Sales SDR Winning

The Road to SDRdom: 6 Stages of the First Time Cold Caller

Daniel WeissLast updated on January 5, 2024
8 min

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  1. Who is Bryan Elsesser?

  2. The Most Important Sales Input: Cold Calling

    1. Stage 1: You’re Afraid to Pick Up the Phone

    2. Stage 2: Learning the Value Propositions

    3. Stage 3: Asking Questions

    4. Stage 4: Asking Questions the Right Way

    5. Stage 5: Scaling it All Back

    6. Stage 6: Finding a Balance

  3. What Happened to Email?

Who is Bryan Elsesser?

If the name Bryan Elsesser sounds familiar, you might’ve seen his Linkedin posts, which have been known to collect some pretty staggering figures.

Fifty comments, two-hundred reactions, thirty-thousand impressions. People seem to like what he says.

Hello, Bryan.

But for those of you who haven’t met Aircall’s Senior Director of Sales Development in person, he’s a salesman. There’s an invisible bubble around him — radius 5 feet.

Outside this bubble, you get an impression: Energetic, extraverted, loud.

Inside the bubble (read: danger zone) he compels you to make eye contact, and his voice carries a hypnotic quality. Everything he says seems to make perfect sense.

(Realization: This is what it feels like when a professional is selling to you!)

And with that brief introduction to our knowledge-base aside, I wanted to know how he measures his team’s success. I was looking for things like conversion rate, calls made, and percent-to-quota.

He immediately refocused the conversation. As a sales director (training a squad of relatively new SDRs) he’s concerned about two components of their work: inputs and outputs.

“Effort is different than performance. It comes down to inputs and outputs. Inputs show your effort level, and outputs are the performance indicators.”

In an attempt NOT to oversimplify what Bryan told me, the following post will focus on only one part of our discussion.

Namely, what effort is required to ensure — as a new sales rep — that your inputs lead to desirable outputs?

The Most Important Input: Cold Calling

Bryan’s aware that nobody is born with a Salesloft account activated.

New SDRs need to incrementally acquire skills that will eventually help them exceed targets. Each step is essential, and no skill can be learned until the one before it has been mastered.

Inputs are any sales-action that directly contributes toward booking a demo with an SQL. For most new reps, these include phone calls, emails, and social interactions (online or in-person).

The first and most important input that every sales rep needs to perform successfully — and at critical mass — is the sales cold call.

Developing this skill evolves over time. Bryan sees it as six distinct stages, each with their own set of challenges and remedies.

Stage 1: You’re Afraid to Pick Up the Phone

Some sales leaders will say, “If you’re afraid to pick up the phone, you’re in the wrong line of work.” Bryan incitefully calls this attitude a heap of bovine excrement.

“Everyone’s afraid at first, but you build up the nerve and you eventually make the dial. When this happens, you have no idea what you’re doing, and you will probably bomb — big time — but that’s the first step.”

To overcome this anxiety, the only cure is volume. Kicking and/or screaming, Bryan wants all his SDRs to start out making 120 dials each day. At this scale, phone calls become second nature.

An initial fear of voice-to-voice conversations is expected, but avoiding the phone isn’t tolerated. Despite confrontational articles that claim the cold call is dead, these direct dialogues create instant rapport and brand awareness, and they are too important in sales to ignore.

Stage 2: They Picked Up the Phone, What do I do?

SDRs that successfully play the numbers game of stage 1 will eventually get through to a prospect. However, the excitement of the moment will often induce mental blackout.

If this is the case, the product’s purpose and value will come across as a sweaty mess of sentence fragments.

SDRs in training must know the value proposition of what they’re selling. On the surface, this means memorizing a script of sorts. However, even in the early phases of sales training, SDRs can tailor the delivery to maximize success rates.

That is to say, a product’s value will lie in different places for various prospects. Using Aircall as an (easy and obvious) example, the main value proposition might be:

  • Fast setup and no IT department necessary


  • Many integrations with other tools


  • Easily scalable for seasonality, etc.

Like phase 1, delivering the value proposition as an authoritative seller (and not a nervous middle schooler in a class production) will take time and repetitions. Finding the right value prop is, however, in each new SDR’s control.

Targeted prospect research should provide enough context to choose a succinct and impactful pitch.

“No matter how much experience you have, you can’t over-practice. Every day, before our team hits the phones, we warm up by speaking value propositions.”

Stage 3: Extend the Conversation by Asking Questions

Simply put, there’s a direct correlation between the amount of time a rep spends on a cold call and the likelihood that a prospect will move to the next phase of the sales funnel.

Prospects will stay on the phone longer if they’re engaged in meaningful conversations. Asking good qualifying questions are the foundation that will lead to longer and more productive sales calls.

The most common, and engaging, questions will cover areas related to the prospect’s business objectives as they pertain to…

  • A specific pain point for the prospect

  • The impact that pain has on their business

  • How your product can alleviate that pain

“If someone sustained a deep cut in their arm, their pain might be that their arm hurts or they’re bleeding. The impact is that they could lose full use of their arm. Impact carries more weight than pain.” *

*(Note: Bryan is a volunteer firefighter in Suffolk County and sees this example as normal.)

Many sales training resources will tell you to listen more than you speak. While active listening is an important step in building trust between seller and prospect during later interactions, it’s okay to take on a more aggressive speaking role during first contacts.

Also, as a general rule, yes or no questions are secondary. Leading with these inquiries offers little opportunity for a dialogue to begin. Plus, the prospect may feel like they’re being interrogated rather than assisted.

Stage 4: Explaining Questions/Avoiding an Interrogation

Asking quality questions is step three, but step four requires new SDRs to go backward in the learning process. (In order to eventually move forward much faster)

The goal of discovery questions is to find a vision match between a prospect’s need and the product you’re selling. This can only be achieved when the prospect is engaged and willingly sharing information.

But how do you get them to answer your questions? As it turns out, one “easy trick” is to explain why you’re asking the question at all.

According to Prussian philosopher — and headache for university students since the 18th century — Immanuel Kant, humans are the only rational creatures. We have an inherent desire to know not only the “what” of a situation but also the “why.”

A more recent Harvard study showed that people are more likely to cooperate with demands when reasons are given, even if those reasons aren’t all that good.

All this is to say: New SDRs are far more likely to extract meaningful information from prospects when they preface discovery questions with their reasons for asking. Bryan gives an example:

“A vacuum seller may need to understand how often a prospect cleans their house in order to create need or urgency. The question they must ask is ‘How often do you clean your house?’

Asking that question bluntly may inadvertently insult the prospect by making them think their house doesn’t look clean. Or, if it’s just one of many rapid-fire questions, they might feel harassed.

Instead, you start by explaining why you’re asking them this personal question.

‘How often do you clean your house?’ becomes ‘ I know everyone has a different regimen for cleaning their house. It’s important to find a machine that matches your use. How often do you clean?’

Aside from increasing the rate of response, this conversational tool will help new SDRs have natural-sounding conversations, thus further decreasing call-anxiety. Plus, it disarms defensive buyers, allowing them to feel comfortable giving more information.

Stage 5: Scaling it All Back

“By the time you master stage 4, you’re having good conversations, but they’re probably lasting 15-20 minutes… This is way too long — we need to scale these conversations back to 5-8 minutes.”

The first priority of cold calling is to engage a prospect in a meaningful way. This, as we stated earlier, inherently means longer conversations.

However, the second priority of cold calling is you need to make a lot of them. Even if 15-minute calls are executed back-to-back, all day long, you won’t be anywhere near the volume required to achieve quota.

This is where training kicks in. The object of a cold call isn’t to collect a credit card number — it’s to set a future meeting. SDRs should be concerned with establishing a vision match, explaining that vision match to the prospect, and setting the meeting.

But now, there’s one final problem: SDRs can become too focused on that singular goal.

Stage 6: Finding a Balance

The objective is to spend 5-8 minutes on each cold call while also finding a proper vision match between prospect and product.

Only the SDR savant will be able to achieve this balance without trying and failing at the other 5 stages of development (and according to Bryan, 0/100 new hires are SDR savants).

To recap, the sales cold call journey…

  • Involves making with 120 dials per day

  • Learning how to deliver a targeted value prop.

  • Knowing what questions to ask

  • Practicing how to phrase those questions

  • Keeping the conversations on the shorter side

Once all these objectives have been met, the final stage will fall into place. That is to say, a meeting will be booked quickly, but only after a vision match has been established through a series of targeted (but natural-sounding) questions.

When do We Focus on the Other Inputs?

Cold calling is just one part of an SDR’s outreach process. All prospects should also be added into an email cadence to establish a consistent brand presence (plus make cold calls a little “warmer”).

However, for Bryan, the phone call has the greatest impact and is the hardest to learn, and this means breaking some universally accepted sales rules.

“It goes against everything we’re taught about personalizing touches — and rightfully so — but until they [SDRs] learn how to make a phone call, I essentially write pre-scripted outreach emails that they can send out en masse_. It takes time to train new reps, and I’ve found working on one skill at a time keeps the SDR from feeling overwhelmed, while allowing them proper time to hone their craft.”_

Bryan knows that proper sales training won’t happen overnight. It’ll take multiple iterations and attempts at each stage of the process.

But most importantly, new SDRs need to focus on only one thing at a time to help lessons stick and keep morale high.

“There’s no hiding that this isn’t an easy job. It takes dedication — and time — to be successful. However, one of my main priorities as a leader is to make sure I’ve created a place where my employees want to work, and where they will gain the necessary tools to grow their careers.”

Published on August 30, 2019.

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