The sales onboarding process can be a grueling grind, taking anywhere from four months to a year in most industries. The break-even point, let alone profitability, can take up to 12 months. Considering the average tenure of a sales rep is now under two years, according to numerous studies, successful, rapid onboarding is all the more critical. Even more noteworthy, a great onboarding experience results in an almost 70 percent three-year retention rate.


Figure Out Your Game Plan First.

Formalize your onboarding process even before you start the hiring phase. Doing otherwise risks either a haphazard onboarding or a rushed plan that misses opportunities for the most effective onboarding process.

Ask yourself what your new hires need to know and what skills they require to do their job successfully. Don’t think in generic terms; think specifically about your company, sales cycle, customers and verticals. Every situation is going to require a slightly different knowledge base and skillset.

Once you’ve determined the baseline knowledge and skills your new hires need, rank them by importance. Establish timelines (whether it’s granular, like week by week, or more big picture, like 30-, 60- or 90-day breakouts) and a sequence for knowledge and skill acquisition. Keep in mind that studies consistently show that people forget as much as 65 to 70 percent of what they learned within 24 hours, so frontloading new hires, as some organizations do, is a recipe for disaster. Space it out so that the on-ramp is gradual.

Also, figure out the delivery mechanisms: Is the onboarding going to be instructor-led classroom training? Self-paced online learning? Videos? Some combination? The common consensus is that a combination approach works best for both initial learning and retention.

It Starts Before Day 1.

Traditionally, many organizations, and indeed the general public at large, think of onboarding as beginning on the first day of work. But it actually starts in the hiring process. Potential hires start building a relationship at the application stage, so you need to have an informative, well-organized website to give prospective employees a baseline of knowledge. Maintaining a consistent line of communication is also important; long periods of silence lead to frustrated job-seekers and cause many top candidates to go elsewhere.

Another pre-day 1 best practice is having the hiring manager touch base after the offer/acceptance call and before the first day. According to The Talent Board’s candidate experience study, fewer than half of all new hires receive a phone call from the hiring manager as part of the onboarding process. It’s a missed chance to make your newest employees feel more connected, and it’s also an opportunity for your organization to get to know new reps a little better.

From Day One On

There’s a tendency among sales organizations to have a sales bootcamp that involves two or three days of information overload and then have the reps start interacting with customers. While a bootcamp can be a useful part of the process, there’s also a high risk of significant memory loss, which in turn impacts rep-client interactions.

A better process is to ramp up more gradually: Reinforce the information download with assessment tools, and build up to the client’s first interaction with a client. This process involves using role-plays, testing items such as quizzes and gamification elements, shadowing a senior sales rep, etc. After all, sometimes, to go fast (getting sales reps up to full productivity quickly), you need to go slow (space out the onboarding process according to your pre-established reasonable timeline). Here are other strategies to consider:

  • Institute a mentorship program.

There’s perhaps no better way to ensure a strong transition than having greenhorn sales reps mentored by tenured reps. It’s something we see in other fields, such as new police officers partnered with experienced officers. In sales, you have both the necessity and the luxury of being selective about your mentors. Make sure they’re willing to be a mentor, and match similar personalities if you can in order to reduce the chance of conflicts.

  • Practice and reinforce frequently.

Onboarding shouldn’t just be a one-off event. Rather, it should be a continuous process with repeated practices, reinforcement through refresher courses, and assessments to determine what reps have both learned and remembered.

  • Check in with new hires, and solicit feedback from them.

Often, organizations view onboarding as a top-down stream of teaching, coaching and learning. But to help new sales reps become more involved, check in periodically and ask for their feedback – for example, how they’re feeling about the process, what they think works well, and any areas they’d like more help with or to go deeper on. Not only does this communication allow new hires to feel collaboratively part of the process, but it can also highlight tweaks you need to make in order for future onboarding to be even more successful and effective.

Onboarding is a difficult, time-intensive and expensive process. But by having a clear, formal plan that approaches onboarding from multiple angles and perspectives, tailored to your specific organization’s needs, you can have new hires that are more quickly productive, happier and committed to staying long term.