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6 Sales Onboarding Best Practices & Tips for Success

Jul 31, 2019
10 min read
Onboarding a new salesperson requires a strong combination of people and technology. These are six sales onboarding practices and tips you need to know.

Sales onboarding is the process of training and coaching newly-hired sales reps during a ramp up period. A great sales onboarding process, in combination with the right people and technology, can be a key element in driving more revenue and a competitive differentiator in the war for sales talent. That's why it's essential for sales leadership to implement sales onboarding best practices to ensure reps are well trained and prepared to close deals on the sales floor.

Eric Schmidt, former Chairman and CEO of Google often says, “revenue solves all known problems.” Most companies fall in line with this philosophy of being oriented around revenue and growth. For many organizations, the sales team is the largest driver of revenue, which ultimately drives growth. This means you need to onboard and train a strong sales team so they are successful.

How can sales onboarding help with revenue and growth? The idea is simple: think of your sales reps on three tiers of performance—your top performers who consistently hit and exceed quota, middle performers who get close to quota but might not always hit their goals, and low performers who are scraping by without hitting quota.

Ideally, you want more high-performing sales reps that you can classify as “A players,” and you want to hold on to them for as long as you can. This group of individuals will close the most deals, and ultimately bring in the most revenue—usually the top 20 percent of a company. According to the Sales Benchmark Index, “A players” generate 5x more revenue than middle-performing “B players,” and 10x more than low-performing “C players.”

Creating Top Performers Starts with Sales Onboarding

So looking at the typical spread of sales rep performance in the average organization, the goal is to hire self-motivated reps and train them effectively so that they have the resources and skill to be "A players." Or in the case of "B players," coach them to improve and motivate them to improve to A-level performance.

This all delves from the sales onboarding process. When a new sales representative walks in the door, you have three goals: 1) get them to ramp up to full productivity quickly, 2) cultivate the highest productivity possible through training and coaching, and 3) retain your top performers. This ongoing effort will result in a company performance attainment curve shifting positively to the right.

You’re probably thinking, sounds great, we onboard sales reps today. So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that most companies either have no formalized onboarding process or are stuck in a rut of what I call, “common practices.” Common practices arise from the path of least resistance based on what is known, and what is easy. They aren’t necessarily bad – companies are putting some wood behind the arrow, they just aren’t sales onboarding best practices, and as such, are impacting your company’s ability to scale and drive revenue growth faster than the competition.

To help you create a stronger team, sales onboarding best practices to implement into your training and coaching plan.

1. Metrics

Common Practice: Not tracking metrics around onboarding.

How long does it take your average sales hire take to ramp up? Unfortunately, most companies don’t have real numbers around ramp up time, cost to replace/hire a sales rep, or sales rep ROI. While it's important to also track rep productivity in terms of sales and attainment-to-goal, organizations must have as much visibility into the onboarding process as possible. That way, they can plan and forecast accurately and be confident in their A, B, and C player spread.

Sales Onboarding Best Practice: Track the right metrics

In order to plan effectively, sales leadership needs visibility into the onboarding process. Onboarding and ramp times impact forecasting, quota planning, and overall performance. When leadership has data insight into these areas, they can make stronger decisions. Therefore, as a sales onboarding best practice, it's vital to track the right metrics. Leadership should be able to answer the following questions with metrics:

  • What does it cost to hire and on-board a sales rep?
  • What is your average ramp to productivity time?
  • What is the average time to break even for a sales rep.
  • What is the average tenure of your sales representatives?
  • What is the ROI at the rep level – investment vs. return.
  • What training and certifications does each rep have?

Once you have the metrics in place, the goal is to continuously analyze and utilize industry benchmarking data to improve plans and performance. After some time, start looking at trends and ask the following questions:

  • Can you identify A, B, and C players early and take appropriate informed action?
  • What training and coaching has the most positive impact?
  • What should the cadence of training and coaching be?

2. Sales Onboarding Start Timing

Common Practice: Start training on day one

It's common practice to start sales onboarding on a sales rep's first day. It makes sense—why would you have a rep "start working" before they are officially on the job? However, it can be beneficial to have new hires get a little orientated with HR and IT before training begins. This helps shorten the initial new hire orientation period that all employees (sales and non-sales) go through and gives you more time for training.

Sales Onboarding Best Practice: Start training before day one

It might seem odd to assign pre-work right after job acceptance, but the more information you can give reps and the earlier you can communicate it, the better. Prior to their first day, have HR and IT share basic company information and a brief overview of all products and services your organization offers. You don't need to expect reps to hit the sales floor on day one, but new sales rep should walk in the door with a baseline of product and sales methodology, and be able to pitch the company on day one.

Here's a personal example of the impact providing key information to reps before day one on the job.

At a recent trade-show, I had an inside sales rep working the booth and representing the company on his first day. Prior to that moment, he watched twenty of his peers give their corporate pitch via video. This new rep practiced his own, recorded his own video pitch, and received peer feedback on where he could improve.

The result? He was comfortable pitching prospects and ended up doing a fantastic job. Pre-work sets the tone and culture of your sales organization. We’ve had new hires balk or fail to complete this pre-work, and both sides come to realize that working with us isn’t a good fit. Moral of the story? The “A players” will embrace it, and the future “C players” will resent it.

On day one you start to incur additional costs—salary, benefits, commissions, infrastructure, and training. According to variety of sources1, 2 and depending on industry it will take between four and seven months for a rep to get to full productivity.

Furthermore, it can take two to three times as long as that (about 6- 18 months) to break even on your investment. Combine this with recent statistics that show depending or role and experience the average tenure of a sales rep to be between 14 – 30 months3,4,5 and you can conclude that the faster you can ramp a rep to full productivity, the better.

3. Once vs. On-going

Common Practice: Onboarding is one time event.

Traditionally, sales onboarding is a one-time event that reps go through as a new hire. Studies show a classic "forgetting curve"—in a single day, a person forgets up to 66 percent of what reps learn during new hire training, sales kickoff meetings, product trainings, and sales methodology. Because sales onboading is often an intensive, multi-week process, the information being passed on during training is extremely valuable, which is why one time is not enough.

Sales Onboarding Best Practice: Make onboarding an on-going training process.

A rep is considered fully on-boarded once they hit full productivity, but that doesn't mean they don't have more to learn or need refreshers. That's to improve sales rep training and performance, onboarding should be continuous. A sales boot camp is a great kick start to onboarding and continued training, only if it’s well-structured and executed.

Companies should hold a sales boot camp frequently to ensure sales reps have the tools, knowledge, and resources to maintain high levels of performance. These don't have to be as long as the initial onboarding process, but should provide any new key information and refresh/reinforce their fundamental training. Hit reps with new information for 2-3 training days, then put them on the phones, and send them to the field.

The key difference here is that boot camp is a part of the process, not the whole process. Recently, I had a sales rep send me an email saying they didn’t understand how to sell to a particular persona. Looking at their training history I could see they had, indeed, been through the persona class. The reality is people forget. Sales representatives need consistent and customized coaching throughout the course of their sales career.

The learning community has long known that content not reinforced is forgotten. The classic forgetting curve put together by Herman Ebbinghaus showed that how we forget is predictable, and in a single day up to 66 percent of learnings from new hire training, sales kickoff meetings, product trainings and sales methodology is lost. Learning must be repeated often until mastery is achieved, and then kept up to keep skills and knowledge sharp.

4. Assuming Sales Rep Knowledge

Common Practice: New sales reps already know how to sell.

It's all too easy to assume that a newly-hired sales rep knows the basics of sales. You can expect an experienced rep to know the fundamentals, but a person in their first sales role will need additional coaching and training. Depending on the role you are hiring, onboarding should be adjusted for differet roles and experience levels.

Best Practice: Over-communicate information to ensure sales rep are have the resources they need.

Mastery of skills and knowledge is an iterative process. Not all of your reps will be at the same skill level, but they still all need to receive the basic, intermediate, and advanced information. While for some reps, this will seem like overkill, for others, it's the difference between training an "A player" and "C player." For example:

  • Watch multiple examples of “A players” approach common objections and the latest competitive landmines.
  • Practice and record a video of yourself overcoming objections.
  • Get feedback from your manager and peers.
  • Rinse and repeat to naturally overcome objections.

5. Sales Onboarding Presentation

Common Practice: Information is presented in one way.

Traditional onboarding is done in a classroom setting with lots of handouts and materials. If you think back to school, this also means that a teacher is up at the front lecturing. Here's how this scenario plays out. A sales enablement leader is coaching and sharing information, engagement will begin to drop out and you'll lose your audience. Reps will miss out on key information, and ultimately, everyone's productivity will be lowered.

Sales Onboarding Best Practice: Present information in engaging ways.

To implement sales onboarding best practices, onboarding should be done using a combination of learning formats, including classroom setting, e-learning, self-guided classes. This will help keep sales reps engaged throughout the process and provide more effective training by matching the onboarding topic with the format.

For example, classrooms are good for general baseline knowledge and Socratic dialogue. A one-page electronic format document is good to cover features and functionality of a product. Videos are good to demonstrate sales conversations like elevator pitch, qualification, discovery, and negotiation.

6. Sales Onboarding Delivery Tactic

Common Practice: Onboarding processes are done in one way.

Most companies onboarding processes are done in-person or over the computer. This limits the way information is presented and the ability to engage your audience. Overall, this results in few ways that sales reps can participate in onboarding other than listening and watching.

Best Practice: Offer multiple ways for your reps to participate.

Leading companies are shifting their onboarding process to be mobile-optimized or a mobile-only strategy. How people are learning and what tools they’re using to do so has shifted. Recent studies show that the attention span lasts around eight seconds—that’s less than a goldfish. At the same time, we touch our phones an average of 2,617 times per day. Over the last few years, online video learning exploded.

Here's a personal story to illustrate this.

For years, I took my car into the dealership and they would ask me if I wanted the air filter or cabin filter changed. These were always pricey items which I assumed had a lot of margin built in, but I wasn’t raised as a car guy. My grandfather never changed his own oil, or spark plugs, and never showed me how. One day I decided to give YouTube a try. Voila!

If you want to learn how to build a rocket, or in my case learn the very basics of car maintenance, give YouTube a try first. There are now more than 135 million “how-to” videos on YouTube and 91% of smartphone owners use their device when completing a task. Mobile is ubiquitous, so giving your reps the tools and content when and where they need it is important to your onboarding success.

Implementing Sales Onboarding Best Practices

If you can replace one or more of these common practices for your reps, your sales organization will see an immediate positive shift. Reps will ramp up to full productivity faster, achieve a higher peak of productivity, and stay longer. Overall your ROI per sales representative will increase forging an easier path to scale and grow. Sales onboarding is a foundational layer for the ultimate success of your sales team and an imperative in today’s hyper-competitive market place.

Want to learn more ways to create a strong sales organization? Download the guide "How to Build and Retain Sales Reps to Drive Top Performance."

  • Sales Coaching and Motivation
Justin Lane
Justin Lane
Sr. Director, Strategic Services

Justin Lane is the Sr. Director of Strategic Services. He has experience helping companies develop best in class Incentive Compensation Management Strategies (sales and non-sales).