Onboarding Lessons from the First Day of Kindergarten

Brian Williams, PhD

Monday was a big day in the Williams household – the first day of school for our kindergartener. We’ve been busy the past few weeks getting ready: count-down calendars, meet-the-teacher events, PTA welcome receptions, the ritual of picking out school supplies and a “big girl” backpack. The teachers have been busy too: organizing their rooms, outlining lesson plans and getting to know the background and needs of their new students. A lot of activity to make sure my daughter hits the ground running. 

All this got me reflecting on the new rep onboarding process of most companies. Think about it, bringing aboard a new salesperson is as special as a child’s first day of school. You’ve spent weeks, maybe months recruiting the right talent. The rep has done his or her part getting ready for the job, including picking out the right “backpack” (or shoes or suit or briefcase). But what have you done to ensure these new hires are equipped for success? 

Less than 30% of Companies Have a Structured Onboarding

First Day of Kindergarten Process

In a recent survey, we asked companies about their new rep onboarding process and the findings were not exactly surprising, but still disappointing. It turns out that less than 30% of companies have what might be viewed as a structured, well thought-out onboarding process. Even though they’ve invested considerable time, energy and money finding the right person for their sales organization, they've fallen far short on the process needed to get these reps performing to their highest potential.

And so it’s probably not a surprise that this same survey found that it takes somewhere between 9 and 12 months to get the average new hire fully productive. These are stats we should all find unacceptable – not only in terms of business results, but also the emotional and cultural impact poor onboarding inflicts on the broader sales force.

Failing to properly onboard most often involves a number of “misses” on the part of both senior sales leadership and front-line managers.  

Recruiting Process Misses

These misses can start even during the recruiting process by failing to set clear expectations about the sales role. This can be as simple as not clearly defining or communicating what is expected of the new rep. This miss then translates into setting vague or incomplete activity goals or measures for the salesperson. We all know the importance of sales coaching to rep performance, but without clear expectations, ineffective coaching is all but guaranteed.

New Hire Training Misses 

Beyond role expectations, we also see major misses when it comes to training. In fact, our research found that some 50% of companies say they provide training for their new hires, but less than 20% offer it in a formal or structured manner. In other words, training might take the form of informal shadowing of a senior rep. A good thing, but hardly the complete training experience new reps need and expect. 

Too frequently, new hire training also overemphasizes product knowledge over skill training. Product training is clearly important, but it can be counter-productive if done poorly. Managers often assume wrongly that a new salesperson has the right foundational selling skills and move too quickly to dumping product information on the new hire. (And we’re somehow surprised when these same reps also “product dump” on prospects before proper discovery!) 

Even new hires with considerable selling experience may lack strong basics in professional selling. In a separate research study, we found that reps in companies who focused on building quality foundational selling skills before shifting to product training were twice as successful after 3 months. 

Pace the Onboarding Process

Finally, it’s important to pace the onboarding process. The “drinking from a firehose” phenomenon is alive and well in too many companies. The fact is, salespeople just can’t absorb an avalanche of information in the early days. Be mindful of everything you’re asking the new hire to learn and do during the onboarding process. Space out the delivery of this content in a way that doesn’t overwhelm or confuse. 

Like my daughter, most salespeople are by nature outgoing and confident. And just as with my daughter, this persona can project a false sense of their ability to take on new things, like starting kindergarten or a new sales position. Don’t underestimate the importance of onboarding, particularly the need for structure and process during those early days.

In some respects, your front-line managers need to think like teachers getting ready for their students on the first day of school. Preparation is key, pacing and sequencing is essential. Best wishes for a successful new school year or new sales rep onboarding!

 

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Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.