Onboarding Sales Development Reps Successfully: Modern Performance Expert Roundup
Onboarding new hires is a continued investment—the investment of the hiring process, which requires careful planning for success. This is not simply an exercise in bringing employees up to speed—teaching core skills and competencies—but instead a rare opportunity to establish culture, foster ownership, and drive collaboration and team cohesiveness.
Modern Performance interviewed top managers at firms like Eventbrite, Datanyze, UpGuard, MemSQL, MuleSoft, and mParticle about how they use the onboarding process to its fullest potential. There is no one secret, no magic bullet, to successful onboarding. Different companies have their own unique circumstances, cultures, and onboarding concerns. Our experts’ answers reflect this, highlighting methodologies ranging from establishing a weekly book club to throwing new hires in to the deep end. However, despite their differences our experts agree that onboarding is a continual and invaluable process, one which we cannot afford to overlook.
“The secret to onboarding is to have a plan. When I first started at Eventbrite it was, ‘Here’s your computer. Here’s Salesforce. Here’s Google. Figure it out; listen to other people.’ Since then a lot has evolved.”
A sales enablement team with a member focused solely on onboarding was a game-changer for us. We created a two-week program where we go through everything that the rep will need to know. After that we have “train the trainer” exercises and check-ins throughout the quarter during which the team leads do certifications in order to ensure that the initial onboarding stuck.
There’s a regular cadence with the team leads to hold reps accountable and continue to implement what was taught during the training. We find that if education on the topics taught in the first two weeks is not continued, then they’re immediately forgotten, and that’s when the bad habits build.
There are two aspects to effective onboarding. First, you definitely need to have an onboarding document, which takes shape and evolves organically. It’s probably a Google document, so it can be crowdsourced and modified easily by team members. Each person is responsible for a particular module and its maintenance. Salespeople will tend to compete with those around them on the quality of their module.
“By allowing the team to co-create and co-own an onboarding document, you get a beautiful byproduct of creating a competitive environment around learning, and as individuals hand the module to the next person in that role, that sense of ownership is passed on.”
I put one person in charge of wrangling all these modules, usually someone that’s looking to take the step into management. This gives them the opportunity to manage people without actually managing people so they can test the waters of management without the full responsibility of, “You own this person’s number, don’t screw it up, otherwise you’re fired.” But a document doesn’t create a successful person, otherwise we’d be back in school, right?
The other part of the onboarding schedule is collaboration with the team. I usually set up a couple of exercises. For new hires in sales development, I have them meet with every member of the sales team for thirty minutes, go through a set of questions around pre-call, during call, and post-call issues, and document it all. So this person who’s coming on board is going to meet with maybe twenty people over a two-week period. Not only does it integrate them into the team extremely quickly, they’re also extracting all this knowledge in those critical areas within sales.
I’d look at: “Before you have a conversation, what do you do? When you’re having the conversation, what type of questions do you ask? After the conversation, what are your steps for success?” I ask them to take notes to keep them on task and make sure they get value out of each thirty-minute session, and to send those notes to me along after every meeting with a revised pitch on our company and what it does. We’d do this every day for the first two weeks, revising the pitch using a Kaizen approach. Each day, the pitch gets better, both in email form and over the phone, I ask them to leave me a voice mail for the first two weeks of their employment. There’s a feedback opportunity and feedback as people are learning is a beautiful thing. If someone’s willing to give you feedback, that’s actually saying they want to invest in you.
I think there are three things: Item one is understand what your ideal profile is—what the pillars are for the role and what your values are. Make sure, then, that the first thing that you do is train on those values and those pillars. New hires need to understand what they bought into—this new company vision and team vision—before they can really rally behind sales goals. Too many companies train in product, then maybe a little bit of sales training, a little bit of management training, and then move on.
Item two is you should have the first six weeks of the employee’s tenure completely mapped out. That’s the way I designed onboarding and ongoing training, which is one of the things I’m known for. Mapping expectations and goals is essential.
Sales development, however, doesn’t take that long to train; it only takes three or four weeks, and they have the first four weeks perfectly mapped out. The time frames don’t actually matter. You can do this in phases, depending on how long your onboarding cycle is.
The first week has a theme: “What have you gotten yourself into?” That means company culture training, values training, product training. It builds from there.
Week two’s theme is: “Okay, now that I know what I’ve gotten into, what is the job?” That means helping them understand the ins and outs of what they’re going to be doing. That’s everything from “What does the job entail? What do I need to do to be successful? What’s expected of me? How do I meet those expectations?” You can’t assume that even someone who’s been long tenured in a previous organization knows everything.
Week three’s theme is: “How do I do this job right?” That includes answering questions like, “What is our sales methodology? What are the tools in place to help me do the job? What are the processes?” That actually brings up item three, which I’ll kind of weave in here, which is you need to have a universally agreed upon methodology in place, so that everybody speaks the same language. That common language should be taught early on in the onboarding process.
Week four, the final phase, is a mix of starting to do the job in a training atmosphere, starting to perform the basics of the tasks, with a very heavy hand involved in observation, diagnosis, and prescription.
“The methodology I follow for onboarding is: observe, diagnose, prescribe. First, you have to actually watch what the heck the new hire is doing to look for how to improve. Then you have to diagnose what needs to improve, figure out what they need to focus on to fix their deficiencies, and focus on their strengths.”
Finally, I think you have to prescribe homework to solve those issues, even for seasoned professionals.
As an example, if I observe a sales rep who’s going after the wrong ideal customer profile, we’ll prospect and try to build out his go-to-market list. I’ve got to actually observe and look at how he’s picking companies and how he’s researching them, how he started out reaching to them. If he’s got a weakness, let’s just say he’s not targeting the right ideal customer profile. That’s what I diagnose, that’s how I know he’s going to be unsuccessful: he’s not putting the right inputs into the system. I’ll have him sit down with a couple of reps and our marketing team to understand the ideal customer profile and why it’s important. His “homework” is to report back to me with his findings and how that’s going to modify his list building or prospecting activities.
It really does take a village. Everyone in the organization, and every department in the organization, has to have an active hand in the onboarding process for two reasons. One is the reason of scale; one person cannot be responsible for onboarding. Even if you were hired to onboard, other people need to get involved. Two is everyone involved in the onboarding process must have a very uniform style, so people who are onboarding don’t learn that there are different ways to do things.
One thing that’s really helpful is to make sure everyone on our team is involved in the hiring process. They are all part of the interview process and everyone gets a chance to do an interview. They take part in roundtables and deciding new hires. We have really thoughtful discussions about candidates so when anyone new comes on board, everyone has taken a little bit of ownership for new members of the team.
“I rely on my teammates to assist in the onboarding process. They help teach and are there to answer questions. It builds a really, really collaborative kind of onboarding for everyone.”
For my role in onboarding, I think the most important thing is setting very clear benchmarks, in what I expect from someone in their first week, in their second week, in their third week, and in their fourth week. I have that written down as something that we refer to every week during the onboarding process.
Then there’s just a lot of open communication during that time, especially in the first month, where we check in every morning and at the end of the day, even just for five minutes, to make sure that I can answer questions and to make sure people have the right resources. It’s really just making sure that at no point during the onboarding process do they ever feel lost.
“We make such a massive investment in interviewing to ensure that we are bringing aboard the right people, to not make an equivalent investment in their initial training and continued enablement would be a terrible business decision.”
Selling is very much a science, so we put new hires through what amounts to a four-week tech sales MBA, using both a classroom environment and practical hands-on exercises. We go beyond teaching people how to sell. We teach them the product, the messaging, our relevant customer stories, and our tooling and internal processes. It’s a rigorous program and we have an internal training and enablement lead who runs it, along with regional leads in our London and EMEA offices.
I try to involve a bunch of people from different departments, as many as possible. I don’t think there’s one perfect approach, so I encourage exposure to multiple processes and perspectives.
Organization is really important because there’s a lot to cover, so I created a checklist that’s divided into categories, like industry training, product training, assigning tool licenses, tool training. Then, each item includes columns for category, task description, who it’s assigned to, and date completed.
“I’m also a firm believer in throwing people in and watching them swim. I think the best way for an SDR to learn to cold call is for them to pick up the phone and cold call.”
