“Sink or Swim” is not an Effective Onboarding Plan for New Sales Representatives

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One of the most consistent complaints I hear from small and mid-size business owners is that “many of my new sales hires don’t work out.”  When I ask about the process they use to help their new rep, the business owner’s response generally focuses on the recruiting and hiring process that they utilized to select the correct candidate.  Their answer usually ignores what the new rep encounters once hired.  The lack of any new hire onboarding plan is a primary cause of the high washout rate that these companies experience.  In order to retain top talent, you need to do more than hire the right person, hand them a computer and a lead list, point them to their cubicle and expect great sales results.  A carefully thought out new rep onboarding plan is essential.

A well-designed onboarding plan will measurably increase the likelihood that a new hire will be successful:

  • The Recruiting Roundtable found that an effective onboarding program can improve employee performance by 11.5%.
  • The Sales Management Association noted that firms with effective onboarding programs have 10% greater sales growth rates and 14% better sales and profit objective achievement.
  • In a Harvard Business Review article, Keith Ferrazzi notes “Nearly 33% of new hires look for a new job within their first six months on the job. (Among Millennials, that percentage is even higher … and it happens earlier.)  Twenty-three percent of new hires turn over before their first anniversary.”

The data is compelling!!!  While CEOs of larger companies can turn this problem over to their sales leader with support from the human resources department, many small business owners don’t have this luxury.

The business owner will need to drive this change, but he may not know what a solid plan looks like.  Outlined below are the key elements for a successful sales onboarding plan:

Make a Great First Impression – From the moment the new hire enters your office, he or she is evaluating whether or not they made the right decision.  If their first day starts with a warm greeting by someone who was clearly expecting them and has their workspace all set up and ready to go, your new salesperson starts to feel at ease.  When they get to their desk and find their business cards, their laptop, office supplies and a welcome letter that outlines their agenda for the first week, they will realize that this is an organization that pays attention to details.

Share the Vision – It is important for any salesperson to have a clear understanding of the strategic direction of the company they represent.  That starts with a clear understanding of the company’s objectives and go-to-market strategy.  One of the great aspects of being an SMB, is that the leadership team has an opportunity to make sure every employee understands and can present the firm’s vision.  If you are a business owner, spend time with every new hire to make certain that they get a clear picture of what you are trying to achieve.

Highlight the Sales Strategy – The new rep needs to know the target customers, the territory they will cover, the prospecting strategy, and targeted decision makers and influencers by role.  Once they are comfortable with who the target is, the next step is to make certain that the rep can clearly present your value proposition and the points that differentiate your company from the competition.

Review the Defined Sales Process – One of the most important steps in onboarding a new salesperson is to review the sales process to confirm that the rep understands the sales stages, questions to ask at each stage, requirements to move to the next stage, and the job responsibilities of each team member. A lot of wasted effort can be avoided by ensuring that the new salesperson follows the sales process.

Introduce the Tools and Resources – A new sales rep must know what tools are available and how to use them to their maximum advantage.  If the rep is not familiar with your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, it is especially important that they receive training on how to utilize the CRM to further their sales effort.  The onboarding process should also cover the system for developing quotes and proposals, the contract and order process, the available marketing materials, and how to access information about your products and services.  If part of your sales process requires a product demonstration, the rep needs to have a chance to sit in on demonstrations by some of your top performers before being asked to conduct a live demo.

Provide an Overview of the Organizational Structure – If a rep doesn’t understand how your organization operates, his or her productivity will suffer.  Rather than force the rep to discover on their own who the go-to people are in your company, make it easy for your new person.  Don’t just provide an organization chart and walk away. Introduce the rep to the key players in critical support departments.  Provide the rep with a chance to ask questions and get to know the best way to interact with people in other areas of the company.

Go Over the Compensation Plan in Detail – Successful salespeople thoroughly understand their compensation plan.  A solid comp plan will direct the rep toward the right activities.  If, for example, the company wants to drive new logos, the compensation plan should reward such behavior.  By spending time making sure that every new rep knows how the comp system works, management is helping to direct their future activities.

Outline Your Expectations and KPIs – A model for proper sales behavior should be embedded in your key sales metrics.  Your KPIs should provide a road map for the new rep.  It should specify what activities are important and provide measurable objectives for each. Establish clearly-defined goals for the number of contacts, the number of active accounts in development, the number of weekly proposals, and the size of the sales funnel.  Your rep will not only know what is expected of them, but they will be able to track their performance against the target.  This enables the rep to correct course early if she/he sees that they are failing to meet one or more KPIs.

Role Play as Often as Possible – As your new rep goes through each stage of the onboarding process, have them role play with other reps and management.  After you train on the value proposition, make sure the rep is capable of articulating the message in their own words.   Take a similar approach after the defined sales process is explained.  At each stage, the rep’s skills and confidence should grow.

Hold a “Final” Exam – Before letting the rep work directly with customers and prospects, they need to pass a final exam.  The objective is for the rep to prove that they possess adequate product knowledge, an understanding of your value proposition and points of differentiation, and knows the sales process.  In my opinion, the best final exam is a series of role plays where one or more senior managers act as a prospect and the rep works through every stage of the sales process with that “prospect.”   Your new hire will need to qualify the prospect, develop a solution, present a proposal, overcome objections, and close the “deal.”  If the rep is unable to display enough competency in that setting, remedial steps should be taken to rectify problem areas.  Once the rep “makes the sale,” the onboarding process ends with a celebratory lunch.