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BC Startup Sales Podcast – SDR Training Programs with Jon Parisi (GuideSpark)

SDR TrainingWe’re back this week from the holidays with another great edition of the Bowery Capital Startup Sales Podcast with Jon Parisi joining us in the studio to talk about “SDR Training Programs.” The topic of SDR Training has been a major passion and interest of Jon’s through the years and he has written extensively on this with some great presentations out there for any SaaS founder to follow. He’s currently the Director of Revenue Development at GuideSpark and we thought it would be great to have him on to follow up from our prior podcast around scaling sales with SDRs. If you don’t know how to train them and grow them, how can you scale them? That’s the theory we were playing off of and Jon joined us in the studio to share his knowledge and practical advice.

In our podcast Jon and I discuss why developing an SDR training program is absolutely necessary to any SaaS company that is in growth mode and what it takes to build a simple framework for training SDRs (or as GuideSpark calls them RDRs or Revenue Development Reps). We talk about GuideSpark specifically and their SDR training program.  Things like how long they do classroom training versus practical or more real world training (spoiler: get them on the phones ASAP!) are really important to this and we go into detail on it. We walk through the materials that Jon’s marketing and sales teams provide to the newly minted SDRs, how their ramp times look over the course of the first day, week, month, and then finally what the top level benchmarks need to be to know whether or not an SDR is being effective or not. For GuideSpark, the company doesn’t really believe that an SDR is going to be fully ramped until about 3,000 calls which we found to be pretty interesting relative to some other SaaS companies we know. We then touch on identifying your best performing reps and what to do with them as well as what to do with those that aren’t making the cut. Jon walks listeners through the concept of a performance improvement plan and how GuideSpark uses it as well as instilling the concept of teamwork and collaboration to help everyone in the organization achieve their goals. We close on some tools and software that Jon’s team uses to both create the SDR training program as well as what his SDRs use on a daily basis. This was a fun one and another informative podcast for any SaaS founder who is working heavily with SDRs and developing an SDR training program.

Bowery Capital Startup Sales Podcast – SDR Training Programs with Jon Parisi (GuideSpark)


You can read the full transcript here:

MB: Hey guys, welcome back to the podcast. I am on today with Jon Parisi. Jon comes from a company called Guidespark. Many of you, I am sure are familiar with GuideSpark. We are going to talk today about developing a training process for SDRs. Jon’s super passionate about this and knows the topic very well. Welcome to the show, Jon.

JP: Thanks, Mike. I am looking forward to it.

MB: So, maybe give us a little background on you, you know, kind of where you have been, what you have done and then talk briefly about GuideSpark because I know listeners will all be interested in particular maybe the perspective of the company where it was before you and where it is today.

JP: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. So, I grew up in the East Coast and out in the Boston area and after a couple of years in a financial advisor capacity, got my first taste of sales and actually joined the company, first multinational called Thomson Reuters and worked my way up to the sales ranks like many people from Boston had the opportunity to come out to the bay area. I thought like many would do a two year’s stint and here it is seven plus years later and never going back, joined GuideSpark in the middle of 2013, at that time we were about 40 employees for which we were sales reps and that was the year we learnt a lot about our business and start the scale and grow and had the opportunity to come in as a sales executive and our VP at that time asked me to take on additional set of responsibilities which was leading our relatively small, but fast growing team of SDRs. We call them RDRs here in GuideSpark and I have been doing that ever since. As of now, I saw the team grow from about 4 to about 30 and learned a lot in the process and having just a ton of fun.

MB: And what do you guys, from an RDR standpoint, what is it Revenue Development Rep or?

JP: Revenue Development Rep, yeah.

MB: Excellent! Last question on the introduction. What is one thing that no one in this podcast will know about you?

JP: Oh Goodness! I was actually a vendor at a family park throughout high school and college. So, I had the opportunity to basically get paid to watch the Red Sox in their pager in my teenage years.

MB: Oh wow! What were you a vendor of?

JP: I started out selling hot dogs and this is out in the stands, but I had a small mobile stand that overlooked the field and I sold the pizzas and submarine sandwiches and eventually, moved my way up to selling beer. It was the best job I ever had.

MB: That is cool.

JP: Yeah.

