be a successful relationship-builder, you must be able to communicate with a wide variety of people across multiple channels. Whether you are connecting with a contact over email, presenting to a prospect in a virtual meeting, or sending them a pre-recorded video, you’ll want to clearly communicate your points and ideas that keep them engaged.

11. Overcoming Objections

This last skill is one that every great sales development rep I know has mastered, and that’s handling objections. 35% of sales reps say that overcoming price objections is the biggest challenge they face, but that doesn’t have to include you. Overcoming objections is a skill that most reps get better at over time because they’ve come to understand all the solutions their business provides and have seen them work in creative ways. When you can position these solutions to eliminate a pain point for the prospect, you start to develop trust with your prospect which is a key factor that influences whether they’ll buy or not.

This skill is so critical to an SDRs success that we developed an entire resource dedicated to the practice. If you don’t have time to check it out now, download it below and save it for later.

Improve Your SDR Skills

I’m confident that these 11 skills will improve your performance as an SDR. They’re all fairly simple to understand, but consistent practice will always help you master them in no time. The learning shouldn’t stop here though, we’ve got even more great tips, templates, and tools for sales prospecting and objection handling that you’ll want to keep in your back pocket. Your inside sales team will thank you.

Editor's note: This post was originally published in January 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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