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Coaching SDRs Using the TACS Framework

Oct 22nd, 2019

This blog post was originally published by Rekener, now a Brainshark company.

It was January 2009, and I’d flown from Boston to Philadelphia on a Saturday morning to spend the weekend in planning sessions with the then-CEO of Shunra Software, Thomas Charlton.  

Thomas had called me the night before to let me know he’d promoted me from Regional Sales VP to the VP of Worldwide Sales.  The company was coming off a tough year, with recessionary tremors rattling the economy. We would have our work cut out for us, battling economic headwinds and tightening capital markets, while fighting our way to aggressive growth targets that year.  The circumstances were challenging, to say the least.  

Among the many decisions we made that weekend, the decision to scale back the sales team and focus efforts on radically improving sales productivity was among the most difficult – yet the most important.  And as we began to systematically diagnose performance problems and settle on remedies for each of the sales teams, we came to the SDR organization.  

Thomas, who at the time had more experience in managing prospecting teams than I, wrote four letters on the board:  TAPS. He suggested that a focus on excellence in four factors (Target, Activity, Product, and Sales Acumen) would enable our SDRs to create new opportunities in the volumes we’d require.  He was prescient.

In the weeks that followed, I worked with my sales management team to refine the notion into an increasingly effective tool for evaluating SDR performance.  We dug into the expectations that each letter would carry, agreed on how we would measure performance for each, Product was replaced with Content, and the “TACS Model” was born.

Among the many things we did that year in Shunra, deploying the TACS model was one of the most impactful.  In a tough year where most companies saw their revenues decline, we grew by 40% – and we even turned a profit (a first for the company).  We created more new opportunities in a single year than the prior three years combined.

In the decade that followed, TACS became a refined and powerful system for establishing SDR expectations, diagnosing performance problems, and coaching prospecting reps toward their targets.  In mature organizations it is a way for prospecting reps to coach themselves. It was woven into the prospecting fabric of great companies like Shunra, Black Duck and Mendix.

I approached Rekener a year ago with the idea of deploying the TACS Model on their platform.  As a long-time customer, I had a feeling that their unique ability to aggregate complex sales performance data from disparate sources into high-context, easy-to-use interfaces would drive even more effective coaching (and self-coaching!) sessions.  Ultimately, it should become an easy way for prospecting reps to self-coach by understanding “how I’m doing” and “what I could be doing differently”.

The Problem

The Sales Development Rep (SDR) role continues to grow in importance to B2B businesses.  SDRs, sometimes referred to as BDRs (Business Development Reps), are responsible for prospecting and driving demand for a company’s solutions.  

According to The Bridge Group’s 2018 SDR Metrics Report, the average number of SDRs has increased to 1 SDR for every 2.6 Account Executives.  This is up from 1 SDR to every 4 AEs back in 2014.

SDRs can create a large portion of the pipeline for their company via outbound prospecting – up to 40% in my experience.  So, ramping these reps up quickly and maximizing their performance has a huge impact on the success of the sales team and the company.

Despite this, sales managers struggle to measure their performance in a way that is actually helpful, insightful, and creates coachable moments that help the SDR move their efforts (and careers) forward. 

I believe there are at least two big reasons why companies fail in this regard:

  1. Performance expectations aren’t granular enough and don’t serve the needs of the business.

  2. Sales leaders lack the diagnostic capacity (i.e. granular measurement of performance, consistently applied) to identify the root cause of performance problems with prospecting teams, so the resultant coaching lacks correct context and even relevance.

These failures drain productivity from SDR team, and the demand generation engine grinds to a morale-crushing halt.

Setting Expectations:  The Core of the TACS Framework

SDR performance can be grouped into four categories, and anyone involved in the prospecting function really should be able to answer these questions at any given time before they pick up the phone, send an email, or launch a cadence to a prospect. 

1. Targeting

  • Am I prospecting to the right persona type?
  • Right titles?
  • Right industry?
  • Right companies?
  • Right geographies?

2. Activity

  • Am I prospecting at the right times of day?
  • Day of the week?
  • In the right volumes?
  • In the right order, i.e. in the correct cadence?

3. Content

  • Am I prospecting with the right message?
  • Is my email content correct for that target?
  • Is my voicemail content correct for that target?
  • If using an automated cadence, am I using the right one for that target?
  • Am I ready for a conversation with the right content?

4. Sales Acumen

  • Am I executing the conversational method correctly?
  • Are my replies to email responses correct?
  • Am I handling objections and curveballs correctly?

Those are 15 factors that will play a role in determining the success of an individual’s prospecting efforts (there are more, but these are the basics).   The key to the framework is in applying it in three directions:

  1. To set performance expectations – yes, across all 15 factors, in this case

  2. Measure performance in each area (this is where Rekener really shines)

  3. Provide specific feedback appropriately (and well) based on performance

Implementing Scoring Across TACS

Before working with Rekener, I hadn’t considered the potential for developing a single TACS score.  For the last decade, the TACS model had been deployed in a manner that reflects the fragmentation of performance data across disparate systems, i.e. most metrics have been reported on independently and separately, making the task of reporting and “speed of insight” cumbersome and slow.  Typically, the teams have gathered for weekly meetings, pulling the information together, then heading back onto the sales floor to provide feedback.

But the Rekener platform enabled the creation of an aggregate score and peer ranking system that has improved the utility of the framework, and dramatically increased the speed with which coaching can be delivered.

Measuring Performance

Using the Framework

SDR Managers can think like golf instructors.  Good golf instructors don’t give their students a million things to focus on.  Instead of telling them “bend more in the waist, keep your elbow straight, eye on the ball, shift your weight”, a good instructor tells their student one swing thought at a time.  

In the case of coaching SDRs, this single “swing thought” can be based on a based on a straightforward diagnosis derived by working left to right through the TACS model, starting with Target, then working through Activity.  If targeting factors (remember, there is more than one) are off, focus on them.  

Diagnosis of the problem comes into sharper focus when comparing one rep’s performance against another, in a way that is visible to everyone.  And coaching becomes even more straightforward. For instance, “Joe, have a look at Susan’s performance around targeting, and take a look at her overall results.  This week, let’s improve your targeting, focusing on these 3 factors, like we’ve talked about. And if you think it will help, have a conversation with Susan about how she’s doing it?”

Focusing on one very specific area at a time allows the SDR Manager to work with the rep on that skill.  And consistent use of a framework increases the likelihood that the right diagnosis will be made. They can dig into what’s causing the performance issue and come up with a plan for improving it.

Here’s an example.  The rep below is doing well relative to Sales acumen expectations.  They appear to have effective conversations.  But their Content score is very low.  On further review, it looks like they aren’t using the right sales cadence relative to their Target.  Focusing on improving this will make the biggest impact on their performance.

Now that Content has been identified as a place where this rep needs help, the manager can dig into more detail.  For instance, which reps are doing best on their Content score? Perhaps they’ve got insight into how the cadence can be further optimized, then shared across the team.

Additionally, the manager should drill in to the next level of detail, taking a look at variance in the Content score over time.  Perhaps a change in performance correlated with a change in Content, and the answer is that simple.  Perhaps there was a change in Cadence that pulled performance down?

Why Companies Struggle With SDR Reporting

SDR reporting is hard for a few reasons.  As mentioned above, data needed for diagnosing performance lives in many places.  This can be overcome through the introduction of sound, manual practice and the help of Sales Ops team (this is how I’ve done it, historically).  But it’s still hard to get a full picture of each rep’s performance on-demand. Secondly, without a consistent framework and approach to assessing performance, diagnosis and coaching can equally fragmented – even whimsical.  And without an easy-to-use and on-demand method for pulling TACS data together, the “nirvana” for TACS, i.e. self-assessment of rep performance, is even more difficult.

This is where Rekener (now part of Brainshark) really shines, because Sales Rep Scorecards create an opportunity to combine a proven framework with aggregated data from the many systems that need to come together:  CRM data, outreach data, enablement data, and even conversational intelligence information.