MB: That is awesome. So, maybe get, you know, a lot of fast companies are familiar with the concept of the SDR and the RDR and sort of helping grow generally sort of top of one of, you know, leads. Why did you sort of, you know, why do you think it is important to think about, you know, the training process associated with those SDRs and just kind of the top level of what is so important about this when you embark on this, you know, process of ultimately hiring and then training these folks?

JP: Yeah, you know, it is of paramount importance for us. Our team is largely speaking the tip of the spear into the market place and where most of our sales revenue, you know, comes from and as a result of that, it is very, very important to focus on developing and training the SDRs at least a year because we are in a stage of the market that is sort of in an early adopter stage. We, here at GuideSpark, what we do is we create compelling experiences, mobile and video experiences for employers to communicate and engage with their employee base across every stage of the employee life cycle from before day one to their new hard training as they have role in benefits understanding other HR topics and essentially if it is in HR and it is communicated today through written form or through face-to-face meetings, that largely is inefficient and we create content that allows employees to consume that content in a way that they are used to and in the way that they likely do outside of the office and that is to say to video.

Now, given our stage in the market, the SDRs or the RDRs, as we call them, play just a crucial role in identifying and communicating and engaging with people that a) realize that they have a problem, that, that problem is inefficient in more likely than not that they don’t even realize that they have a problem today and our job is to sell these stories and get them engaged and really feed our sales engine and we built this business from 2 million to some pretty hefty numbers in a relatively short period of time and it was largely all help on sales to taking cold names out of a database and turning them into warm leads and turning those warm leads and handing those off in to our capable sales rep’s hands to bring on new clients. So, without the SDR team it is… we are not the same company. Everything starts with this, this team here.

MB: Sure. And so, for any sort of SaaS company, what are some of the early, you know, maybe you hire and your first two to three SDR sort of how do you think about, you know, going over the product in a vertical with the SDRs or the RDRs? How do you think about kind of the initial elements of the sales or the training process for them?

JP: Yes, absolutely. So, I think the process has evolved over time and it will continue to evolve thinking back to the initial days. We tend to just get them right in the environment, in the sales pit and I guess our philosophy is to learn through osmosis or immersion. We feel pretty heavily that or pretty strongly that, you know, as a start up, our CEO likes to say that, you know, we like to put people in difficult positions to see how they respond and….

MB: Right.

JP: I am sure it is different at every company, but the process has evolved to getting them on the phone as soon as possible. So, these days we spend about half day in HR training to help get them immersed into the GuideSpark culture, some brief, you know, guest appearances from other parts of our organization where they learn policies and we actually use our own content to get them up to speed and to things like benefit selections and stuff like that. But, we don’t have structured product training at the moment, but you know, our product offering’s fairly straight forward and that we do on engaging sometimes complex HR content and we turn it into content that is able to capture and sustain the attention of the employee and our product marketing team spends quite a bit of time in developing things like user personas and customer success profiles and product offering, different trends that they share with us on an as needed basis, but literally, where the rubber meets the road is the activity in the sales pit, the coaching that is available from every level of our sales organization and… So, it is split between 101 in the moment type of coaching, but there is no substitution for learning than doing here and that is sort of a secret process to get them into the role and get them comfortable to just call in right now and in kind of building upon that framework as they continue to develop.

MB: And you are a pretty strong advocate of that approach. I mean, have you ever seen it work where there’s a more involved upfront training or you just think that they are going to live and die ultimately on the phones and contacting people so that’s the best way to get them up and running?

JP: You know, it is not that we don’t believe in like a more structured program. I think you know as many start ups tend to experience we are sort of building the runway as the plane is taking off and…

MB: Right.

JP: You know, it is… you know, we would love to have a more structured classroom type of training and setting and I am sure that we will get there, but, you know, everybody is placed in to stretched roles and time is almost ticking from the moment that the folks are hired and that is the approach that we have designed here and that works for us. I am sure it will continue to evolve, but yeah, you know, it is… as you get experience and you get that pattern recognition around what key challenges customers face, the type of rejections that you get, there is no substitute from, you know, kind of fumbling and calling and falling down and have a good buddy or a colleague tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, who are you talking to? Oh okay. These are the customers that we work with today”, and then having somebody else in the sales pit collaborate and say actually, “And another thing that you could do is da da da da.” And you just can’t learn that in a classroom environment. I guess, it is chaotic and there are a lot of directions that these sales calls can happen or that, you know, they take.

