Want Better Sales Staff? Focus On The Ones You Already Have

January 28, 2016 Richard Bayston

Sales development leaders spend way too much time recruiting and not enough time getting reps up to speed. SDRs generally don’t have a lot of experience and turnover can be high without the proper development plan. So the challenge isn’t to recruit better: this is the pool we have to work with and hiring is getting harder, not easier. The challenge is to build killer SDRs out of the people we’ve already hired, to maximize the rep lifetime value of people who are often in the role a year or less, and to get the best out of the people you’ve already hired.

Onboarding Is The Key

Companies spend an average $11,000 to fill a vacancy. Guess how much they spend on onboarding? For quite a few, it’s $0. The average new SDR hire takes between 3 and 5 months to reach full productivity. And it’s received wisdom that we should accept 20% churn in a sales team. Around 3% of new-hire SDRs never make it to profitability. They cost you money to recruit, then they cost you money while they learn their job. Then they leave. There’s got to be a better way, right?

The top reason SDR teams fail is lack of training. The other reasons are that they have poor management-worker relations and they don’t have clear comprehension of the company’s goals and procedures. In other words, they fail because they haven’t been onboarded. When onboarding shades into ongoing training, an additional 20% of reps can achieve quota.

The type of training poor-performing sales development teams receive looks like this: They’ll be briefly introduced to the offering, via some materials marketing has produced, often for another purpose. Then they’ll get a little bit of CRM and tools training, and be left to figure it out for themselves. After all, that’s their job, right?

On the other hand, the type of training high-performing sales teams receive looks like this: staff begin with buyer persona training, meeting the buyer (or an approximation of them) and looking at pain points, behavior and motivation. Objection handling training expands to look at conversation steering and open discussions rather than ‘techniques.’

SDR skills training is part of the general introduction, because the fact is, most SDRs aren’t seasoned professionals who can safely be left to figure it out on their own: they’re typically in the job about 10 - 12 months, and if you’re a high-growth company the odds are you’re hiring SDRs with between 2 years of experience and… none. For some of these people, this might be their first job, not just their first sales job.

And SDR training isn’t great across the board, so even experienced reps need support. That means ‘headset training’ - sitting in on calls and analyzing them afterwards - and it means specific training on the tools you actually use. Even if your SDR intake is straight from college and can barely look away from their phones, that ‘digital nativism’ doesn’t mean they know how to use SalesForce, Email Hunter, Datanyze or any of the other tools you use to get the job done. They’ll learn, but you have to teach them.

Onboarding Has To Be Hands-On

You can’t just give people a handout. As a manager it’s tempting to think: These people want to work here. If they’re smart and motivated, they can organize and manage their own learning. But actually, most people struggle to do that, and they struggle even more if they have to do it while they do a job they don’t understand.

Training needs to involve managers, concentrate on learning the skills and tools these reps are going to need to use to go out there and hit quotas, and teach best practice right out of the gate. If people are left to organize their own learning on the job, they usually do what most of us do when given two tasks: suck at both.

Worse: let people ‘learn on the job’ and they learn each other’s bad habits. Without support and direction from management morale falls and identification with the company and its goals suffers; shortcuts and make-dos replace professionalism and the results spread out beyond SDRs to the whole organization when the data in the CRM is full of holes and out of date, for instance.

If you’ve ever watched a room full of people spend an hour manually entering data on calls they made three or four hours ago because they don’t know how to use their CRM’s automatic functions properly, you’ve seen what sucky onboarding really means: time wasted and money down the drain.

Onboarding Should Be Specific To The SDR Role - In YOUR Organization

Too many training programs are designed to be all things to all people. But one size doesn’t fit everyone. If you had to run a race in shoes made to fit everyone, I’m guessing they’d slow you down a little. If we’re training SDRs with courses that are designed to fit people who just left college and highly experienced staff with decades in their roles, maybe we’re closer to figuring out why there’s that three-month ramp.

When onboarding is done that way, reps learn about the company and the product, and they’re better off than if they received no training. But they don’t know enough to be successful because the training isn’t role specific. Many of them will need specific, actionable training, not just a couple of presentations. Call training, outreach training, and even basic sales ideas like buyer personas should all be covered. Reps need to know:

  • What works
  • Why
  • How it’s done
  • How well they did when they did it
  • How to improve

That way you can slash ramp time and wind up with a more effective rep.

There’s another issue here. As much as reps need training in their role, that role can differ from organization to organization. Key issues in sales, like buyer cycles, personas, lead definition, scoring and qualification, can all be very different from organization to organization. So reps don’t need a general introduction to what a lead might be: they need to know what a qualified lead they can get paid for looks like.

Where the temptation is to teach abstract theory and techniques, what reps really need is method: systemized understanding they can use, that fits your organization and their role without being so narrow that they’re left without any training as soon as the conversation moves away from what they’re rehearsed.

Training Should Be Continuous

When we learn something, how do we know if it’s any good or not? New SDRs are often underconfident and unsure of themselves and the product they’re selling. That’s a recipe for poor performance - they’re going to get pushed around on the phone, apologize to prospects, hesitate to disqualify leads and generally play the whole thing far too soft.

Great training should build confidence quickly by giving reps one thing: feedback from the target activity. If you want reps who can get on the phone and talk to people, start there. Preston Clarke of LawRoom has reps start making calls their first day: ’Get them to 20 calls per day the first week,’ he says.  GuideSpark’s John Parisi says the key is to get a rep to hit 3,000 calls where they’re trying to get better. This isn’t day-to-day policy, but with new reps, time on the phone is gold dust and it means that every time they go through a stage of the onboarding process they can test it out, right then on the phone, and see how it makes the conversation change.

At the same time, when we build training programs, for new hires or for ongoing development, we have to bear in mind human limitations. Basically, we’re great at learning, but we suck at remembering stuff. A study by Sales Performance International showed multiday sales training events saw rapidly diminishing returns, with about 50% of content forgotten within 5 weeks. 90 days out, 84% of it is gone. So trying to get out ahead of long ramps by front-loading onboarding won’t work. And addressing training shortfalls by the occasional two-dayer isn’t going to fly either.

What does work is building a system of certification that acknowledges and rewards reps who grasp key takeaways from a modular training curriculum. Rather than trying to eat dinner in one big bite, reps can be ramped by learning, being tested, receiving certification, and revisiting the material later for reinforcement. It’s a reinforcement loop. In between, feedback from the target activity - time spent on the phone - validates training and reinforces its lessons.

That approach remains effective throughout the life of an SDR and can be used to help them segue to AE roles after the year or so they’re likely to spend in their original role.

Key Points:

Make training specific to your offering, your organization and your method, starting on day one.

Onboard! If you do no other training at all, a solid onboarding process accelerates ramp time and improves performance. The big leak is immediately after hiring.

Build certification schemes that reinforce training and reinforce key messages.

Build training funnels that guide and support staff up the ladder in the company.

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