The Fate of Sales Development

May 18, 2023

What does the future look like at the top of the sales funnel?

— by Alex Ellison & Lindsay Frey

This article was written as part of a collaboration with Ashleigh Vogstad of Transcends Marketing. To see the corresponding article she published with Fast Co. click here!

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The Fate of Sales Development – Sales Development has come a long way. What was once the simple yet tedious task of calling down a list of names and numbers has evolved dramatically over the last 10+ years. If you put Glengarry Glen Ross’ Alec Baldwin on a sales floor today he would have no idea what to do (and would probably be pretty angry about it). Since we started demandDrive in 2011 we’ve played our part in this evolution from a low-complexity, high-volume approach to today’s more qualitative, technologically enabled SDR strategies.

Before we dive into the future of the department, we need to know how we got here. In short, sales dev fills a gap that a lot of organizations don’t know they have. As a function that typically sits right between sales and marketing, it was either passed off from one department to the other, being pulled in two different directions, or left to function in a silo. Over time, more and more companies have come to realize that dedicating time and resources to their sales development team has a significant impact on the success of both sales and marketing. (We can get into how to do that another time.)

On the other side of the equation, B2B buyers have also evolved significantly over the years. On one hand, they’re much easier to find and reach out to. Between email, social media, cell phones, etc. SDRs no longer have to rely on cold phone outreach. On the other hand, buyers have never been less likely to actually respond to that outreach.

On top of that, even when they do respond, it tends to be much further down the sales funnel than before. There are a myriad of factors that play into this, but the result is clear. In order to get a hold of today’s prospects you need to have high-quality, well-researched outreach.

But enough about the present. The world keeps changing, and to stay on top of our game we have to change with it. Sure, it may be impossible to predict the future of Sales Development…but we’re not going to let that stop us from trying!

The AI Takeover

Imagine this: Phones that dial on their own, data pulled exclusively by a web crawler, and thousands of emails being sent with a single click. That may all sound pretty futuristic, but all of these things are happening today. So what does that mean for the next 10 years? At the current rate of growth, we’re running headlong into a fully automated sales development process, and we might get there sooner than we think.

What would a fully automated sales development strategy look like? Let’s start at the top and work our way down, because as much as you can automate, there still has to be a person at the top making the hard decisions, putting out fires, and overseeing the operation on a daily basis.

Let me introduce you to the Head of Sales Automation and Operations. We’ll call her Jasmine.

Jasmine graduated college with a degree in computer science and a head for sales. With the massive influx of computer science degrees being pushed out by universities across the country at this point (sometime around 2027), Jasmine was advised to find her niche within computer science and she found it during a summer internship with the sales ops team for a Fortune 1000 company.

As for the people she manages? They don’t exist. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that they aren’t “people”. By 2032 AI and machine learning will have developed live qualification capabilities able to meet or exceed the bar set by their SDR predecessors. In 2018 Google unveiled their AI assistant designed to make individual appointments for local businesses (like scheduling a haircut). After 10-15 more years of development this technology will far outpace an SDR in every metric. Coupled with the fact that buyers wait until later than ever to enter the sales funnel, and you have an AI SDR that is actually preferred by buyers.

Good news for prospects. Bad news for human SDRs.

When it comes to who they’re calling and how they find them, that technology also exists in 2023 and you probably already know about it. Web crawlers (also known as spiderbots) have been helping search engines list and categorize pages for years now, and that same tech is currently being used to gather contact details and social media profiles for sales and marketing teams all over the world.

And, like it or not, these spiderbots are exponentially more efficient than a human SDR going through the process. Since they don’t have to be turned off or stop to eat lunch, they can crawl all day, every day. If someone in your CRM updates their LinkedIn, they’ll know immediately instead of whenever your SDR happened to open LinkedIn again to check.

This information will help a Prospecting AI do more than just dial. If the data says you’re more likely to respond over email than over the phone, for example, the Prospecting AI will send you a personalized, relevant email with all of the same value props they would otherwise have mentioned during your phone call. While all this can sound scary and potentially morally questionable, it would lead to significantly fewer bad dials and disqualifications over the phone because the AI can disqualify you well before it tries reaching out.