MB: Right. And so, and then sort of, do you spend much, you know, sort of revenue development? Do you spend much time with them initially up front or is it more once same thing in the pit for a while and you will get involved?

JP: Yes. So, I guess the best way to explain that is a progression through their first week. So, quite a bit of the learning is done in a one-on-one type of setting and in-the-moment type of coaching and we will continue to evolve that. So, on day one, they typically get in early in the morning and they will attend a half day session with HR as I mentioned and we have them shadow their peers and we team them up with a buddy system where, you know, they can watch the other reps do their thing throughout the day and then we will have a one-on-one specifically on their first day and we get them to hit the phones right away. We say, “Hey, go ahead and make 20 calls today. Really, the only thing that matters is that you are picking up the phone and have some fun with it and try to increase that by 20 or so a day until the end of the week when you are getting to a 100 phones calls. For us, it is all about getting to 3000 phone calls that is typically the ramp time at which point they tend to be ready, they see the pattern recognition and they are armed to make it happen.

MB: Wow! And so, I mean, where did you come up with the 3000 number, just out of curiosity? Is it just something you saw over the life or your career?

JP: Yeah. You know, it is nothing that… I saw a lot in my career that is just… you know, we are a very data driven organization and we have got a lot of great platforms and tools that allow us to go back and take a look at what the data is telling us. And the 3000 phone calls, just running some analysis seems to be the launch point at which reps start to get on their ramp and start to produce the results that we think that they are capable of for some strange reason and I tell every new hire, dial about 3000 dials, it does not matter if you book one meeting or a 100 meetings. Really, that is the only thing that I care about and getting them to that bogie as soon as possible is something that we try to get in and along the way, everything seems to take care of itself after that.

MB: Sure. So, maybe we will shift gears a little bit. You know, you sort of hired in your SDRs, you started them with a kind of first week program, you sort of wait out in to the good play book, what are some of the things that you guys early on and then obviously applicable to any SaaS founder, what do you kind of monitor and so how do you think about who is working, who is not working, you know, approachability of the reps, may be even on the negative side, what do you do, you know, if they are just not working out, how do you sort of deal with firing? Maybe just walk the listeners through some things to think about as you bring more and more people through the training programs.

JP: Yes, sure. So, I personally invest about two hours and thirty minutes with each of the reps over the course of 10 business days so that I will split through team meetings as well as one-on-one sessions so you get to know each one of them and you get to understand their base set of what their skill sets are and, you know, develop their strengths and areas of potential strength and, you know, the key challenge that we are faced with is sort of an appointment setting mentality and there is also thinking like a sales rep and there is a lot of school of thoughts out there, but we place a very heavy emphasis around qualifying around five minute conversations, you know, doing discovery and getting the team to realize that it is not all about just getting meetings and getting our sales reps in the door. Some of the companies that’s very different, but based upon our user personas, people buy, usually not because of feature functionality, but it all triangulates around pain, the problem, the goal, needs that they have and how these HR reps will prioritize and, you know, very simple formula. It is hard work, it is dedication, it is passion, and it’s coachability and sometimes you can’t coach certain things like drive and hustle. But, I think from the uncoachable standpoint, it is all about, at least from our perspective upfront and honest communication, it is setting clear expectations around the role and what we look for in, you know, getting in appointment setting mindset and going away from that into the mindset of taking qualified leads and sometimes there is even trouble with folks, you know, that will book a ton of meetings and, you know, they won’t… you will not see the pipe line activity follow through and then sometimes reps can’t… or can struggle with even the appointment setting aspects. So, it is a very different set of challenges, but around performance management, typically, we roll out a performance improvement plan and having been on two of these in my life in the past, it is obviously not a fun place to be, but it is important that they know that we absolutely believe in them. They were all hired specifically for a reason and because of their skill set in the things that they displayed throughout the interview process and that we absolutely want them to succeed. So, what we do is we establish some more frequent cadence on the one-on-one front set up milestones that absolutely needs to be reached by the end of that period and if there isn’t, you know, considerable progress against those then this may not be the best place for them and to be fair, we do demand a lot out of our team and our targets are fairly aggressive, but that is all part of being a start up, right, to set some measurable and stretch goals and hopefully, you know, come in just north of those and it is okay if you set very, very aggressive targets and you fall a little bit short, but yeah, that is sort of process around the coachability and uncoachability.

