Sales onboarding – plugging a big productivity leak – part 1

By: Alex Tolmasoff Sales Operations, Sales Productivity

bucket with holesKey components of a best in class new hire onboarding program – key program principles and strategy

Jim had a problem – as VP of Sales for a high-growth technology company, he just received approval to add 50 new sales reps this year … which sounded great, until he recognized senior management’s expectations for practically immediate results from this group of newbies.

Jim knew that his organization’s start-up culture lacked process discipline. Already, too many new reps were “drinking from the fire hose” and drowning – taking nine months, or in some cases, 18 months to fully ramp. Jim knew ramp time for his industry should be six months or less. But he didn’t have the time or bandwidth to mentor each rep like he did with the first few reps he had hired. He needed an onboarding program that would operate at scale to accelerate new hire ramp time. And he had no idea where to start.

Most companies under-invest in onboarding programs and focus too much on product training for new hires. This often leads to longer ramp times. (Ramp time is the time it takes for a new hire to reach full productivity). Ramp times can be 2x to 5x longer compared to best practice. This results in a serious hit to productivity, costing companies millions of dollars.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Effective onboarding programs are possible. This article defines the elements of successful onboarding programs which can reduce new hire attrition by 15 percent and increase new hire productivity (e.g., achievement to goal) by 40 percent in the first year.

Our framework has three parts, supported by a proven methodology to customize and implement the onboarding program: 1) Program Principles and Goals, 2) Program Strategy, and 3) the Program Execution Engine of people, process, tools, governance and integration with other Sales Enablement programs. This article describes the first two parts, Program Principles and Goals, and Program Strategy. We will cover the Program Execution Engine in Part 2 of this blog series.

Program Principles and Goals: Defining onboarding program outcomes is critical. Typically owned by Sales Operations, Sales Enablement, or Sales Training, these outcomes reflect what key stakeholders expect from reps at the end of an onboarding program (e.g., at six months on the job) and along the way. Guiding principles should also be established early to ensure program design work aligns with leadership vision. In a recent client example, AGI helped Sales Enablement facilitate a planning and brainstorming session with senior sales leadership to align on a 120-day-to-ramp goal, with a specific set of 120-day milestones (such as completed training, pipeline targets, etc.) essential for long-term success and sufficient to meet financial objectives (e.g., be self-sustaining). As a result, the entire program was fully supported by senior leaders and the program was adopted ahead of their implementation timeline.

Program Strategy: There are three strategic options all onboarding programs must decide – content, structure, and measurement.

Content: Content is the “what” of an onboarding program – what content do reps need to master to be successful? This includes classic product training but goes well beyond this to include sales methodology and what we call internal “Navigation”:

  • Navigation: Navigating an organization can be a daunting task for a new hire. A program needs to emphasize how to “get things done,” including how business processes and tools work, who manages them, and how to get in touch with various people in the company.
  • Product & Business: To shorten ramp time, new hires need to know what they are selling, who they are selling to, and why their products/services are better than anyone else’s (and where the competition might have an edge). New hires should have a mix of online, one-on-one, and instructor-led training courses to support their growth.
  • Sales: Most organizations have a training methodology that ties into sales enablement tools, such as a CRM tool, and is supplemented by additional support and onboarding tools specific to their role. New hires need to understand and align to this approach.

Structure: Structure is “how” the content will be best deployed to minimize ramp time. In other words, each piece of content requires a structured set of learning stages in order to get to mastery. These stages are:

  • Knowledge: Structured combination of online, experiential and live instructor-led training to deliver the knowledge in practical, easy-to-understand terminology that a new hire can use with customers.
  • Practice: To build confidence, new hires need safe opportunities to try the knowledge out – these include role plays, coached ride-alongs and call shadowing, and the opportunity to get real-time feedback.
  • Field Execution: Finally, new hires should be assessed in the field on their ability to execute in real customer interactions. This process must be standardized in the form of an objective assessment tool so new hires can proactively seek experiences that lead to successful performance.

Measurement: Measurement is the “how much” piece of an onboarding program – how much content should a new hire master and by when? There are two components:

  • Milestones: The onboarding program needs a set of clearly defined milestones. Milestones are leading indicators of long term success – in other words, if a new hire achieves milestones in the pre-defined time (typically three to six months), they are likely to achieve their year one sales targets. Milestones typically come in three flavors: education (e.g., courses, training sessions), activities (e.g., field rides, presentations), and “financial” metrics (e.g., average close rate, new deals in pipeline).
  • Key Performance Indicators (KPIs): Sales leadership should not have to wait three to six months to know if their new hires are on track – thus, onboarding KPIs are a must-have. KPIs are stepping stones to milestone achievement. KPIs are clear, objective and measurable, which allows the program owner to report on progress and help ensure new hires stay on track.

Are you like Jim in our story? Are you faced with the task of hiring and quickly ramping lots of sales people? Maybe you’re only hiring a few sales people but need to redirect the existing sales team toward some new products/markets or approaches? In either case, a good sales onboarding program can be a critical component to your success. New-hire onboarding programs are typically product-focused, only providing reps with the basic product knowledge they need but not the other keys to success outlined here. In our second blog post we describe the Program Execution Engine of an effective onboarding program, including the people, process, tools, governance and integration with other enablement investments at a company.

Wondering if your sales onboarding program needs an upgrade? Please contact us.

Co-author: Arshad Carim is a Principal with Alexander Group and co-leads the firm’s Sales Ops practice.

Read Part 2 of this blog series.

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Alex Tolmasoff

Alex Tolmasoff is a manager in the San Francisco office. His primary expertise is in sales and marketing strategy, product management, sales training and project management. His previous client engagements include start-up go-to-market strategies and new business initiatives with Fortune 500 companies.

Prior to joining the Alexander Group, Alex spent two years working in sales operations at McKesson where he focused on sales effectiveness benchmarking, process improvement and sales training. Prior to McKesson, Alex worked for five years in product management and sales operations at Medtronic. Prior to this, he founded a highly successful charter school in California. Alex holds an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, and a B.S. in molecular biology from University of California, Berkeley.

Arshad Carim

Arshad Carim is a principal in the San Francisco office, with over 24 years of business and consulting experience. Arshad leads the firm’s health care efforts in the Western region. He also leads consulting engagements and teams, manages key account relationships, drives business development activities and supports talent development. With experience across multiple industries including life sciences, medical device, high technology, and general B2B, Arshad leverages his cross-industry depth to create and implement high-impact solutions.

Prior to joining the Alexander Group, Arshad spent six years gaining experience in various marketing and sales management positions in the telecommunications industry. Arshad has directly managed a large regional wireless company’s local market sales force, providing leadership to a team of sales representatives. He managed major nationwide product launches and developed marketing plans for new feature releases. Arshad holds an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, a B.S. in marketing/management from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School of Business, and a B.A.Sc. from the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science.