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Optimum Onboarding

Setting New Hires Up for Success Begins Before Day 1

“Be quick, but don’t hurry,” one of the many aphorisms from legendary basketball coach John Wooden that have been applied to business and life, is an ideal starting point for a discussion about onboarding.

If you accept the widely used definition of onboarding as the process of preparing new hires for a long and successful career at your company, then “be quick, but don’t hurry,” is as solid of a guideline as there is.

Andy Hill played on three of Wooden’s UCLA championship basketball teams in the 1970s before transitioning to a career in media, ultimately rising to be president of CBS Productions. In 2001, Hill published a book exploring the teachings of Wooden and their application to success in all walks of life. Its title: “Be Quick, But Don’t Hurry.”

“Impatience and unrealistic goals will sabotage a talented group of individuals in any workplace,” Hills states. “Set your sights too high and expect immediate attainment of your goals, and invariably, you will never reach your destination.”

Wooden understood the importance of quickness in basketball, but not at the expense of control. “Otherwise, you will have activity without achievement,” he told his players.

“I don’t care for activity without achievement.”

“Activity without achievement” describes a lot of companies’ onboarding process. Gallup reports that only 12% of U.S. employees say their company does a good job of onboarding.

Nearly one in five employees say their most recent onboarding was poor or that they received no onboarding at all.

Being Time-Crunched Is No Excuse

Managers who insist on pushing through a poorly structured onboarding process with hopes that their new hires are talented enough to make up for their slapdash approach should ponder a question that Wooden routinely posted on the team bulletin board: “If you do not have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

Time “or lack of it” is what many managers point to as the cause for pushing forward with onboarding they know is less than ideal. Add to that the fact that today’s onboarding process is handled all or mostly virtual due to COVID keeping offices empty, and you’ve got a situation where new hires feel unsupported and uncertain about their decision to take the job.

“It’s pretty much a wing-it world,” said Bill Bartlett, executive vice president of franchise business at Sandler, a global provider of leadership training and professional development.

“The unfortunate thing is the employees we hire have resumes that are still on the street. If you don’t live up to the onboarding process as much as you lived up to selling them on the company, then someone waves a job in their face and they leave because you’ve let them down.”

The truth is those who don’t do onboarding right often don’t get a chance to do it over – at least not with the same new hire.

The Society for Human Research Management (SHRM) reports that up to 20% of employee turnover happens in the first 45 days, and one-third of new hires look for a different job within the first six months. (See “Onboarding As a Retention Tool” on page 10). Gallup reports that employees who say they had exceptional onboarding experiences are 2.6 times more likely to be extremely satisfied with their workplace. With continued headlines about workers resigning in record numbers, managers must take every measure possible to retain the people they hire.

Begin Before the Beginning

Effective onboarding is the byproduct of planning. Wooden, a stickler for preparation, said, “I don’t think I was a fine game coach. I think I was a good practice coach.” He pointed out that he seldom left his seat during a game.

Sales managers who onboard effectively will field a team of well-prepared reps they can trust in critical situations. Too often, a company’s leaders have not put in the prep work to determine how long a comprehensive onboarding process should take and what competencies should be taught, says Beverlie Heyman, director of sales enablement at Bigtincan, a sales readiness platform.

A “Blueprint for Better Sales Onboarding” published by Brainshark, which Bigtincan acquired last year, states the first step is to establish an onboarding timeline. The guide recommends that an onboarding timeline mimic the company’s sales cycle, which Heyman said surprises some clients.

“They have a body in a seat and they want to make sure that person is producing as quickly as possible. I’m not going to boast that we can change onboarding from four months to one month, but if you can change it from four months to three months, and you have 25 new hires coming through the system, that’s 25 months of revenue you can pick up over the course of time,” she said.

Know Your Required Competencies

Once a timeline has been established, it’s vital to have a good understanding of the skills that are necessary to move through the sales cycle. Bigtincan’s onboarding blueprint recommends categorizing these competencies into buckets such as:

  • Understanding how to present the solutions the company offers
  • Tasks involved, including prospecting, writing proposals and involving solution consultants or marketing support materials
  • Knowledge of the CRM system and how to properly use it
  • Content comprehension (i.e. competitive intelligence,fact sheets, videos to share, structure of contracts and pricing
  • Displayed comprehension of the methods used to present information (product positioning, product demos and closing a deal)

“If you ask your A players to walk through the steps of a sales cycle, and then ask the same of C players, you can definitely identify the gaps that the latter are missing,” Heyman said. “As you build your list of onboarding competencies, be sure to include all of those steps that lead to your A players’ success.”

In the current world of working (and onboarding) virtually, it is imperative to have a collection of recorded video training sessions. Identifying the core competencies that are necessary for sales success within your company will help you structure the content of your on-demand training videos. Doug Stephen, president of enterprise learning for channels at CGS Inc., an applications, learning and outsourcing company, describes this as a “library of TED Talks” from existing employees on how they made advancements in sales experiences. Asking top-performers to record these talks is a means of recognizing them in front of peers.

Metrics Are a Must

Once competencies have been identified and placed into training phases, it’s time to develop a means of measuring whether new hires have achieved the competencies in each phase. “If you have a nine-month trajectory, you don’t want to be at the ninth month when you realize a person is struggling with certain competencies,” Heyman said.

For example, if an important milestone for Phase 1 is to demonstrate mastery of a sales whiteboard, new reps can record themselves moving through that stage of a presentation and submit it for managers to review. They may wish to have a peer coach or mentor review it before submitting a final version to a manager.

“Part of the challenge with our new clients is they don’t know what metrics to measure,” Heyman said. Managers should reverse engineer the sales process to gain an understanding of what can be measured. How many prospects are needed in the pipeline to close X amount of deals? What discovery questions should be asked?

David Gosen, chief revenue officer of Piano Software Inc., aprovider of personalization, analytics and customer experience technology, says his company uses Gong and Chorus to analyze customer interactions, during onboarding as well as after reps have settled into their sales career.

“It gives us great metrics in terms of the longest time someone speaks during a discussion, what key words are coming up, how many questions the salesperson asked versus the customer. We are a data-driven organization. This is when science becomes really important in what we do,” Gosen said.

“We transform our customers’ business through data. We can use similar tools and techniques to transform the success, productivity and effectiveness of our salespeople.”

Onboarding Affects Everyone

Connected Commons, a consortium of major employers and leaders, reports the fallout from failed onboarding reaches far beyond the new hires themselves. When people underperform and leave, it hurts their coworkers’ productivity. Research shows that, on average, most employees are relied upon by five to 12 colleagues.

If a departure by someone who has five teammates that rely on them in some fashion drags on those co-workers’ performance by 5% for six months (the time it takes to replace and onboard a replacement), Connected Commons says a conservative loss estimate is $845,000 for inefficiencies in the network. That doesn’t take into account the cost of recruiting and training a replacement.

“If you don’t have an integrated, controlled, well-laid-out curriculum for onboarding, then you’re not setting up your most important people – your employees – for success,” said Gosen. “In a simple way, it’s about will and skill. Does our team have the will to do it, and do they have the skill to do it?”

If your onboarding process has inefficiencies, the time to rectify that is now. As Coach Wooden said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”


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Paul Nolan
Paul Nolan
Paul Nolan is the editor of Sales & Marketing Management magazine.

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