Sales Onboarding Lessons: From ‘Did You Do This?’ to ‘CAN You Do This?’

December 13, 2016 | Jim Ninivaggi
Sales Onboarding Lessons: From ‘Did You Do This?’ to ‘CAN You Do This?’

Sales Onboarding: From ‘Did You Do This?’ to ‘CAN You Do This?’

Over the summer, I got the chance to visit Tanglewood, a music venue in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. It’s the summer home of the Boston Pops, and I was there to see them perform with the B52s. (No joke.) The venue is also a summer music academy for budding professional musicians. 

While there, I stumbled upon a couple of students enjoying the sun and practicing tuba. I asked how their summer was going and what a typical week looked like at Tanglewood. They said it was intense, A LOT of practice, with small teams and one-on-one coaching. Each week ended with individual performances and feedback from their instructors, followed by a live concert. A cycle of practice, coaching, assessment, coaching, application and coaching.

Of course, as a sales enablement advocate, this spontaneous conversation got me thinking about sales onboarding. Specifically, I started thinking about how it must be designed, executed and managed differently from the average employee onboarding.

Why sales onboarding needs to be different from general enterprise training

In most companies, onboarding for what I’ll call enterprise (general) talent consists of a series of check boxes:

  • Sign up for insurance. Check.
  • Complete your direct deposit form. Check.
  • Read the employee handbook. Check.
  • Take the requisite training course on IT security. Check. 

The focus of onboarding is simply on “Did you do this?” This is what I would call a “consumption-centric” approach to onboarding.

Onboarding sales talent needs to be different. Similar to my musician friends, sales is a profession that requires a definitive set of competencies – things they need to know, skills they need to master, and ways they need to act. This means an onboarding shift from “Did you do this?” to “Can you do this?”

The job of sales enablement leaders (along with sales leadership) is to build an onboarding system that is competency-based and mastery-centric. Like learning to play the tuba, this is easier said than done – here are three critical elements:

#1. Build a Competency Map

A competency map lays out the skills, knowledge and key processes that make up the success profiles for each sales role. This should be done for two major categories:

  1. First, think about the skills, knowledge and key processes reps need to master that are non-client interfacing activities. This would include things like pipeline management, using the CRM, forecasting accurately, business acumen, and proposal writing. 
  2. Second, document the skills, knowledge and key processes reps need to master for client interfacing activities. This should align to the buyer’s journey and the type of interactions they are likely to face, and it includes core selling skills, writing skills (most interactions happen via email today) and product knowledge. These are the competencies that will move the needle of sales productivity (knowing how to use the CRM, while important, won’t make reps ready for the conversations they need to have).

Related: How to Create Better Sales Onboarding Content

#2. Tag Those Competencies Against Three Elements

Once you have your competency model built, the next step is to “tag” each competency along three areas:

  1. Determine the sequence in which you train for each competency. When should a new competency be introduced, and what competencies are pre-requisites? In particular, you want to identify those that you have determined must be mastered during the initial onboarding period. (Tip: Consider sequence in context for when a rep will need to apply the skill. It makes no sense to teach a rep your contract process on their first day if they won’t be putting together their first contract for 90 days.)
  2. How will the competency be assessed? Will it be a simple quiz or test? Will it be done through a simulation like having the rep submit a video of themselves for assessment against specific criteria? Or, will it be an in-the-field assessment by their manager? Or perhaps you should assess competency using all three methods?
  3. What learning is associated with the competency? This could be content that the rep has access to or a live workshop. Unless it is a competency that you hire to, every competency must have learning associated with it.

#3. Put all the pieces together using a mastery-centric approach.

You are now ready to build out the onboarding system.

Tip: Allow reps to “test out” whenever possible. For example, rather than forcing a rep to take a course on business acumen, if the rep feels he already has a high-level of acumen, he can take the assessment at any time. If he passes, that competency is deemed to be “mastered.” If not, the rep would need to take the requisite learning and re-assess. 

Report on Mastery, Not Consumption

Build dashboards that look at where reps are from an assessment perspective, not what courses have been taken.

While you will likely require that all new hires take certain learning (for example, the boot camp), your reporting should track each new hire against their mastery of the required competencies. This allows reps to progress at their own pace, and should help reduce time to competency. There should be guidelines established on when competencies are expected to be mastered, and reps that fall behind will require coaching and feedback.

Are my reps ready to have the conversations we need them to have?”

The summer program our young tuba players attended was designed with this assessment centric approach. No doubt, they left that program better musicians than then when they started. By taking similar assessment-centric approach, sales and sales enablement leaders will be better able answer the question “Are my reps really ready to have the conversations we need them to have?” and, just as importantly, pin-point areas for improvement if they are not.


Ready to learn more about sales onboarding? Check out Amp Up Your Ramp Up: 4 Keys to Getting Reps Onboarded and Selling Faster

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