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Sales Onboarding: Twice as Good in Half the Time

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Fri Apr 24 2015

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Sales Onboarding: Twice as Good in Half the Time-b208b1669105bdebbc2330aa8bc19fe50dd29bed20469fa096601e4ba7258c53

Onboarding is the method by which employers bring new workers into the organization and help them acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to perform effectively. In the sales profession, onboarding of new hires is generally recognized as a critical activity. Given that, one might question why we typically do such a poor job of it. 

\[Insert dramatic pause here.\] 

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Yes, that’s a blanket statement. No, I’m not a fan of generalizations. But in most organizations where I've consulted, worked in, or spoken to the training or enablement teams, ineffective onboarding was a known issue—and there was no great plan to address it. Even when there was a plan, it was typically just organized content, rather than something that would radically shorten ramp-up time or increase sales productivity of new hires. 

New Sales Rep Ramp-Up Times

For fun (Yes, I’m odd), I set a time limit one weekend and searched the Internet for onboarding ramp-up data. I pieced it together from various sources (which all shared some version of CSO Insights' reports), and found data for 2003, 2007-2009, and more recently for 2012-2014. The data may not be 100 percent accurate because I didn't retrieve it directly from the source, which I openly disclaim, but it was all published by others and should be "directionally" correct.

Whether you work with the team at CSO Insights, the wise researchers at CEB, my friends and pundits at Forrester or Aberdeen, the sharp folks at IDC, or some of my industry colleagues and friends at the analyst group SiriusDecisions, I highly recommend you consider a data-driven, fact-based approach toward managing your business—not a search-engine compilation effort like I did for my own amusement. 

In any case, here’s what I found: 

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Sales Onboarding: Twice as Good in Half the Time-3cc1af8c77789670e82359de687940405d95b0b535456e7caf875891b2c8df1b

Source: Compiled via Internet search from sources that referred to CSO Insights’ annual surveys. 

Here are some quick thoughts on the data.

  • It takes many companies seven to 12 months to ramp-up new sales reps. Other than 2003, that’s the biggest bucket in the reported years.

  • I wondered about the variance from year to year in the tighter bands, and can only guess it’s due to a difference in the target demographics or respondents. I can’t say for sure or speak to the statistical significance of those comparisons or variations.

  • Ramp up times have generally extended over the years. There’s variance, but if you trend-line the data, it seems to be headed in the wrong direction. There could be quite a few reasons for that, though, including a more complex, competitive business environment, a shift toward a buyers’ market, or an increase in complexity of problems, opportunities, and solutions to address them. Another reason could be some year-to-year differences in research protocol or other speculative explanations. Whatever the reasons, it appears to be taking longer.

Things seemed really different in 2003, didn't they? Ah, the good ol’ days. 

We Can Do Better

Despite complex factors and some uncertainties in this reporting, I contend that we can do better. I believe this because I've helped companies do it. Here are some facts to consider to get started on a new system for onboarding: 

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  1. Understand the importance of effective selection and hiring for sales.

  2. Create clear definitions for the various elements of orientation and onboarding, so you’re team is clear on terms and are “speaking” the same language.

  3. Develop a process for how to manage things “in the beginning,” which applies to HR, IT, telecom, facilities, logins, and other logistics. The goal is to remove obstacles and distractions for new employees and do as much as possible in the pre-start logistic phases to enable reps to focus on sales performance as quickly as possible.

  4. Outline common onboarding mistakes and what to avoid, such as the legendary onboarding method of “go get ‘em, tiger!”

  5. Set the right performance milestones, which will become the foundation for how you organize your curriculum and measure success. Determine lead and lag indicators for both learning performance and sales performance.

  6. Design content that will lead to results in the real world. A key differentiator, in my experience, is the specific way in which you chunk, sequence, and layer content and design curriculum to support the fastest-possible achievement of your pre-set performance milestones.

  7. Execute within the framework of an effective learning system to ensure you get the results you need.

Clearly, you will not be able to plug-and-play right into this system without some thought. You will need to do some work to figure out how to best apply it to your company and its sales nuances. With that said, I've helped companies both radically shorten ramp-up times, while increasing new-hire performance—often at the same time. It takes focus and real effort, as well as a different approach than I normally hear about. Here are some of the results achieved with this method:

  • decreased ramp-up time by 23 percent, 34 percent, 47 percent, and 52 percent (3-18 months)

  • at 120 days, new reps outperformed a control group of five-year reps by 21 percent (6 months)

  • increased sales/rep in the 90 days after training by 2.3/month – average increase of $183k/class or $36.6mm/year (9 months)

  • improved average profitability/new reps by 11 percent (4 months)

  • improved new rep win-rate by 16 percent (6 months)

  • $398mm YOY revenue increase, $9.96mm net profit increase, and a 400 percent ROI (12 months). (Disclaimer: This was the result from a combination of projects, of which new sales onboarding was a part.)

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