The Different Inside Sales Roles Explained

Fifteen years ago we had two kinds of reps: inside and outside. Thanks to awesome technology like WebEx and Zoom, fifteen years from today we’ll have one: rep.

Focusing on the last five years, we’ve seen a trend in role specialization. And it’s a good one. If you’re growing or starting up a team, you’re wise to spend time researching the type of rep that will best suit your sales process, talent pool, and customer preferences. And if you’re researching roles in sales, even better. Let’s dig in – starting with the top of the sales funnel or beginning of the buying process.

The BDR 

Also called the business development rep, lead generation, sales development rep, appointment setter, marketing development rep, entry-level selling, cold caller, data cleanser, and sadly, the empty seat. It’s the most junior person on your team with the highest turnover.

The BDR role is sometimes broken out to exclude those handling inbound leads, and these are typically referred to as SDR (sales development reps). But asking a company to clarify the difference between BDR, SDR or any other of the titles is never a stupid question. Everyone does it differently, and the demarcations between them may be based on more than lead type – like reporting structure, industry, product set or customer type.

You’ll find BDR/SDR roles reporting into Marketing about as often as to Sales, but the growing trend is moving them out of marketing and into sales. Primary SDR responsibilities include accepting inquiries (e.g. lead forms or inbound calls), qualifying, and routing them to the appropriate sales channel. The outbound BDR team may call on lead lists, prospect for new customers or even work internal lists like re-activating old customers. Consider them a bridge between Marketing and Sales, converting tire-kickers to Marketing Qualified Leads or MQL’s to Sales Qualified Leads (SQL’s).

The role is high-activity and driven with metrics like number of calls, talk time, appointments /leads generated, show rates, acceptance rates, and ultimate conversion. You’re looking for hungry, competitive, outgoing and confident people who can multi-task like a working mother and handle rejection like an over-eager barfly without being phased.

This role is key if your charter is growth, you have large available lists to work, your customers are used to a separate appointment for a demo (SaaS really made this role popular), and if your other reps have account bases to manage and upsell that would prevent them from acquiring new business.

Set the team up for efficiency with investments in demand-generation marketing, lead lists and data sources like ZoomInfo and Seamless + a quality dialer if it’s not already included in your toolset, and call recording for their ongoing coaching (I like Chorus, Gong, and ExecVision).

Staff with an experienced manager who can develop these green reps, keep them motivated, and provide some semblance of fun and security for this high-turnover position. Also, invest in different training for this crew than your full-cycle sellers and go heavy on the “first base skills” to help them get more initial conversations. If you have a high price point, pilot human-assisted dialers like ConnectAndSell that will triple the times they land on first base. Whoa, a little heavy on the advice. Let’s move on. 

Account Executive 

Our next position is the AE (Account Executive). This could be called an Inside Sales Representative (ISR), Closer, Sales Executive, Rep, or any other general sales position term. If the title doesn’t designate top of funnel or existing account management, it’s probably this role. Again, just ask. Totally normal.

The AE will typically accept (or deny) the lead passed to them, perform the discovery call, conduct the demo, run follow-up and close the sale. Some AE positions will generate their own leads to supplement the BDR / Marketing Leads. If they fully own capturing new business and closing it, we often refer to these teams as Acquisition reps – but their titles will be the same as the AE / Sales Executive title roles (confused yet?).

Typically, AE’s aren’t great at juggling prospecting and working passed leads. In fact, the advent of the BDR and uptick of inbound marketing has made tenured AE’s fat, lazy, and happy. They reject leads that aren’t ready to buy today or where the Decision Maker isn’t served up perfectly. I lovingly call this Silver Platter Syndrome and frankly it’s a great problem to have. If you’re not happy with what’s passing through your funnel to the proposal/contract stage, investigate your lead acceptance rate and open/close your pipeline faucet by adjusting lead-acceptance criteria used by your AE team. 

The AE is typically a more senior role than the BDR. They are trusted to work high-opportunity deals, uncover needs, match your product/service to the leads, uncover customer values to generate excitement and close the business. They spend their day doing system demos, and the great ones spend more time talking to customers than touring your product. That skill is displayed by more advanced AE’s who can climb the tree for the more difficult or hidden fruit vs. simply basketing what’s on the ground.

Measure AE’s with pipeline revenue, velocity and close rates through pipeline stages and ultimate revenue for measurements here. Opportunities will stay with AE’s until closed-lost or closed-won, meaning a need for excellent follow-up and nurture skills for deals postponed or gone dark. That means these folks need more product training, more business acumen training, social media, and more robust sales skills. (We like Vengreso and Sales for Life for social media skills). Customer expectations are higher here and the goal is for AE’s to actually consult, not just pitch. Won the business? Congratulations. The next role in line is an Account Manager or Customer Success Rep. 

Account Manager or Customer Success Rep

For Account Manager or Customer Success Rep, also look for titles like Client Engagement Rep, Client Success Manager, Existing Accounts Rep, Key Account Manager, or you may see Account Executive used here too (naturally).

Customer Success Reps are newer roles and typically align with SaaS. They are managing subscribers and measured by their ability to reduce churn (account cancellations), achieve high customer engagement/happiness scores, and upsell/cross-selling accounts. You may see them termed as “Renewal Reps” but with the sky-rocket maturation of the SaaS industry, smart companies have their eye on more than just renewals. Their reps are charged with adding more users, selling upgraded packages with more features, and securing longer-term contracts.

Although they are point-of-contact for ongoing customers, work hard to differentiate them from Customer Service or Customer Support roles who handle technical difficulties and inbound requests. Your customers will absolutely confuse the two, and a great Customer Success Rep will maintain relationships and sell while leaning heavily on the support team to keep them free to sell vs. problem-solving.

Beware of not defining this as a sales role and appointing service or junior reps here. Like AE’s they require more business, industry, and product knowledge to quickly add value to existing customers and help them navigate how to use your product optimally (if it isn’t sticky, it isn’t renewing). Sales skills will include uncovering more contacts, building relationships, aligning with business goals, making product recommendations, getting referrals, and overcoming user inertia by making it easy and desirable to use more and more of your product.

Account Managers require similar skills but are likely not selling/managing a software product. Often the most senior role, AM’s maintain a portfolio of several hundred accounts and sadly often only talk to the top 20%. They build incredible relationships here, take ongoing orders, suggesting new products, sending birthday cards, and swearing they have 100% of the available business.

Account Managers are a smart role if you have a complex product offering, a deep customer base, or large complex clients. Be sure, however, that you’re still hiring for and measuring the hustle. Skills should focus on consultative selling, growing wallet share, having business conversations, overcoming competition, gaining referrals, and finding new buyers. It’s the cushiest of sales jobs and may cross over into inside/outside roles where Account Managers will visit top accounts occasionally, attend conferences together, and shower top buyers with whatever perks you have available.

Say what? You have a Field team too? Just when I thought we were at the end of our Sales Rep Soup. OK, here goes. . .

Field Sellers

Traditionally, field sellers are the one-size-fits-all sellers like AE’s or Acquisition Reps albeit with bigger titles and paychecks. They own the top accounts and the dense territories. But like most reps charged with maintaining business and acquiring new, they farm more than they hunt and here we go back to the growing notion of role specialization.

When combined with Inside Sales, more traditional industries (retail, pharma, manufacturing, distribution…) will have field reps owning the big accounts and/or dense territories (think NFL cities) and inside sellers either support the field, own smaller accounts, or work rural areas. But, as a card-carrying Inside Sales Advocate, I love CDW’s model where the field supports the inside. The BDR / Acquisition teams hunt new opportunities at a rate of 10x the field, the AE or AM works it, and they deploy a field resource for a site-visit is needed to close the deal or love on the customer if needed.

So, there’s our list of the different inside sales roles explained. There are many ways to team, but alas, that is a different blog.

If I skipped a role, drop me an email and let me know how you use it! Best of luck.