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How to Build Sales Onboarding Programs for Better Retention

By Andy Springer, Chief Client Officer, RAIN Group
A person draws a plan on a piece of paper with a pen.

Hiring and keeping sales professionals has never been more difficult. In fact, 52% of sales and enablement leaders say that finding strong sales talent is one of their top challenges. And turnover is estimated to reach 25% across sales organizations in the next year. Still, it’s on organizations to do all they can to not only hire top talent but also to prevent unwanted turnover.

What if they’re looking for a solution in the wrong place?

High Turnover? Strengthen Your Onboarding Program

Despite their struggles with hiring and turnover, few sales leaders seem worried about onboarding. Only 22% consider onboarding/seller ramp-up to be “very challenging” (Top Challenges and Priorities of Sales and Enablement Leaders, RAIN Group Center for Sales Research). Yet this is part of the new-hire journey that might have the biggest impact on turnover.

A strong onboarding program is a key retention strategy. Not if it’s rushed, though. Here’s how long it takes to onboard a new rep, on average:

Ready to interact with buyers: three months

Competent to perform: nine months

Top performer: 15 months

While this might seem like a considerable investment of time and resources, the alternative is far worse. The cost of turnover typically ranges between 100% and 500% of the seller’s compensation. In one example analysis of seller turnover during the onboarding program, in which four sellers left, the turnover cost was over $600,000.

Five Tips for a Stronger Onboarding Program

There’s a lot that goes into effective onboarding. In our own extensive work with sales onboarding programs, we’ve found the following five best practices help leaders in sales and L&D shorten ramp times and reduce turnover.

1. Make the Investment

When you know the actual cost of turnover, you can better support the business case for investing in onboarding. That investment can be considerable.

Beyond basic product training (how to sell X product or Y service at your company, based on your playbooks), invest in training for the processes, methods, and skills that lead to results. That might mean training around topics such as consultative selling, sales prospecting, opportunity management, growing accounts, productivity, negotiation, and so on – depending on the seller’s and the organization’s needs.

Regardless, it’s an investment that can cut ramp time significantly – by more than 50%, in some cases.

2. Refine the Curriculum

Focus your onboarding curriculum on the skills needed to ramp up quickly. That doesn’t mean cramming everything into a short training window. The onboarding curriculum should follow a predefined pacing – with signposts, accountability measures, and coaching opportunities built in throughout.

This has two benefits that tend to limit turnover:

  • Shorter ramp times
  • Sellers feel valued and supported

3. Customize for Different Sellers

You can also tailor your onboarding curriculum for different seller groups. For example, you might customize each onboarding program to the strengths and weaknesses of the new hire – something only 26% of onboarding programs do.

Some organizations tailor onboarding based on roles and responsibilities (BDRs and SDRs go through training that’s different from account execs, for instance), or channel (inside, partner, etc.).

4. Optimize the Experience

Optimize the onboarding experience itself. New hires will engage less if they have difficulty accessing their training portal or completing training modules on their device of choice. Today, for example, only 33% of sales leaders believe their onboarding experience is great on mobile (Allego).

You should also optimize onboarding to account for different locations and working environments, too, such as remote, hybrid, etc. Look at this as an opportunity rather than a barrier. The same research from Allego found that remote work has increased onboarding effectiveness because of how much easier it is to incorporate video, quizzes, and fast communication.

5. Involve Sales Managers

New sellers with an effective manager are 240% more likely to become top performers. If you, as a sales manager, possess the training, skills, and confidence to support new reps, it will be a significant factor in reducing ramp-up time and enhancing seller performance.

To involve management in onboarding:

  • Uncover and implement best practices in onboarding
  • Build in a regular, ongoing coaching schedule
  • Identify sales managers who excel in onboarding and leverage their expertise
  • Focus on upskilling sales managers themselves, not just sellers

After the Hire, Put New Sellers in the Best Position to Win

There’s plenty of merit to making sure you only hire good-fit sellers. That should be a primary goal of recruiting and hiring for any sales organization. But the research we’ve introduced here shows the distinct need for more focus on quality onboarding programs – programs that are:

  • Supported by the organization
  • Well designed
  • Tailored to sellers’ needs and roles
  • Optimized across digital experiences
  • Led by effective sales managers

Indeed, hiring the right sellers is just the first step toward reducing churn. How you onboard those sellers might make all the difference, because you’ll be putting them in the best position to succeed.

Andy Springer is chief client officer at RAIN Group.