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Use Innovative Sales Onboarding to Radically Accelerate Ramp-Up

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Sales onboarding remains one of the most talked about topics in sales enablement. Yet, for all the programs and approaches discussed in recent years, I haven’t heard much that moves the needle on the metrics that matter most.

To be sure, there are pockets of innovation and excellence, but it’s not widespread. That said, staying the course is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when results are optimal. The buzz I hear about onboarding, though, is always about how sales enablement leaders simply aim to shorten ramp-up times and boost the sales productivity of new hires. We need to think bigger.

As the saying goes, if we want different results, we need to do something differently. At the 2019 ATD SELL Conference in Las Vegas, I’m going to share an approach to onboarding that has produced excellent results for me with multiple employers and clients over many years. (The genesis of this method started in 1991, with the first full program running in 2003. The approach has evolved since its inception, but the core concepts remain the same.)
Here are just some of the results that this method has produced:

• Decreased ramp-up time of 23 percent, 34 percent, 47 percent, and 52 percent (five different companies; took 3-18 months).
• At 120 days, new reps outperformed a control group of five-year reps by 21 percent
• Increased sales per rep in the 90 days post-training by 48 percent, resulting in a $36.6MM increase in year-over-year new-hire production.
• Improved average profitability of new reps by 11 percent.
• Improved new rep win rate by 16 percent.

Want to achieve similar results? Here’s the formula I used:

• Understand the reasons training fails and know what to avoid in onboarding.
• Get sales hiring right.
• Set performance milestones.
• Use the right training content.
• Develop an effective curriculum strategy.
• Maximize modern learning methods.
• Execute with systems thinking.

Understanding and Avoiding Failure

Most of my systems and methods are born from a problem-solving approach. I recommend starting with understanding the reasons for failure and helping others in your organization recognize and align around them. Indeed, you’ll need that understanding and alignment to gain support for the new method of onboarding.

So, why DOES sales training fail? Let’s take a look:

• Training is not the right solution for the performance problem being addressed.
• Training is the right solution, but the wrong content was used.
• The learning design was poor.
• There was no purposeful learning sustainment or plan for reinforcement.
• Too little skill development and feedback loops were incorporated into the experience.
• There was no purposeful transfer support plan.
• Learning fails to use a coaching to mastery approach.
• No measurement and analysis plan were incorporated into the program.
• Lack of performance management (accountability for using what was taught)
• A comprehensive change management plan was not applied.

Amid this backdrop, here’s some guidance on what to avoid when developing and delivering onboarding:

• There is no plan. (This happens more often than you’d think.)
• Logistics derail learning, and uncoordinated pre-boarding or orientation interrupts learning.
• Logistics, orientation/pre-boarding, and onboarding are combined into a confusing mash-up.
• There is too much content, delivered too soon.
• The experience consists of an endless parade of presentations from SMEs. (Does the phrase “death by PowerPoint” sound familiar?)
• Onboarding is an event-based approach, such as a boot camp, with no follow-up.
• There are no checkpoints, gating, or assessments.
• There is little support, such as coaching, to aid transferring and sustaining skill development to on-the-job performance.
• Onboarding focuses on conveying a single message: “Go get ‘em, tiger!” In other words, onboarding centers on giving new hires a kick in the seat of pants and told to go sell something.

Getting Sales Hiring Right

Hiring right is the first step of effective sales onboarding, especially when onboarding is focused on achieving sales productivity goals rather than simply moving new hires through training. Figure 1 (see below) outlines the sales selection system I’ve implemented to help companies hire more effectively.

Figure 1. Sales Selection System


Setting Performance Milestones

As obvious as this may be, I’ll say it anyway: setting performance milestones and building your onboarding specifically to help reps achieve them is one of the differentiating factors that has made this system successful.

For starters, determine three to five major milestones. I’ve seen up to nine milestones, but I think a smaller number works better. Base your organization’s milestones on the complexity of the sale and length of the sale cycle.

Keep in mind, there is great potential for variance in determining milestones. For example, in a relatively simple sale (transactional, fewer decision makers involved, lower price point, shorter sales cycle) in a business with monthly targets, the milestones might all lag indicators, such as 1) the first sale, 2) the first month at quota, and 3) when the rep hits [#] consecutive months at quota or [#] or [$] sales made. Meanwhile, a company with a very complex, high-ticket solution with multiple executive decision makers and an 18-month average sales cycle, the milestones will likely be lead indicators like:

  • [#] appointments set
  • [#] discovery meetings conducted
  • [#] finals presentations/proposals
  • [#] number of contracts sent
  • [#] of wins.

Next, benchmark the milestones for the recent past and current state, whenever possible. Measure them and go forward. Finally, build everything around these milestones and how you will support their achievement.

Using the Right Training Content

Beyond orientation and pre-boarding, the content you teach during sales onboarding should comprise specific job-related knowledge and skills that will enable new hires to reach success. This includes what your reps should be doing on-the-job, why they should do it, and how they should do (especially the how-to, including their sales process and sales methodology).

The content you need to teach will vary. The list below offers a few ideas to get you started; you will need to determine which items apply best to your sales.

• Industry: domain expertise, business acumen, insights
• Market: problems, risks, opportunities, implications
• Customers: ICP, buyer personas, buyer’s journey
• Territory/Accounts: accounts, contacts, current state, goals
• Solutions: products, services, capabilities, differentiators, value, outcomes
• Sales process: stages, objectives, tasks, exit criteria, aligned to the buying process
• Sales methodology: sales competencies, and training and top-producer practices for lead generation and prospecting, opportunity management (including resolving concerns and negotiating), and account management.
• Policy and procedure: internal departmental collaboration and hand-offs, standard operating procedures (SOP), forecasting expectations and process
• Tools: CRM, sales enablement tools, analytics, organization, collaboration, collateral, performance support, other systems

If possible, glean the content from a top-producer analysis, or compile a list of best practices that are known to work in your industry and company.

Developing an Effective Curriculum Strategy

This stage is where the performance milestones and the content merge to help you achieve your desired outcomes. While the concept here is simple, execution is rarely easy. In fact, developing a curriculum is hard to do well, which makes it all the more valuable and important to get right. An effective curriculum allows you to reduce what your reps need to learn at one time (more bite-sized, if you will), and laser focus them on what will get them to their next milestone and desired performance result as quickly, efficiently, and effectively as possible.

From your assembled content, select and organize what content is pre-requisite and need-to-know (process, methodology) to achieve each milestone. Use the instructional design concept of “chunk, sequence, layer” to organize the curriculum. Organize like content together (in chunks), sequence these chunks in an order that makes sense (perhaps workflow), and once a concept or skill is learned, layer the next chunk in the sequence on top, building toward the complete set of competencies required to reach the performance milestone.


When pre-requisites are taught, for each milestone or module, teach the workflow and what the reps need to do on-the-job. I don’t mean for this to be on-the-job training (OJT)—although well-done, structured OJT is a sound instructional strategy. Instead, teach new hires what they need to do when they are working, from left to right, in their process workflow. Figure 2 presents a high-level representation of aligning onboarding curriculum to specific milestones.

Figure 2. Example of Content by Milestone

I’m only partly kidding when I joke that this is where the fist fights will occur. I once had a sales operations leader lobby adamantly that new hires needed to learn how to use their e-signature software, during an early onboarding training session he was conducting. This was despite the fact that the company had a nine-month average sales cycle and none of these new reps would use the software until the near end of their first deal. Resist this mindset, educate on the “why,” and get to the need-to-know content to reach each successive performance milestone. You’ll gain speed and improve performance.

Maximizing Modern Learning Methods

This part of the process focuses on how you bring your curriculum to life. There are many options here, but Figure 3 outlines these core principles:

  • Using assessments and personalized learning paths that can adapt to individual reps’ needs, speeding progress.
  • Validating skills or certifying readiness is the ultimate test of when you can set your reps loose on your customers.
  • Maximizing mobile and self-directed learning options, whenever possible, along with the personalized path options, will allow reps to progress at the maximum pace that their capabilities will allow.

Figure 3. Modern Learning Methods


Executing With Systems Thinking

Execution with systems thinking is how you support your sales reps as they progress through your curriculum—to get the results we’re all seeking. Focus for now on the Sales Training System (right side, Figure 4). The training system contains three stages to prepare for change, guide the behavior changes you want to see as a result of the training, and cement the changes in your culture.

Figure 4. Sales Systems Thinking

What’s more, the training system is a subset of the Sales Readiness System (left side, Figure 4), which consists of content, tools, and analytics). The 5 Stages of Sales Mastery and Behavior Change (see Figure 5 and Figure 6) are a subset of this system and are very powerful when used well. (Read my ATD post, “ The Foundation of Sales Enablement and Sales Effectiveness,” for a detailed explanation.)

Figure 5. The 5 Stages of Sales Mastery and Behavior Change

Kunkle_Figure5_5 StagesofSalesMastery.png
Figure 6. Sales Tools and Services Applied to 5 Stages of Sales Mastery

In Closing

I presented a subset of this content a few years ago at ATD International Conference & EXPO. A year later, I was back at the event, presenting on another topic. At the beginning of my session, an attendee raised his hand and shared that he attended my presentation the previous year and applied what he learned, with great results. It’s gratifying to get that kind of feedback and to know I helped someone be more successful. It’s also a nice tribute that this approach works for others.

If you’re not already attending, I hope you’ll consider joining me at ATD SELL, where we’ll take a deep dive into the details of this approach. I’d also love to hear from you, online or in-person, about your success—or challenges—over time. If you have questions or comments now, feel free to reach out.

About the Author

Mike Kunkle is a respected sales transformation architect and internationally-recognized sales training and sales enablement expert.

Mike has spent 35 years in the sales profession and 25 years as a corporate leader or consultant, helping companies drive dramatic revenue growth through best-in-class training strategies and his proven-effective sales transformation methodologies. At one company, as a result of six projects, he and his team were credited with enabling an accretive $398MM in revenue, year-over-year. At another, within 9 months, newly-hired sales reps with 120 days on the job were outperforming incumbent reps with 5 years with the company. Mike is the founder of Transforming Sales Results, LLC, and today, works as the Vice President of Sales Enablement Services for SPARXiQ (formerly SPA & SPASIGMA), where he advises clients, writes, speaks at conferences, develops and leads webinars, designs sales training courses, delivers workshops, and designs sales enablement systems that get results.

You can connect with Mike on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter at @Mike_Kunkle.

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Starting the development of onboarding programs having a clear and specific "end in mind" (like in Mike's article, Accelerating ramp-up by X) sets you up for success of not only the program but by demonstrating tangible VALUE for your initiative.
Perfect. Keep beating the value drum, Carlos. We need to evolve past initiatives to outcomes.
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