5 Sales Onboarding Errors to Avoid

Imagine a marathon runner starting a race without having trained or even stretched beforehand. Or a restaurant serving newly conceived meals that no one had sampled previously. Imagine a new office building opening up without a strong framework and structural support.

In all these cases, it’s inconceivable that prep work and a solid foundation wouldn’t precede the final product or event. So why is it any different with sales? (It’s not!)

Accordingly, onboarding is a critical component in maximizing reps’ performance and ability to positively impact the bottom line. An effective onboarding program can set reps up for success, promote job satisfaction, increase time-to-productivity and decrease time-to-first deal.

Yet too many companies are blowing it. In fact, more than six in 10 organizations (62%) say their sales onboarding programs are ineffective, according to the Sales Management Association (SMA). Clearly, it’s time for a change.

Far from a check-the-box approach, driving better sales readiness takes commitment, coordination and foresight. All too often, common – but easily fixable – mistakes can hinder onboarding success. Here are five traps to avoid:

#1 – Onboarding by Fire Hose
Total inundation is a total mistake. Yet frequently, onboarding programs take the form of four-to-five-day boot camps, where new reps get flooded with information – from product minutiae to corporate information and much, much (much) more. In this “death by PowerPoint” setting, information retention is typically low, and companies don’t realize they’ve squandered an opportunity to get reps started on a targeted learning path that maximizes productivity.

Instead, be strategic about what’s presented and by whom. For example, don’t include sessions only from senior leadership and HR. Often, incorporating presentations from successful, tenured reps can add an element of relatability and give new hires a model to aspire to.

Also, consider presenting learning in various formats. By offering easily digestible e-learning content, often building on concepts from in-person sessions, organizations can get reps important details in a format that’s easy to track and revisit.

#2 – Ill-Conceived Sequence of Onboarding Activities
In addition to erroneously blasting reps with everything they need to learn, companies also make the mistake of presenting onboarding information at random. It’s far more effective to take an “agile” onboarding approach, borrowing from the principles (flexibility, responsiveness, collaboration, etc.) of agile software development. With agile onboarding, sales enablement works closely with sales leaders to map the sequence of training with upcoming skills and milestones that reps must perform in their roles.

For example, if two weeks after joining a company, reps need to conduct their first prospecting call, their onboarding plan should initially emphasize phone communications and listening skills, as well as the company’s elevator pitch. Once reps have demonstrated mastery and successfully completed their first prospecting call, their subsequent learning and coaching activities should prepare them with the knowledge and skills they’ll need for their next customer-facing activity.

#3 – Treating Onboarding as One-and-Done
Even the most strategically structured onboarding programs aren’t immune to the limitations of human memory. In reference to sales training, Sales Performance International notes that “without systematic, ongoing learning and reinforcement, approximately 50% of the learning content is not retained within five weeks… Within 90 days, 84% of what was initially learned is lost.”

To avoid wasting onboarding hours and expenses, as well as reps’ time, it’s important to design follow-up activities and just-in-time refresher videos so that learning stays current. Organizations can also incorporate role-plays and video coaching assignments to promote knowledge retention by application.

#4 – No Pre-Boarding
Don’t let new sales reps show up to the job without any background. Organizations can ease their new hires into the onboarding experience, even prior to Day 1, with pre-boarding. This onboarding preparation process gives new reps clear expectations about their role within the organization and a faster connection to the company at large.

Pre-boarding can take the form of a brief video message from the onboarding team – with information on who they should recognize upon arrival, the dress code, food options, the schedule for Day 1 and more. In addition, giving new hires 10 minutes of learning to consume – on the company mission and goals, recent news articles, market data, a customer case study, etc. – can give reps a foundation prior to arrival, so they’re primed to learn.

#5 – Lack of Measurement
Sales rep onboarding should initiate a cycle and culture of perpetual learning and of practicing with purpose. But how can you gauge whether an onboarding program is successful if you don’t measure it?

First, it’s important to set onboarding goals – whether they’re related to knowledge retention, time-to-productivity, time-to-first deal, etc. Then structure your program in a way that fosters accountability. In addition, when determining learning effectiveness, organizations need to move from consumption-based metrics (e.g., did the rep view the materials?) to assessment-based ones (can that rep demonstrate mastery?).

A Culture of Practice

There’s an insightful saying, credited to many people over the years: “Amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.” That is, sustained, effective and feedback-fueled practice, combined with a dedicated work ethic, separate truly stellar performers from the rest. And that’s true – whether you’re playing a football game, running a race, preparing a meal or presenting to a buyer. In the case of sales onboarding, instilling a culture of focused practice – and avoiding the mistakes above – is the perfect way to help reps kick off fruitful careers.

Greg Flynn is the CEO of Brainshark, a leader in sales enablement and readiness solutions. Brainshark equips businesses with the training, coaching and content needed to prepare salespeople when, where and how they work.


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