key-96233_640The effectiveness of sales onboarding is critical. Not only is it the launch pad to sales success or failure, it also has a significant impact on both employee retention and engagement.

According to a study by the Aberdeen Group, employees in companies who offered effective onboarding programs showed the following results:

  • 71% of employees exceeded expectations as compared to only 8% in laggard companies
  • 72% of employees rated themselves as highly engaged as compared to only 9% in laggard companies

And in exit interviews, 15% of employees cited the lack of an effective onboarding program as a contributing factor in their decision to quit.

Review the 10 keys below to see if your onboarding program has the elements needed to set new sales reps up for success.

1) Defines what “onboard” means.
In the words of Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.” So, before you start brainstorming agenda items to include in your sales onboarding program, make sure you know exactly what it means for a sales rep to be fully onboard. This definition should be specific and measurable.

For example, you might include expectations around:

  • Percent of quota achieved at 30, 60, and 90 days
  • Number of closed deals at 30, 60, and 90 days
  • Number of opportunities at various stages of the pipeline
  • Velocity of opportunities through the various stages of the pipeline
  • Level of adherence to the sales process

You could even create a behavioral-anchored rating scale that spells out exactly what above average, average, and below average performance looks like for the competencies of the sales rep role.

You are now in a position to reverse-engineer what you need to teach new reps in your onboarding program to achieve these expectations.

2) Is organized around the job rather than topically.
How you organize the information in your onboarding program can make a whale of a difference in the speed at which sales reps ramp up to full productivity.

If you organize the information topically, you leave it to newbie sales reps to figure out how what they are learning applies to what they are supposed to do. Some will get it right. But, most will waste time floundering around trying to figure it out, but never quite getting it. (This is one reason your sales performance curve is bell shaped.)

When you organize the information in the training around the job, you connect the dots by providing context. For example, you might discuss culture in terms of its affect on how new sales reps interact with buyers rather than as a separate topic onto itself.

3) Teaches the big picture and the nitty gritty details of what is expected on the job.
Sales reps need to understand the company’s overall go-to-market strategy, how the company fits strategically into the market place, and the sales organization’s priorities. Without this 50,000-foot view, it’s hard for individual sales reps to understand how they fit in.

At the same time, sales reps need to leave the onboarding program knowing the nitty gritty details of precisely what they are supposed to do when they get back to their desks – all day, everyday. If they don’t know what to do, I can guarantee they will waste time. And, more than in any other function, time equals money in sales.

4) Takes a just-in-time rather than a 2-weeks-at-a-time approach.
It’s more logistically convenient to sequester sales reps away in a multi-week boot camp. Here’s the problem, though. People are not computers. You can’t just upload 2 week’s worth of information into their heads and expect them to be able to retrieve it for use on demand.

What works a lot better is a little bit of learning followed by a little bit of application followed by a little bit of feedback. It’s the application and feedback part of this cycle that builds lasting knowledge and skills.

5) Provides plenty of examples of what “right” looks like.
Examples can include emails, scripts for calling, agendas for meetings and discussions, and templates for presentations. It can also include role-playing interactions with buyers.

The more examples you provide, the more you take the winging-it factor out of the equation.

6) Includes structured job shadowing.
Shadowing is a standard component of most onboarding programs. Unfortunately, it is often more of a parking strategy than a learning strategy. A new rep is essentially parked beside a senior rep to pick up whatever they can get out of observing the senior rep at work.

To get the most value from shadowing, give new reps specific assignments. For example, you might ask them to focus on objection handling techniques during one shadowing session and how to leave voice mail messages during another. You can then gather all new reps together to share what they learned during their shadowing assignment.

I also recommend reverse shadowing. During reverse shadowing, a more senior rep shadows the new rep and provides feedback on their performance.

7) Includes “real life” activities.
Too many sales onboarding programs stop at the role-play. There are two problems with this.

First, simulated activities, such are role-plays, are neat and tidy. In other words, they go pretty much according to plan. Real life is a mess. You can’t predict with absolute certainty what will happen.

Second, pressure, which can undermine performance, is low during a simulated activity when not much as at stake. Nothing can be further from the truth in real life.

This is why it’s important to take off the training wheels during the onboarding program by including some real life activities.

I wish I could take credit for this idea. But, I am stealing it from John Barrows. In his prospecting class, John talks about Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 accounts. Tier 3 accounts are a poor fit for your solution. He recommends using them for practice.

Respectful practice, of course. So make sure to use simulated activities to prepare new reps to be as polished and professional as possible before they practice with Tier 3 accounts.

8) Includes a process to foster individual accountability.
Remember those goals you defined in #1? Make sure to share them with new reps as well as a way to track their progress towards them. This helps make them accountable for their own performance.

9) Gives them the opportunity to create, not just memorize, knowledge.
Sales playbooks, competitive battle cards, and other done-for-you resources can and should be created by sales reps, themselves. Very few people have photographic memories. They learn and retain more when they create knowledge rather than when it is spoon-fed to them.

Plus, when they do the creating, you get to see what they learned, how well they learned it and where remedial coaching might be needed.

10) Is a learning process.
I don’t think I could ever learn enough about sales. I go over each meeting in my head thinking about what went well and what I could have done better. I devour books and courses. The art of selling. Can you ever truly master an art?

This is why it is key that the sales onboarding program is structured as an unending series of learning opportunities instead of a one and done event. There is always room for improvement.