While the sales enablement space is relatively young – no search would recognize the title any time before the last decade or so – we practitioners have been refining our skills long enough to know what great onboarding looks like. How does your onboarding program’s maturity measure up? Here are three effective ways to approach sales onboarding:
1. Start obsessing on competencies.
To paraphrase the conventional wisdom, you can’t enable what you don’t measure, and it’s impossible to gauge sales excellence without determining what success really means. Now I bet you’re thinking, “Isn’t sales the easiest of all job personas to judge? It’s no more complex than whether or not someone hits quota.” Well, yes and no. Quota attainment, like forecast accuracy and margin, is a lagging indicator that tells us what has already happened. You can’t change it; you can only act on it by sending someone to Winner’s Circle, re-training, performance plan purgatory or on to HR for offboarding. Instead, high-performing sales enablers focus on leading indicators over which they have more control: certifying the rep’s ability to deliver the value proposition to a live buyer within X weeks of hire date, building Y dollars of legitimate pipeline prior to his or her 120-day review, or consuming and “teaching back” Z courses to pass the assessment of their onboarding content absorption. It’s far easier to help someone speak more eloquently, learn time management skills so they contact more prospects, or adapt their learning style while in training than after an underwhelming quarter or a year. Defining and inspiring excellence in sales rep competency attainment remains at the heart of what enablement should be accomplishing. Competencies are not traits; we all want to hire motivated, curious, confident self-starters. In reality, however, there are certain things you can’t and shouldn’t have to teach. It’s better to focus internal education on the knowledge, skills and processes that engender great buyer conversations.
2. Take your hiring cues from Henry Ford.
The originator of mass production, this automotive pioneer recognized that to refine assembly line effectiveness and maintain consistent output quality, he would need to ensure any repeated activity occurred in a predictable rhythm. To apply this metaphor to sales staffing, there are fewer benefits to engaging in “onesie-twosie” hiring and training quota carriers. Until the mythical “singularity” fully connects man and machine, the resources required to hire and onboard sales professionals are far more efficiently deployed when the enterprise organizes pre-planned waves of hiring activity. When the sales and operations planning process is strong, it’s easier, for example, to budget and allocate resources around recruiting and hiring pre-determined quantities of reps who share a start date and, more significantly, collectively participate in monthly or quarterly sales onboarding classes. Not only will the allocation of enablement and HR resources proceed more efficiently, but also bringing on waves of new hires will yield benefits around the competitive spirit and social learning advantages of grouped trainees. Plus, if you’ll forgive a little analyst geekout, it’s far easier to measure onboarding effectiveness when the “n equals” value is greater than one.
3. Don’t remove the training wheels too soon.
Speaking of applying pass/fail thresholds to onboarding programs, we consistently see organizations rushing new reps into the field. In a recent survey, 44 percent of responding companies answered the question, “When are your reps ready for customer engagement?” with “When their manager says so.” Seriously? With all due respect to both players-turned-managers and career sales leaders, another 28 percent also put b-to-b sellers in front of buyers on their first day on the job – so, let’s just say there’s significant room for data-driven improvement here. The next cohort of survey answers – 22 percent – considers coursework or boot camp completion to be valid reasons to release new sellers into the wild. This isn’t a bad approach, but legitimate concerns around those who seek to short-circuit or game learning systems or mistaking completed activities for true learning immersion results can raise suspicions about the quality of course design. Only three percent of enterprises indicate that formal assessment or certification represents their go/no-go inflection point around what completed training looks like, but this is an optimal approach. It should vary by selling persona (inside, outside, hunter, farmer), product line, complexity of sale, geography and any other variable that, in the future, might be used to retroactively assert that a rep isn’t performing at plan because of inadequate training. To borrow from the old Fram Oil Filter ad, sales enablers can do onboarding right the first time around, or pay for it later with lost credibility.
All of these approaches involve sales enablers who are willing to take a mature, professional stand for what they know, and our research proves, are the best practices to onboarding b-to-b sellers correctly first, and swiftly second. The right to do so is earned by utilizing these very practices to move the needle on sales effectiveness – more sellers exhibiting competency excellence – and sales efficiency – supporting their ability to do great work at higher scale.
Peter capitalizes on 20+ years of revenue growth leadership in sales enablement, sales talent management, and operational expertise. Finding a better, faster way to help B2B sales teams beat quota drives just about every topic, company, rep, and channel partner he engages. Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterOstrow