May 15, 2013

On Board

By Henry Canaday

To stay or not to stay – that is the question.

“Most firms declare victory too early,” says Kevin Higgins, president of Fusion Learning. “Onboarding a salesperson isn’t truly finished until you are 100 percent sure the salesperson will stay with you.”

Onboarding means much more than just getting the new rep a desk, laptop, and password to the CRM system. Higgins says onboarding is one of the four crucial steps to building an effective sales organization. He calls these steps ROOMr: recruiting, onboarding, ongoing management, and retention. Miss one crucial step and the rest will fail – or at least be much harder to achieve.

What exactly is true onboarding? Higgins says it means that the new hire achieves proficiency in attitude, knowledge, skills, and activities and ultimately gets results. Each of these areas can, in turn, be broken down into its components. For example, reps may need knowledge of one and then several products, then knowledge of their markets and customers, then knowledge of competitors’ strengths. Activities include reaching out to prospects, connecting to decision makers, participating in first meetings, converting prospects to opportunities, writing proposals, and finally, closing.

Onboarding is not finished until new reps have achieved complete proficiency in all components of all areas. For more complex professional sales, that typically takes 15 months. If you hire an experienced rep who has worked in your market, you might save some time. On the other hand, some new reps require 18 months to reach full proficiency. Higgins emphasizes that you must be prepared to stay at it for a while to thoroughly onboard a new hire.

And new hires also must be committed. Although it may include taking classes, onboarding is not training, Higgins says. Each new rep should be given a very detailed list of the proficiencies that must be attained, and then it is the new rep’s responsibility to attain them, asking for help from managers or others if necessary.

Thorough onboarding is methodical and sequential. A good onboarding program sets specific quarterly goals in each major area of proficiency. Fusion emphasizes skills, knowledge, and activities early in the process, then ramps up the push to reach sales goals only later. “We don’t expect [new reps] to close in the first three months,” Higgins says.

Lucky breaks, such as a big sale closed early in the onboarding process, can actually be damaging; they may mislead a young rep into thinking he or she has learned everything necessary to achieve such results regularly. Because new reps are often so eager, prospects rarely mistake them for sales veterans, even after a big sale. But if the lucky new rep has not learned, for example, how to prepare a winning proposal for a complex sale, it will be difficult for the new rep to replicate these results over the long term.

Proficiency does not mean mastery of sales or even that the rep is now a “mature” salesperson. For example, if your best reps sell $5 million annually, and your average veteran sells $2 million per year, the new rep may sell only $750,000 in the year to achieve proficient status. Yet this rep is fully on board when you know he or she can grow into a steady performer, even if it will take him or her another year or two to hit your sales veterans’ numbers.

Onboard your new reps patiently and thoroughly, and you will have solid performers – or at least reps thoroughly capable of solid performance. And that makes the last steps of ROOMr, ongoing management and retention, highly feasible and much easier.

Kevin Higgins is the president of Fusion Learning Inc., recognized by Selling Power as one of the top 10 sales training companies in North America. For more information, visit