MB: And then how long just may be, if you could comment,   you don’t have to get specific, but when you have identified this and you have put forward the performance improvement plan, how long are you usually giving these reps, a month or three months, what… how do you think about that?

JP: Yes, for sure it is… I don’t know that we figured it out just yet, but, you know, speaking with some of my peers, they say, you know, if you identify it, the best thing to do is you just kind of manage it directly and head on and as quickly as possible. We tend to put a 30-day plan out there for the first half and then if they reach that, we will extend it another 30 days with another set of targets and then hopefully, by that time, they have booked to hit their targets at which point they come off the performance improvement plan and, you know, if the reps just not tracking mathematically, it is impossible early on, we will go ahead and come to terms with that.

MB: Got it. How do you sort of, you know, a lot of the discussion you talked about earlier was getting them right into the pit and selling and sort of people tapping them on the shoulder, have you formalized any collaboration efforts between a lot of the SDRs or the sales reps just to sort of help the organization foster collaboration? And you kind of know these SDRs are sort of the hunter and not really more collaborating more or focused on helping peers. Do we talk a little bit, if you can, about how you sort the kind of infuse some of the that culture?

JP: Yes, you know, I think the way I describe our culture is it is data driven, it is competitive, but collaborative. And it is one of those things that you can’t prescribe. You just kind of… you sit back and you instill some values across the team and then you just kind of watch it bloom. So, a lot of time, there is some encouragement from the team meetings, some one-on-ones and stuff along those lines where, you know, we will have a direct conversation like, “Hey, you know, you are awesome at turning objections into, you know, challenging type of discussions and getting meetings, you know? Have you thought about becoming more vocal in the team meetings and stuff like that?” But, a lot of the times, it just kind of happens where you see, you know, folks holding court, talking about different topics whether that is going to different email templates you know, the gang hanging out inside and outside of the office and, you know, working with their friends and it really is a family and that is one of those things that I think we are really fortunate to have. We are very, very competitive. It is also collaborative and everybody is in this together and it sounds cheesy, but it is true like our sales team is specifically on the SDRs while they are relatively young. They continue to impress in their selflessness in picking a colleague back up, encouraging them and getting the chatter going in the pit, spending time one-on-one. It is… I don’t know that it is driven from the top and it just sort of kind of happens and I feel like we are really lucky because I know a lot of places that just aren’t like that.

MB: Well, that sounds like much of it comes through in the hiring process and the profile of the people you are all typically taking, right?

JP: Yes, for sure. A lot of people have very specific hiring profiles and what they look for in sales DNA and really, at the end of the day too, it is about, you know, that team based environment. We look for people that have experience in team based sports and, you know, are used to collaborating and being resourceful with their peers and something I always like to say is, “You know, you guys are going to learn a lot more from each other than you could ever learn from me or any the VP. So, take advantage of that sort of stuff. Each of you has a unique skill set or a trait that can be delivered to somebody else and, you know, we are only as good as our weakest link and a lot of the developments will happen in your interactions on a day-to-day basis with your peers.”

MB: Sure. What kind of… I know folks who are generally interested in very tactical elements of how to execute the type of stuff we discussed. So, I don’t know how much literally you can comment, but do you guys have any particular out of the box technology that, you know, think about the measurement of progress and then the training of the actual SDRs or is it mostly you just built this with your own internal systems?

JP: Yep. So, technology plays an absolutely crucial, critical, can’t live without type of role in the process and, you know, from an investment standpoint, we found quite a bit of utility out of the handful of platforms that early days we just didn’t have and we saw an immediate increase in not only productivity, but also, I think employee satisfaction. You know, this team is relatively young and hungry and they are looking at new ways of challenging and disrupting the status quo and we give them a lot of toys to help them do that. So, the first of which is a power dialer technology and what that allows the reps to do is create their call list, but do so in a lightening quick fashion so that typically, they can get to many more phone calls and, you know, somebody up on a piecemeal basis in dialing those seven numbers and waiting for ring. So then, that technology too also allows us to leave a voice mail with the click of a button. So, it really allows us from an efficiency standpoint to get more traction in the amount of time that we have in the office.

Another platform that we use is a blast email so sales productivity platform that allows us to reach many more people than your traditional email clients and we use it in conjunction with our marketing team and marketing team, you know, uses their marketing or automation platform, but allows our team to be a little bit more nimble, you know, in bite size, in our outreach and approach and make it specific, make it personal, make it customized to each recipient. And those two platforms are absolutely crucial in our process which is in an advance sales process and making that I guess, we have a higher degree of marginal utility per minute spent in the office. This is a big, big lever, right, when you look back at increasing productivity. Rather than investing in head count, you can invest in technology to make you that much more efficient.

MB: Sure. And then did you, I mean, outside of the actual technology for the SDRs, did you do anything on your side to quantify and measure progress? Do you guys just use the simple kind of Excel framework for that or was there any stuff that you found that could be used out of the box kind of more on the training side?

JP: More on the training side, no, you know, just as far as… yeah, I think it is very data driven, there is a lot of number crunching from my perspective and going back and taking a little look at, you know, establishing benchmarks because otherwise you are just kind of putting the finger up in the air and saying, “Yeah, that kind of sounds right.” And using data to help us spot trends and coach to those trends and those, I guess, areas of potential strength across the board. So, nothing outside of the box, but heavy focus on performance and results in learning, as we go along. I am sure in six months, the process will be completely different.

MB: And most of that… So, you are just sitting in your CRM data effectively, right, and managing whatever key benchmarks you need to see it, right?

JP: Key benchmarks that we need to see, you know, I think yes, we continue to evolve and get more sophisticated. We will be drawing upon some sort of a data visualization type of software that will pull data together and, you know, make that data actionable whereas right now, the barrier that we have, it would be just a herculean effort to tie together all the different bits and pieces from the manual perspective.

MB: Sure. And then as far as sales training materials, you just sort of created a lot of that in the beginning when you started your kind of SDR training process, I am sure, right? There is no, I guess, for the founders that are thinking of employing this just don’t… is there any sort of advice or thoughts you have on what you need to create to actually get the stuff up and running?

JP: You know, I don’t know that we have a ton of sales training materials. We do have some processes that continue to evolve, but I think, you know, it starts with the Head of Sales and it filters on down and, you know, our SVP is one that, you know, promotes a culture of continuous learning and improvement and we are really big in providing a work place that will help make the sales reps that come here marketable and become prepared to actually leave GuideSpark one day and that is a process and a philosophy that, you know, you see a lot around, you know, the Richard Branson quotes, “Train them enough to leave, but treat them well enough so that they don’t…” and that sort of thing that is… I think it all starts with the executive leadership teams and filters its way down. So, that trumps any sort of training program or any sort of structured kind of classroom type of setting in my opinion.

MB: Yep, no, it sounds similar to a lot of the approaches we’ve heard that sort of the best thing you can do is just step them in actually, in specific scenarios in real world environments rather than the classroom where not a lot comes out of it. So, any final thoughts for the sort of young SaaS founders? I mean, you have obviously been through development of the training process on the SDRs and the bunch. May be, I guess, was there anything that you assumed going in and have learned today to be different, sort of like stuff that people should watch out for or understand?

JP: Yeah, you know, I think is you are starting up the business clearly, I would imagine that you would be throwing upon a relatively younger and inexperienced set of talent to have a very, very profound impact for the organization and the one thing that I never really expected as we continue to go along is that young talent continues to impress and I don’t know what it is, but when I was 23, 24, no way would I be not only up for the task at hand, but just being able to, you know, contribute in such a meaningful way. I think for those folks that are out there, starting a company or starting to get initial skill attraction is that young talent continues to impress and, you know, it is okay to take risks and raise expectations and level of accountability because what you will find out there is that, you know, there are people out there that are absolutely capable of delivering results at a relatively young age and that’s something that I absolutely continue to be impressed by.

MB: Cool! That is all great advice. Well, Jon, listen, thank you so much for coming in and chatting with us today, really appreciate it.

JP: Any time, Mike.

Michael Brown
Michael Brown
Michael is a Founder & Managing Partner at Bowery Capital based in New York. Prior to Bowery Capital, Brown was a Co-Founder and General Partner at AOL Ventures. Before AOL Ventures, Brown worked for the investment arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. He began his career at Morgan Stanley as an equity research analyst. Outside of his professional life, Brown serves on the Board of Directors of the National Forest Foundation and the Columbia College Alumni Association. He holds a B.A. from Columbia University.