I like sales because it gives me a dopamine rush: Joel Thomas, SDR at Almabase

The SDR X Factor is a series of long-form stories that aims to reveal what sets top-performing sales reps apart. How do they go about their day? What do their cold calling and cold emailing strategies look like? How are they crushing quota every time? We extract their key strategies, tips and tricks so you can sell better. 

In the second part of this series, we are going to meet Joel Thomas, a top-performing Enterprise Sales Development Representative (SDR) at Almabase, a SaaS platform for alumni relations. Joel has been an SDR for a little over a year at the Bengaluru-based SaaS firm. We spoke to him to discover what drives him, how he sells, and see what sets him apart.

1. From high school dropout to Enterprise SDR

As the popular saying goes, Joel did not let schooling interfere with his education.

Image of Highschool classroom

“I was really bored at school,” the 22-year-old SDR recalls with a chuckle. While doing his 10th grade at a school, he says that he had only 30% attendance during that time, because of which his parents made him redo 10th grade in a boarding school. Frustrated, he dropped out.

Then, he moved to the Silicon Valley of India, Bengaluru, in his late teens, where he completed his high school through a distance learning program. 

He got his first exposure to sales after he landed a job as a salesman at a furniture store in the city. His second sales job was at a rental library chain, where he was selling library memberships. That’s also where he first got noticed for his abilities. “I was selling library memberships. It so happened that my branch had amazing retention rates, so someone at the corporate office noticed that, and I got a position as the marketing person there.” 

Later, Joel landed his first role in B2B sales at a firm that sold networking security products to the Indian market, where he learned the ropes of inside sales. At his current role in Almabase, he is now among the top-performing SDRs — he has exceeded his quota for two consecutive quarters in 2022 (Q1 and Q2) and has been consistently meeting quotas so far in his stint. 

So, what sets him apart?

a) Ability to not become complacent in whatever he does, which makes him a go-getter when it comes to sales

“I like sales because it gives me that dopamine rush every time I do something,” Joel admits. As his story illustrates, he does not settle easily in a role for long and always looks for something different. In his own words, he “gets bored of things pretty easily.”

“I like shorter feedback loops. If I do something, I need to see the results immediately or in the near future. I can’t wait for a long time to see my efforts materializing,” he says. His personality type — marked by confidence and not giving in to complacence — is compatible with sales, where a go-getter attitude is required for successfully meeting or exceeding quotas.

b) Innately curious nature, which helps in nurturing relationships and overturn adversities

Curiosity has led Joel down many atypical paths in his journey. Being in sales, his innately curious nature also helps in him being deeply interested in his prospects. “I feel if you’re genuinely curious, if you have that mindset to just be interested about people in general, the other part just comes to you naturally.”

c) Relies on consistency and discipline – doesn’t try to control the outcomes

While his personality certainly helps in being a top-performing salesperson, Joel also stresses the importance of consistency and discipline when it comes to sales. “You have to show up every day and do your part,” he says.

“You can actually do everything right and still not hit quota. You have to know that you have to put in the effort consistently and your outcome is not really in your control. All you can control is your efforts.”

2. Breaking down Joel’s cold calling secrets

A receiver with images of callouts around it.

i) Has two call blocks in a day

Joel has two call blocks as per the time zones of his customers in the U.S. The first call block is for the customers within the Eastern Standard Time (EST) time and another for the Pacific Standard Time (PST) prospects. 

Across these two call blocks, he makes 30 to 40 calls in a day. “Because we have smaller lists — we work with very targeted lists — the number of calls is pretty less,” he explains.

ii) Ensures he has a good opener

Sticking to a call script does not provide flexibility to personalize while making the cold call, he opines. However, one thing that is important for him to have nailed down is the opener, as it captures the attention of prospects in the first few seconds of the call.

He shared his opener that he has been using for his cold calls:

I’m just calling you out of the blue, am I crashing a Zoom meeting? Or can I take a minute?”  

This opener makes his prospects curious and gets them talking, he says.

For warm leads, he tweaks the opener a bit: ‘“This is Joel from Almabase. Could you help me out for a moment?” I ask that question so that they are curious about what I want, so I can give them a lot more context,’ he explains. 

For openers, Joel stresses that it’s not about what you say, it’s about how you say it. “The tonality really matters there.”

Being an SDR, Joel feels that his job is to educate the prospect first than convincing them. “I feel you have two kinds of prospects: the one kind is, they are aware of what the problem is and they’re not doing anything about it, and on the other side, they’re not aware of the problem and they don’t know what the solution is,” he observes. 