So picture this: It’s 9 pm and you have a prospect at a target account who just updated their LinkedIn with a promotion, fitting your ICP (ideal customer profile). Within seconds a spiderbot has noticed and alerted the Prospecting AI. The spiderbot and AI have also discovered that this prospect tends to check their email while they drink their morning cold brew and doesn’t answer their phone until after all of their meetings have ended. Armed with some previously collected data about the account’s recent obstacles, it’s ready to go. They send out an email the next morning (Subject Line: Cold brew tastes better when you’re not putting out fires) and prepare to call them a few minutes after their last meeting ends at 4:30 pm. Noticing that the prospect opened the email and clicked on a specific link, they’ve adjusted their call script accordingly. From there it’s a quick qualification process and they can hand the lead over to a closing rep (no word yet on whether or not they’re AI too).

Now imagine this happening hundreds, possibly thousands of times a day. Not only did this spiderbot+AI combo find more details and relevant information about a prospect than most SDRs could dream of, but they also did it all in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost. If this is the reality, you’ll be hard-pressed to convince your CRO that anything other than a fully AI sales development process is worth the cost.

But remember, this isn’t a completely autonomous process. Jasmine’s job requires her to put out all kinds of fires, both human and machine. On the technical side, she has to make sure things are running smoothly at all times. All of the AI processes are so intertwined that if one thing breaks, even as small as a single line of code, everything could go haywire. She needs to have the technical knowledge to be able to fix these kinds of issues without creating more.

As for the human challenges, they can come from both internal and external actors. While internal obstacles will often come in the form of miscommunication between members of different teams (an engineer programming a bot incorrectly based on their instructions, for example) it’s the external ones that will make Jasmine really flex her people skills. No matter how advanced our tech gets, there will always be prospects and customers who insist on speaking with a “real person”. Since there are no other “real people” in the department, that responsibility falls on her. She’ll need to balance the interpersonal skills of an SDR with the technical skills of a software engineer if she’s going to succeed in the role.

This scenario will come about in a world that fully embraces our technological advancements and their consequences, good and bad. Social isolation will be at an all-time high and certain things we consider “inherently human traits” will have faded into the background. The pandemic has pushed us toward this world faster than anyone previously thought, but it has also shown us a side of society that pushes back on technology and remote work in favor of in-person, face-to-face communication.

A Reversal of Fortune

Deep in the heart of 2021, you would be hard-pressed to find an influencer on LinkedIn who wasn’t insistent that the future would be run by technology. But the signs throughout 2022 and into 2023 seem to tell us that society isn’t ready to permanently leave some of our pre-pandemic habits behind. What would happen if these dissenting opinions win out? What if we come out of the pandemic with a greater focus on mental health and the benefits of in-person interactions?

The list of negatives coming from a permanent work-from-home culture continues to grow. Burnout rates hitting all-time highs, untrustworthy remote management, and the quiet quitting craze silently sweeping the nation continue to create challenges for businesses trying to keep their employees productive and engaged. The results of this vary by organization. While the majority of companies have gone hybrid or remote-first, we’re simultaneously starting to see the amount of in-office work, both mandatorily and by choice, increase. There’s also a segment of those in leadership, like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who detest working from home and the effects it has on their employees. In 2021, Goldman Sachs CEO, David Solomon rejected the idea of working from home as a “new normal”, instead labeling it an aberration. At JP Morgan, CEO Jamie Dimon caught flack earlier this year for using employee ID badge swipes to monitor whether or not they were actually coming into the office as much as they were supposed to. With people like that pulling the strings, it’s not far-fetched to see a world where their view becomes the norm again.

But it’s not like we’d just snap back to 2019. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that SDRs can be extremely successful as remote employees. Some of our own SDRs actually became better reps after we transitioned to remote work in 2020. What has been missing is the in-office camaraderie and relationship building that fosters company-wide cohesion and gives internal opportunities for networking and collaboration. If you can’t bump into your higher-ups at the water cooler, for example, you’re losing out on a chance to develop a relationship outside of your current role that could provide sizable career growth opportunities.

If you take this new mindset and add it to the sales development world we had in 2019, the benefits could be immense. With a better understanding of what causes poor mental health and burnout, SDR tenure – a notoriously short amount of time – will increase. The benefits of this will be felt at every level. SDRs will be able to follow up on their pipeline for longer and, for those with lengthy sales cycles, be able to see the end result of the leads they hand over. SDR Managers will be able to get to know their reps on a deeper level thanks to the increased length of their relationship. Plus, they won’t have to deal with as many new team members starting, which is typically a significant strain on their bandwidth. For VPs and C-levels it’s all about ROI, and you know what’s cheaper than hiring a new SDR? Keeping the old one (and it’s not even close).

