For many businesses today, the “new normal” bears little semblance of normalcy. Where possible, business must proceed — but often in a dramatically different way.

Sales enablement and readiness are two functions that haven’t stopped, but they have changed. One area, in particular, that is being reshaped is onboarding new sales reps. Of course, amid many furloughs and layoffs, some companies and sectors have put a freeze on hiring. But some industries are booming, and the pandemic has even impelled some companies to hire for new skills to meet unforeseen needs. Even companies that are not adding new sales reps will need to “re-board” existing reps to a new world, where the rules of customer engagement and career development have fundamentally changed.

Before COVID-19, we all took for granted that when new reps walked through the door, they actually walked through a door. Even remote sales reps typically traveled to headquarters during their first week to meet managers and leaders and become acclimated to the organization and its culture.

Now, those new hires can only enter a figurative door. The onboarding meet-and-greets, training bootcamps and other activities that would have happened in person need to be reimagined for the online world. With that goal in mind, here are some tips for crafting onboarding programs that help reps, confined to their homes, ramp up quickly and foster their long-term success.

Be Agile: Take Training Virtual

You can use this time to make some improvements to your previous onboarding content, curricula and processes. For example, did you see poor knowledge retention and low satisfaction in the past, when you put new reps in classrooms and blasted them with minutiae (the “drink-from-the-firehose” approach)? Try a more agile strategy, where reps consume knowledge and must demonstrate mastery on key skills incrementally — timed to when they’ll need to put those skills in action.

Ask yourself, “What’s important to teach on day 1? On day 2?” and so on, thinking chronologically about the upcoming milestones new reps will need to achieve (e.g., first discovery call, first product demonstration, etc.). Then, think about how you’ll convey that knowledge in a virtual and digestible format and how you’ll validate comprehension.

Involve Management

You shouldn’t create onboarding curricula in a vacuum. Talk to reps’ managers about expectations. What activities do their new reps need to perform right away? Where do new reps often struggle? Which rep priorities have shifted in light of COVID-19? Answers to these types of questions will help you create relevant onboarding that sticks.

Consider Onboarding Content Changes

New reps (in addition to the sales force at large) may need training on different technologies, products and topics than they did in the past. For example, with many former in-person interactions now occurring over video, it’s important for reps to know how to use conferencing applications well. Onboarding modules could describe video call how-tos, etiquette and the importance of having a back-up plan if the video conferencing application fails. Reps will likely require training on other workflow technologies, such as collaboration platforms, that their organizations are relying on more now.

Reevaluate Product Training Priorities

In addition, among the products that reps sell to various industries, some may be highly relevant right now, with the ability to solve customer and remote work pain points introduced by the pandemic. Other products may have previously performed well but are less relevant to today’s conditions.

Reps should be prepared to pivot, and their training should facilitate this shift. For example, onboarding and training content can emphasize selling into industries that are doing well, prioritizing solutions that solve current problems and taking an empathetic approach.

Optimize Onboarding Sessions for Remote Attendees

That killer, all-day (or multi-day), “death-by-PowerPoint” approach is even less attractive when reps (and their trainers) have to contend with dogs barking, kids crashing video calls and the other distractions of a homebound workstyle. Rather than force-feed knowledge to reps during eight-hour sessions (which probably weren’t that effective anyway), break up the online brain-dumps into briefer sessions over multiple days.

For example, try pushing brief (lasting minutes) prework — via quick eLearning modules — to reps to introduce the topic at hand. Then, deliver asynchronous or synchronous learning opportunities, via a 15-minute information push, for example. Afterward, reps can break out into virtual meetings rooms with their managers and teams for an activity that puts the knowledge to use. If appropriate, you can then provide opportunities for learners to present their activity virtually to their peers. Don’t forget include breaks throughout!

Measure Competencies

When evaluating new reps’ learning, it’s important to look not just at consumption-based metrics (i.e., did they view the modules?) but competency-based metrics as wells (i.e., how well can reps put the knowledge in action?). With managers unable to meet with reps in person to validate mastery, they’ll need to use online tools that facilitate role-plays and make it easy to gauge progress.

Identify Tools to Support Remote Onboarding

A fully remote onboarding program requires a different set of tools than in-person programs and may also require you to look at the tools you already have in different and more expansive ways. Think about the tasks you’ll need to accomplish and how you’ll be imparting knowledge. You’ll likely need solutions for rapid training content creation and deployment, video-based and asynchronous coaching, collaboration, and conferencing.

You can use these tools for a variety of use cases. For example, consider using group video chats to enable leaders to meet and interact with incoming reps informally. In addition to creating training content, you can also use your content creation tools to record messages from leaders and share them with the new hires.

Simulate the Water Cooler

New and experienced reps alike gather a good deal of knowledge from their peers. In the absence of a physical water cooler, you can still enable reps to learn from each other. For example, you might use a video coaching platform to issue challenges to reps, such as, “Share some productivity hacks you’ve discovered when working from home.” Then, use those videos to create a library for reps to learn from each other.

Envelop New Hires in the Company Culture, From Home

Despite isolation and social distancing, try to convey — and help your new hires become excited about — the company culture. You could buddy them up (virtually) with a peer or mentor on day 1 and schedule virtual meetings with others on the team. Make sure they’ve already been added to the relevant channels on your collaboration platform, so they can get a sense of others’ personalities and dive right in. Include new hires in virtual happy hours and other virtual social events — or have one in their honor! Mail company swag to your new hires, and pull more people than usual into your onboarding processes, so new reps feel familiar with what you’re like, both as a company and as people.

Don’t Forget Pre-boarding

Pre-boarding encompasses all the activities you can and should do before day 1. In today’s environment, these activities might include shipping the equipment your new hires will need, ensuring they’re set up from an information technology (IT) perspective, and delivering content on the company and messages from leadership to help them feel acclimated and ready to start.

Honing the Process

There’s a lot going on in people’s lives right now. As you reimagine and refine your onboarding program, don’t be afraid to overcommunicate — or to experiment. Adapting your program for success in today’s environment will require some trial and error to see what works and sticks. These times are forcing companies to uncover processes and methods that aren’t just different but, in some cases, better. When the virus abates, and when business returns to a “normal” that feels more like normal, many of the efficiencies and new processes companies are creating now will drive business gains into the future.

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