He asserts that prospects can’t be convinced. “You can only tell people, ‘This is how it is’ in the best way possible and let them make a decision.”

iii) Handling different kinds of objections 

“When looking at objections, I feel you need to figure out if it is a real objection or if it is just a brush-off,” Joel says and elaborates on how he handles the objections that he hears usually while cold calling: 

a) Objection – “I’m busy right now.”

When faced with this objection, Joel says that he would ask them, “When would be a good time to call you back?” 

Once the prospect gives a time, he would ask, “Can I take 30 seconds to tell you why I called?” to check if it is even relevant for him to call them back at that specific time. This is to understand why they’re giving this objection, he notes. “Some people are genuinely busy – they’re probably in a meeting or something and then you don’t want to interrupt that, but some people just want to brush you off.”

b) Objection – “I’m not interested.”

Another common objection that SDRs often hear. From his experience, Joel says it happens because prospects were probably not interested in your pitch at the time or they might not have been listening.

You can reply with something like “Was I way off?” or “Is this a timing issue?” just to see what the other person has to say, he suggests.

c) Objection – “We’re already using a tool from [competitor].”

Sometimes, the prospect might reply that they are using your competitor’s product, which has been serving them well and therefore, they have no intention in purchasing your product. To this, Joel says that he would use replies that affirms what the prospect said, like, “How is the tool working out for you?” or, “Sounds like your tool is getting the job done.” He also uses the mirroring technique, where he repeats the prospect’s last few words in a questioning tone and awaits their response. 

What is off-limits for Joel is to deride the competitor, as it might portray you and your company in a poor light.

“I don’t want to be one of those people who says that “My competitor’s really bad. We are the best in the market. This is how we solve your problem. Purchase our tool and there’s going to be no problems at all.” Nobody likes that kind of person.”

d) Objection – “I’m not the right person.” 

This is a highly disappointing objection, especially to hear it on a call that gets connected after an array of calls that didn’t get through.

But, all hope is not lost, according to Joel. “Even if I’ve done my research, all teams are not structured the same way. They probably won’t be the relevant decision-maker and they let you know,” he explains.

“So, the best possible outcome from this is to get the right person’s name and a reference, so that you can reference that person’s name in another conversation that you have with the right person.”

iv) How to handle a gatekeeper? 

Handling them could be tricky, Joel says from his experience, adding that he is still learning on how to tackle gatekeepers. 

One thing he is clear about is that SDRs should be upright with gatekeepers and tell them that this is indeed a sales call. “I feel that we shouldn’t be disingenuous, you shouldn’t tell them lies because they can see through that. It’s their entire job to keep salespeople out,” he says.

Next comes building rapport with the gatekeepers. This is essential, according to Joel, because they are the ones who must be familiar with the schedule of the decision-maker that you’re trying to reach. “Eventually, they’ll sort of at least drop a message with your decision-maker.”

Usually, he would tell gatekeepers that he is going to send an email with a particular subject line to the decision-maker and would request them to notify the decision-maker of the email. He also suggests noting down their name and email address so that you can follow up using the gatekeeper’s name if needed. “My intention for them is to open my email. If the email content is relevant, probably the decision-maker would respond.”

v) Being curious about the prospect is key to building rapport:

The approach to building rapport with the prospect differs from one SDR to another. However, the underlying principle should be about being curious about them, Joel says.

People have a lot to say, everyone has a very unique perspective with the way they have lived life. So, there’s a lot to learn from everyone.

There’s no cookie cutter way when it comes to rapport building, he adds.

He suggests asking general questions to the prospect, like talking to an acquaintance that you have met after a long time. “Sometimes I’ll talk about how I had such a boring day today or I had an exciting weekend. If it’s after a long weekend, you can talk about it. Based on the answers, you can progress the conversation.”

vi) My First/Worst Cold Calls

a) First cold call:

Joel recalls that his first cold call was for a C-suite executive at a Singapore-based company, and how he was all pumped up about converting all his calls to meetings. “First call in, and I said that I’m from this company, and they were like ‘Not interested’ and just hung up. It was such a rude awakening,” he recounts with a laugh.

b) Worst cold call:

During a call, Joel opened with a line, “Could you help me out for a moment?” Pat came the reply from the prospect: “You just assumed that I had the time to help you out. Who do you think you are?” 

However, all wasn’t bad in this worst cold call, as Joel says that she advised him to not use this line during a sales call.