Putting structure back around the workday will also improve many employees’ mental health, especially with the SDR role being an entry-level position where prior workplace experience is typically lacking. During the pandemic, this was one of the most difficult things to control and we had some early instances of SDR burnout because certain reps would never fully sign off for the day. For one particular SDR, it got to the point where he found himself covering his desk with a bedsheet at 5 pm because it was the only way to keep him from checking his laptop in the evening. Moving our workspaces back into an office that you leave at 5 pm is a much more universal (and aesthetically pleasing) solution.

So why wouldn’t we want to go back to this? Well for every extrovert who enjoys going into the office, there’s an introvert who doesn’t. And between those endpoints is everyone else, who’ve grown accustomed to a hybrid work environment and the increased flexibility that comes with it.

That flexibility is really where the issue lies. By now, virtually everyone has figured out their ideal hybrid work balance of going in somewhere between 0-5 times a week. To take away that option is to remove one of the most important employee perks you can offer. If an individual organization tries to make this push they’ll be met with internal pushback at best, mass resignation at worst. It would require an instant, nationwide shift back to in-person work for this to come to fruition and I, for one, don’t see that happening.

Imagine Jasmine enters the workforce in this scenario, where coming into the office 5 days a week is, once again, the norm. Importantly, she would’ve gone through the COVID pandemic as a middle schooler, so her “work from home” experience was when she and all of her friends were forced to isolate while their teachers tried to make virtual classrooms effective…to varying degrees.

Even 10 years later, the trauma of forced isolation during such a critical point in childhood development has turned Jasmine into an extrovert. When she starts applying for jobs she searches for in-office positions. She wants to interact with her coworkers as much as possible.

With her background, she is able to find an entry-level position on a sales ops team. Just what she was looking for! But as she gets accustomed to the role she begins to realize that certain parts of her work are difficult to focus on in an office full of friendly faces and enticing distractions. And it’s not like she has an office to recede into…it’s an entry-level job after all.

Fast forward a year or so and she’s looking for the next step in her career. Imagine her excitement when she finds out one of her company’s competitors has a viable job opening that allows for hybrid work. Her head is flooded with dreams of peace and serenity surrounding her while she works from home. Plus she’ll finally have the flexibility in her schedule to get that puppy she’s always wanted. Add in the stipend for a work from home setup and the offer is just too good to ignore.

As much as she loves her coworkers and company, loyalty can only take her so far. She jumps at this opportunity wholeheartedly and never looks back, and she’s not alone. Work flexibility isn’t offered by every company, but it is a vital part of the benefits package for those that do. Talented people, especially those with growing families and involved personal lives, will flock to organizations that offer hybrid work, much to the detriment of fully in-office orgs.

The Best Ability is Flexibility

The flexibility to work where you want, when you want may have become a reality because of the pandemic, but it’s here to stay. As people continue to discover the benefits of creating their own work schedule it’s not outlandish to think that working hours and locations will become increasingly flexible over the next 10 years. If Mark Cuban is right, we’re heading towards a primarily “gigged” economy where everyone works for multiple companies in order to have the schedule that fits them best. Gig workers today are already doing this. Can you remember the last time you got in an Uber that didn’t also have a Lyft sticker in the window?

And when you really think about it, how many other jobs could be filled on a flexible or part-time basis? Recruiter? Sure. Software engineer? I don’t see why not. SDR? Absolutely. Truth be told, all of these are already part of the gig economy today, in 2023. Freelance platforms, like Fiverr and Upwork, connect employers with individuals in a wide variety of roles, including but not limited to the three just mentioned.

Most of these freelance platforms cover a wide variety of roles, departments, and industries. In the next 10 years, I wouldn’t be surprised if more specialized platforms begin to enter the market. A freelance platform dedicated to SDR work might be just around the corner. The flexibility that will allow gig workers to change jobs and roles as much as they want without going through the arduous interview process of full-time roles will be coveted.

And the checks and balances of the freelance economy would come with it. Both SDRs and organizations would have ratings from past interactions, just like Uber drivers and passengers. Organizations will be able to contract/hire for important work without having to worry about the financial repercussions of a bad hire. Contractors/employees will have the freedom to choose who they work for with a greater level of transparency than you would find in a traditional interview. This will incentivize everyone to do their best work through the platform while filtering out low performers. Sounds like a win-win to me (as long as we don’t end up here).

All of this flexibility doesn’t come without sacrifice though, particularly when it comes to company benefits. Like it or not, our healthcare plans are tied to full-time employment with one company. There are also certain worker protections that apply to employees but not contract workers, an ongoing point of legal contention Uber drivers have had with their employer/contractor.

There’s also the matter of salary. A gig worker has the flexibility to exceed the salary of a full-time counterpart, but to do so it usually means they work more than 40 hours a week. On a per-hour basis, you’ll still usually make more money in a full-time role. These standard healthcare and salary practices may change in the next 10 years, but it’s definitely not something I’d count on happening.

Let’s put Jasmine into this world and see what happens. This time, after graduating from college with her sales and computer science pedigree, she has little success finding a full-time role. Maybe it’s the economy. Maybe she just didn’t have the right resume to impress the recruiters where she applied. Either way, she had to find a way to make money and avoid moving back in with her parents, if she can help it.

Now that it’s 2032, instead of starting with Uber and picking up some dog walking or food delivery when it’s convenient, the gig economy has evolved to the point where her degree can still come in handy. Her thought process is simple: “Well if I can’t find a job that fits both of my passions, I’ll just work both jobs”.

And just like that, another modern gig worker is born. Now, instead of dealing with obstacles like technical breakdowns and angry prospects/customers, she’ll spend her time focused on more individual work (and probably still a few angry customers…no one said the future was going to be perfect).

The great news for Jasmine is that this type of gig work can absolutely land her the same job she achieved in our first hypothetical. Because of the wide variety of gig work that will exist in 2032, Gen Alpha is going to enter the workforce with a never before seen opportunity to build their own careers by making money in whatever part-time, fractional capacity they choose.

This should also remove some of the hurdles that underprivileged individuals face in terms of gaining the experience necessary to start a career in sales. Getting a sales job in tech without a college degree is still nearly impossible today because that degree is considered an essential prerequisite for most SDR roles. Gig SDR work is the perfect place for someone with a passion for sales but lacks the formalized education to get their feet wet and gain the experience they need to circumvent the traditional college-to-career path.

For all of this to actually work though, you need to have organizations willing to put their CRM data out there for gig workers to use. There is definitely a level of trust that can be harder to achieve through gig work than a full-time role. I’m not an economist, and I won’t pretend to be one, but there will certainly be a number of unpredictable economic factors in play that will determine the viability and success of this kind of future technology. Then again, with all the data that’s out there (and growing by the day) I find it hard to believe some companies – the largest ones, most likely – won’t shell out at least some of their marketing budget to test out the strategy.

Ok, time for some honesty. I don’t actually think any of these 3 scenarios will be our future. Instead, all of them will be. A fully digital future, with just one person in charge of your sales development efforts, ignores the human element sales will always need. That being said, we’ll still be more tech-driven in the future than we are now, I would just expect the tech to start working with our personal skills more than it’ll eliminate our need for them.

As we continue to emerge into a “post-COVID” world, pushback against a future with a fully remote workforce is also happening. According to a survey published by Envoy, 88% of companies are using incentives to get their employees back in the office. The slow and steady climb back into regular office schedules has started, but the flexibility employees have become accustomed to isn’t just going to disappear. Every organization is going to make its own decision about how much in-person work they want going on, even if it shrinks the talent pool they can hire from. For employees that care about that sort of thing, they’ll still be able to find hybrid or remote work, just not as readily as they could today.

Similarly, the gig economy isn’t going to go away. I actually see a lot of growth in the gig economy as individuals continue to look for alternative work and the market itself becomes more defined. Will every SDR be a part-time/gig worker? Not a chance. But certain organizations could definitely benefit from the type of production and ROI that can be gained from having part-time and temporary SDR work.

All things considered, the future of sales development looks bright. Technological advancements, flexible work environments, and the growth of skilled gig economy work have their pros and cons, but ultimately they all work out in favor of sales development and its processes. Now that you have had a glimpse into the crystal ball, feel free to make your own bets on how this story ends.

aj alonzo

AJ Alonzo is the Head of Marketing at demandDrive. A former SDR turned marketing leader, he's made it his goal to develop resources for sales reps who are looking to level up and for managers who are looking for guidance. Outside of work you can find him trying to shoot under par at his local disc golf course, sipping on a bourbon on the rocks, or continuing his quest to be the very best like no one ever was.
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