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July 9, 2012 Q&A

New salesperson needs eight months of training

Lee B. Salz

Q&A talks about sales onboarding with Lee B. Salz, author of Sales Management Minute and Soar Despite Your Dodo Sales Manager.

Q: You recently released the 2012 Salesperson Onboarding Survey. What are some of its findings that would be most surprising?

A: There were several key findings, but four were most important for executives to take heed:

• It takes new salespeople from eight months to over a year to perform at the same level as their tenured colleagues. Yet, most employers devote less than two months to onboarding their new sellers.

• Fewer than one out of five executives surveyed reported being satisfied with the amount of time it takes for their newly-hired salespeople to get up to speed.

• Salespeople, who work for employers most satisfied with their onboarding processes, got up to speed 34 percent faster — i.e., four months earlier — than those working for companies who reported were less satisfied with their processes.

• Executives, reporting the greatest satisfaction — and greatest success — with their onboarding programs, have longer onboarding periods that are highly structured and comprehensive.

Q: Do new salespeople need eight months of training?

A: Executives have the flawed belief that they can hire great salespeople. Not true. They are hiring salespeople with the potential to be great in specific roles on their sales teams. That potential is only recognized through structured onboarding. Salespeople arrive at a company with a portfolio of skills. Onboarding helps them adeptly use those skills in the role. Training and onboarding are not synonyms. Training is a component of onboarding. During certain phases of onboarding training is appropriate, but there are other times when other types of development are used such as "ride-alongs" with other tenured salespeople.

Q: Is this more a question of quantity or quality? Why can't a sales onboarding program of two months be successful?

A: Shorter onboarding programs can be successful just as long ones can fail. However, most executives put the cart before the horse when it comes to onboarding. They focus on onboarding content as the program development starting point when they should be starting at the finish line. In other words, imagine your new sales person has successfully completed the onboarding program. What do we expect that she will now know, be able to do:

• Know refers to information such as product information.

• Do refers to action such as conducting a sales call.

• Use refers to systems/tools like an ordering system. Once expectations are identified, then content should be created that ensures those expectations will be met.

Q: If it takes that long for new salespeople, aren't companies better off investing in employee retention? Seems as if it would be more profitable in the short term, and probably the long term, to invest in retention rather than training.

A: There's no question that retention should be a key corporate initiative for the sales team. However, sales management best practices tell us to always upgrade the bottom 20 percent. Top performing companies don't look at adding headcount as "hiring." They perceive it for what it truly is: a corporate investment in revenue.

Q: What's a good definition of a highly structured and comprehensive sales onboarding program?

A: A common mistake executives make is having an onboarding program. The issue isn't the word "onboarding." It's the word "an" and thinking of onboarding in the singular sense. You may hire someone from within the industry or from outside the industry. You may transfer an employee to the sales department. You may hire someone just out of school. These are four distinct backgrounds which require different onboarding experiences to meet the aforementioned expectations. The onboarding programs should include a blend of self-study, one-on-one training/coaching with peers and managers, and ride-alongs with sales people. And, it should conclude with testing including written exams (demonstrate knowledge of the products), simulations (conduct a mock sales call) and practicals (demonstrate use of the ordering system).

Q: Your report also mentions a well-defined first-day program. What should be part of a new salesperson›s first day?

A: The salesperson's first day sets the foundation for the relationship between employee and employer. Everyone remembers their first day with a company and the employer should take the steps to ensure that memory is a positive one. This starts with:

1. Prepping the receptionist so the new-hire is expected. Nothing looks worse to a new-hire than the puzzled look on the receptionist's face.

2. Getting the office/cubicle ready. Empty the drawers. Clear off the desk. It should look as if this is the first person to ever use it.

3. Anticipating common questions that new-hires have. Share with the new-hire where to find coffee, office supplies, the bathroom, etc. Consider assigning a mentor.

4. Providing an organization chart. It should include, not just names and titles, but also photos and brief explanations of how salespeople work with each individual.

5. Making time for their new-hires. On day one, sales managers should sit down with their new-hires and share the onboarding plan.

6. Celebrating. Companies are infamous for having cake when someone is leaving, but few celebrate the arrival of their new sellers. The time to party is on the way in.

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