This article originally appeared in Forbes on July 5, 2018.
Ever since companies first began hiring salespeople, the focus of onboarding has been accelerating time to full productivity. In the “good old days” of selling, that meant reps were onboarded for months before ever being allowed to call on a client. There would be trips to headquarters for extensive training and time in the field shadowing a senior rep – followed by more time at HQ and more training. In short, sales organizations would invest ample time and effort to ensure a rep was 100% ready before calling on a buyer.
Those days are long gone. Today’s salesperson might get a five-day boot camp, drinking from the proverbial fire hose, before being sent out to the field. With little or no continuous learning path or in-field coaching, reps are left to fend for themselves and end up practicing on buyers. The impact: lost opportunities and brand damage, as inexperienced reps frustrate buyers.
What is needed is a new approach to sales onboarding, one that provides a true continuous learning path and ensures that new reps show up ready for the buyer interactions they’ll be having. We can find that approach by looking at, of all things, how software development has evolved. It is, in one word, “agile.”
Point of Comparison: Agile Software Development
The agile onboarding approach mimics the principles and structure of agile software development – now the dominant methodology for creating software – to emphasize both speed and quality. In the days before software as a service (SaaS), development organizations had the luxury of taking months (sometimes years) before introducing a new release to customers. Bugs could be worked out and functionality vetted through extensive testing. The idea was not to release the new version until it was completely ready, similar to how reps were onboarded in the days of yore.
In today’s SaaS world, there isn’t time for extended-release cycles – the business world moves too fast. The solution for many organizations is agile development, which enables flexibility, responsiveness and quick course corrections.
Agile involves two key concepts: scrum (breaking work into discrete actions) and sprints (the time frame for those actions to be completed). Development teams engage in continuous collaboration with business line managers, project managers and customers. Release cycles are every few weeks, and bugs are identified, prioritized and fixed in days rather than months – all enabling continuous product improvement.
Building Agile Onboarding Programs
Agile onboarding accomplishes the same benefits: It reduces rep “release cycles” from months to weeks, identifies and fixes rep “bugs” very quickly, and ensures continuous improvements as reps engage in ongoing training for different career milestones.
Like agile development, agile onboarding also requires the collaboration of multiple parties: the chief sales officer (CSO), sales managers, sales enablement departments and sales reps themselves.
- First, the CSO and managers set the dates by which reps need to be able to accomplish critical activity milestones (first prospecting call, first face-to-face sales call, first product demo, etc.)
- The sales manager and enablement team then build these dates into a timeline and define the competencies required for each (the scrum).
- Sales enablement provides associated readiness content and assessments.
- And, naturally, reps are responsible for learning as quickly and thoroughly as possible (the sprints) so they can meet their milestones.
Put it all together, and reps are no longer learning important skills and knowledge in one giant fire-hose gulp, out of context from when they will be using them (e.g., teaching a rep negotiation skills that they might not use for months). Instead, they’re acquiring competencies in the order they’ll need them, in the context of specific near-term sales activity milestones (e.g., learning negotiation skills just in time to execute their first negotiation).
For example, the CSO may want new reps to be able to conduct their first prospecting calls within two weeks of joining the company. This means the agile onboarding plan should initially focus on developing phone communications and listening skills, mastering the company elevator pitch and (to some degree) handling objections. The rep’s manager should conduct assessments to ensure that each skill is properly honed before the first real call, and also conduct an assessment during the call to evaluate rep performance and provide input for learning opportunities. Once the rep has demonstrated an aptitude for prospecting calls, the process begins anew for the next activity milestone.
The final piece to the puzzle is accountability. Reps need to take responsibility for honing their competencies. Managers need to take responsibility for coaching reps through their timelines. And sales enablement needs to take ownership of delivering the content and assessment information required to validate each rep’s readiness. A breakdown in any of these areas will cause reps to fall off their timelines.
All of this raises a question: Does agile onboarding make onboarding boot camps obsolete? No, it does not – but it changes boot camps’ objectives. Rather than serving as the primary venue for instruction, they should be used for “setting the stage” for rep careers – delivering information on corporate history and culture, business goals and so on. They can also reinforce the agile onboarding process through simulated real-world situations, such as managing a sales opportunity from beginning to end during the boot camp.
The Agile Advantage
Agile onboarding benefits both the company and its reps. For the company, it improves time to productivity. For the rep, it accelerates career progress (which also helps with rep retention).
Since we’ve implemented this approach at Brainshark, we found an across-the-board reduction in “time to firsts”: time to first prospecting call, discovery call, presentation, etc. Best of all, we’ve also seen acceleration in time to first deals and revenue, which is a win-win for our company and reps.
Agile onboarding dramatically reduces the trial-and-error component in traditional onboarding. Both reps and managers have much greater confidence going into reps’ first-time activities, and after-activity coaching can be highly targeted based on the rep’s performance. All of this accelerates time to productivity and increases the likelihood that reps will be “bug free” when they engage in real-life sales activities!
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