Interestingly, he managed to book a meeting with her a month after this happened. “She was an executive director who liked golf. So I personalized an email and sent her that. And then she opened it and then she wrote back saying that I got better.” All’s well that ends well, indeed.

vii) Joel’s tips from his successful cold calling journey:

a) Gauge the prospect 

I feel like we should really gauge the kind of people we are calling. We should know what kind of person that is — at least have a rough idea of how they react. The openers should be to be perfected to a point that they really take the time to respond to you.”

“Consent really matters. If they are stuck in the middle of a meeting or they’re doing some important work, it doesn’t really matter how relevant your product is or how good your pitch is. If they don’t have the time to listen to you right now, it doesn’t really matter. I always use permission-based openers and then tweak it.”

c) Show up every day to get better

People are in different moods across the day, you can probably get some at a really happy time on a Friday or like a really bad time. It doesn’t really matter. It’s just that you show up consistently, make that call and then just roll the dice and see what happens. Every weekday you just make that call and see what happens. Just keep showing up and be consistent.”

3. Joel’s cold emailing process

i) Ensures that personalization is relevant to the product

Joel says that he makes his email personalization relevant to his product as well as to the prospect’s interests. It gets him better results than attempting personalization for the sake of it.

“It’s not just personalization for the sake of personalization, but you’re trying to build a narrative around that particular personalization.”

He gives an interesting example that illustrates his approach: “There was this guy who was a firefighter before he joined alumni relations, which is my target persona. So I used “Firefighting during events”. And I made it about how managing events can be like putting out a fire. So I started with that line so that caught his interest.”

However, this might be time-consuming if you’re doing it on scale. “You’ve got to be mindful about when you should use it,” he notes.

ii) Uses fixed timers while personalizing emails at scale

As aiming for high-quality personalization might send any SDR down a rabbit-hole of information, Joel found a way to minimize the time taken to do research, write and send his cold emails: by using fixed 6-minute timers.

“I start the timer, and then I do the research, and then try to wind it up in 6 minutes.” Within this timeframe, he uses Hubspot and LinkedIn to get basic information about his prospect and does a Google search to see whether any news report about his prospect turns up that he can use.  

So, what happens if he’s unable to draft the mail within the 6-minute mark? “If I can’t do that, I’ll probably use a templated version of that email, and then just send it off.” The key here is to not waste time.

iii) Has a maximum of 4 words in your subject lines

Joel restricts his subject lines to a maximum of 4 words. As it is the first thing that prospects see, he aims to pique the prospect’s curiosity with his short subject lines. 

Some of the subject lines he uses are “Got a minute, {prospect name}?” and “Via {person’s name}” (for reference mails). He also tries to keep his subject lines highly relevant to the prospect, as he did with a prospect who shifted from one place to another and he mentioned the names of those two locations in his subject line.

iv) Hyper-personalized subject lines definitely work – but be mindful of the time

For Joel, hyper-personalized subject lines like “Firefighting during events” definitely work, but he notes that hyper-personalization can be tricky when done on scale. “You have to be mindful about where you spend your time too. So, it’s always a balance. If you feel like there’s something really relevant in their profile that you can personalize for, you can actually use that,” he says. 

v) Uses a 5-email sequence

While cold emailing, Joel usually uses a 5-email sequence for a prospect. The first email will be highly personalized, the second one will have a value proposition and say why his product is relevant to the prospect. The remaining emails will contain information that’s industry-relevant, but not product-related. 

Usually, his first emails get the most number of responses. But he has also found that his third and fourth emails with industry-related information also getting replies sometimes, as these are generally seen as nurture content, he says.

vi) Doesn’t use a breakup email

For the last email in his sequence, Joel doesn’t use any breakup template as he finds such breakup emails to be passive-aggressive. “If they were really interested, they would have probably checked us out by now,” he laughs.

4. Tête-à-tête with Joel

Two Cups of Cappuccino

One thing that you will not compromise on when it comes to work-life balance?

Sleep. I try to sleep at least 7-8 hours.

Sales leaders you look up to?

Josh Braun. He focuses more on the effort and having conversations more than trying to convince people. I feel like that’s more of a sales philosophy that I resonate with.

What do you do after work to rejuvenate yourself?

I try to listen to music or a podcast or two, or maybe read. Sometimes I play video games with my friends and then sleep. On weekends, I have a dirt bike, so I’ve been off-roading with a friend of mine who does track races.

Favorite sales podcast?

30 Minutes to President’s Club. They give really actionable tips rather than just talking about how they do things. They give you clear cut steps on how to improve your current process.

People you follow on LinkedIn?

Trent Dressel, Senior Account Executive at Qualtrics. Also, Nick Cegelski and Armand Farrokh, the hosts of ‘30 Minutes to President’s Club’.

Interviewed and written by: Akileish R

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