Regardless of which channel they’re using to reach out, they’re going to encounter questions and objections, forcing them to ask their manager or teammates how to respond. They learn, and the next time they’ll know exactly what they’re supposed to say.
There’s an onboarding piece, which really gives a view of the entire company, where we feature different speakers. The SVP or the VP of marketing comes in and talks about marketing, their goals, and what they do. The Engineering Department, and every other organization within the company, does the same. This gives the reps a line of sight into the bigger, broader picture.
“So that the reps really get a glimpse into who’s who in the zoo—and the company culture as a whole—we assign buddies on the different teams and provide resources within the larger sales organization.”
“I think getting a new team member integrated and excited about working with a new group of people begins with creating a collaborative culture of learning really quickly.”
Before they join, I issue them a book that they’re required to read for a sales team book club. We have a book club every Friday morning from eight to nine AM to read roughly two to three chapters and discuss. This is not a monthly, “Hey, come along, hopefully you make it.” Every Friday morning, it happens, and if you’re late you can expect to get called out by coworkers. It institutes a learning culture from day one. It’s also a very open environment where people can talk about their experiences from reading this book and get comfortable expressing themselves. We go to work to learn, so if once you stop learning, you might as well quit.
“It starts in the hiring process. I think as an interviewer, you need to validate the basis of the company values and culture, so that candidates understand what it means—even as early as the first or second interview.”
I think in terms of actually communicating culture, that kind of breaks down into two different areas.
Number one is break down the expectations. I believe in a culture and values training, and it’s great if that training comes from the founders, but that doesn’t always scale very well. No matter who does that training, start from teaching them the company values and mission statement. That’s the “it takes a village” part. If everybody is involved in onboarding, the new hire is going to naturally learn what that culture looks like because they’re getting the different impressions from different contributors to the business.
Using multichannel content is key as well—using videos, using testimonials from employees, having an ambassador or “buddy program, whatever you want to call it, but actually having someone shadow them and go to lunch with them and talk to them and help them experience the culture of the organization is really important.
We’re a First Round company and our CEO is really a big fan of radical candor. When adding a new team member, the first day we talk about company values and how we see them. We talk about how we have radical candor, which means that in one-on-ones and in team meetings, we’re very upfront. If there are setbacks in any way, then we talk about them. If you have feedback for people, we show them the charts. We explain those values and map them out so people understand what that looks like in our communication style.
Our team is very product and engineering-centric, so we talk about how that affects the company as a whole, so everyone is very operationally minded. Even the salespeople become pretty technical. It’s a difficult product, so we talk about learning the product and being able to confidently speak to the product. That’s part of the culture. We expect everyone to understand MemSQL and the database landscape to a certain degree.
“The last thing is we talk about unique things on our team. We thrive on everyone being very collaborative around knowledge and best practices and taking ownership of our new hires.”
It’s in a lot of parts of our organization, but we talk about it as something that’s unique to inside sales and how we want to keep that culture going so we can bring the best out of every individual member. It’s just a lot of reinforcement after that.
On day one, we walk new hires through a company culture presentation, and then drill that down to their respective teams. Every team has its own unique culture, but they are all in line with MuleSoft as an organization.
I usually try to cover this, at least to scratch the surface, during the interview process.
“mParticle has an incredible culture, an organizational structure that feels very flat and information is shared freely throughout the company. And we like to have fun while we work. I think that excitement about our culture shines through in those initial conversations.”
I think we do a great job of unifying the company across multiple offices, using Slack and conducting our meetings via Google Hangout, so it really feels as though we’re all in the same room.
Also, our head of HR is great and plays a big role in creating this awesome culture, so usually I have her talk to a candidate right before we make them the offer so she can get them pumped up on the culture as well.
Learn more from our experts, and see full profiles, here:
Philip Galligan, Global Manager of Sales Development at Eventbrite
Daniel Barber, VP Sales of Datanyze
Chris Pollot, Director of Inside Sales at UpGuard
Dhiraj Singh, Inside Sales and Operations Manager at MemSQL
Steven Broudy, Director, Inside Sales, Americas at MuleSoft
Brooke Lengfelder, Director of Sales Development at mParticle
For more Modern Performance Profiles subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter.