The Art and Science of On-boarding

by Richard Ruff

Hand ShakeTODAY A SALES TEAM must not only be able to sell a competitive advantage; they must be a competitive advantage. In most companies it is increasingly difficult to sustain a competitive advantage by traditional means. Traditional factors such as: superior products, scale, and innovative manufacturing technology may provide short term advantages but unfortunately they can be replicated in relatively short order by an increasing number of agile and aggressive domestic and global competitors.

Although a great sales team is difficult to create, it has the potential to provide a significant competitive advantage and, perhaps more importantly, one that is difficult for the competition to copy quickly. So optimizing sales performance matters more today than it did yesterday and it will matter more tomorrow than it does today.

On-Boarding. The process of training and acclimating sales people into a new position is one of the most significant factors for a sales person’s success. Unfortunately, it is also historically one of the most understudied and underemphasized aspect of sales performance development. Great on-boarding programs for sales people are still the exception.

This lack of emphasis is part of the larger problem that companies are having with Talent Management. Companies like to promote the idea that employees are their biggest source of competitive advantage. Yet the astonishing reality is that most of them are no better prepared for the challenges of finding, motivating and training capable workers than they were a decade ago”. (McKinsey Quarterly, 2008)

With the increased awareness of the importance of developing a world-class sale team, this neglect has not gone unnoticed by everyone. However, the companies who seriously address this issue today will celebrate tomorrow.

What’s Different? If you are a company that put in place the components of your sales on-boarding curriculum more than five years ago, it is likely a re-examination is worthwhile. A number of changes and shifts have significantly impacted what an optimal curriculum looks like.

Some of these factors are:

  • Success matters more. As previously noted the number of sustainable competitive advantages has decreased and the importance of a world-class sales force has grown with that decline.

Job demands are greater. In sales there is a “book of knowledge.” For many companies that book has expanded from a fairly common, well defined set of chapters to a tome that is encyclopedic in scope. To be a top performer today, a sales person simply has to know a lot more and do a lot more than in times past.

• Specialization of the sales function has increased. If the various sales positions in Fortune 1000 companies were examined under a microscope, we would see a greater number of sales positions that are more diverse than in times past. As sales people move up the hierarchy of positions, they are faced with different buyers, different buying processes, and differing points of view on what constitutes value.

Generational differences are significant. New people coming into entry level sales positions are from a generation with a different set of expectations, learning preferences, and experience sets. This shift provides a huge opportunity and a new set of challenges.

What Are Some of the Answers?
The good news: significant advances have been achieved during the last several years in designing and building a sales training curriculum for on-boarding sales people. A couple of specific perspectives are particularly noteworthy:

  • Moving to the job level. There is a growing recognition of the tremendous differences in the “performance success formula” across the different levels of sales jobs. The nature and the required level of product information, organizational knowledge, and sales skills are significantly different as one moves up the job hierarchy from territory rep to global account manager.

So today, if you want a world-class sales team, you need to develop training programs not just for on-boarding to the company (i.e., new hires) you need to on-board at each job level. This one shift represents a significant opportunity for improving sales productivity in most companies.

  • A second answer. As previously referenced there is a “book of knowledge” in sales. If one could return to an earlier decade, and observe the time it would take for an average sales person to master the contents of the book, the amount of time was manageable.

Now fast forward to the present. Immediately, two shifts can be observed. First the amount of knowledge and the diversity of the skill sets are exponentially greater. Second, the level of mastery has been redefined – you really have to know what you are doing to be competitive.

One answer has already been addressed. There is a need to move from thinking about on-boarding as a one time event … to on-boarding by job level. Another alternative lies with leveraging some of the advances in learning methodologies.

Moving to a blended learning approach. It is difficult to imagine how to deal effectively with today’s performance development challenges using the same design and learning methodologies deployed in the past. For many reasons, including the amount of time it would take out of the field, you just “can’t get there from here.” Blended learning (e-learning + classroom training) is one of the solutions.

Over the last ten years a number of companies have explored the use of blended learning methodologies as a part of their sales training effort … many have not. Some that did are pleased they took the leap; some would like to go back in time and forget all about it. It has been, at best, an uneven tale. However, that was then; this is now.

Today, if a mid-to-large size company wants to create a world-class effort for on-boarding of their sales people, they would be remiss not to explore the advantages of using a blended learning approach for crafting the design of the training curriculum.

Here it is important to emphasize the difference between a blended learning approach and totally shifting to an e-learning platform for everything. First, there are various types of e-learning – each with advantages and disadvantages. Second, e-learning, in general, works well for some competency areas like product knowledge but is a bad idea for others like face-to-face call execution skills. Blended means some of this and some of that – some e-learning, some classroom learning.