Episode 209: Gerry Hurley on Learning Programs That Boost Productivity

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Shawnna Sumaoang: Hi, and welcome to the Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I am Shawnna Sumaoang. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so that they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today I’m excited to have Gerry Hurley from Tripadvisor join us. Gerry, I’d love for you to introduce yourself, your role, and your organization to our audience.

Gerry Hurley: Thank you, Shawnna, I’m delighted to be here with you today and to share my story. My name as you said is Gerry Hurley and I’m the Senior Director of Sales Enablement for Tripadvisor’s B2B business. So for those that are not familiar with Tripadvisor, we are the world’s largest travel platform, helping close to half a billion travelers each month plan, book, and share their experiences of their trips. I’m based in Ireland, just north of Dublin, and have worked in training, enablement, and sales roles for 20-plus years across education, insurance, telecoms, and hospitality industries.

At Tripadvisor, I lead a team of amazing sales enablement professionals supporting the needs of roughly about 500 global sellers across our SMB, enterprise, media, and meta businesses.

SS: I’m very excited to have you on our podcast today. You mentioned on LinkedIn that you built a robust new hire training program and you were able to correlate that to a reduction in time to productivity from seven months to three months. First off, that’s amazing, but I’d love to understand how you designed and structured these programs?

GH: Sure, delighted to share a bit more. Let me start with a bit of context. We were all acutely aware of the impact Covid has had and continues to have on our lives. In particular, the hospitality industry has had a very challenging two years which in turn has had a dramatic impact on Tripadvisor. At our lowest point in the pandemic, we were down nearly as much as 86% in revenue. As you can imagine, this required us to go into triage mode and to look at ways to weather the storm, which resulted in unfortunately a reduction of force where we took close to 900 people had to leave trip advisor, furlough schemes for sales, a cost reduction program, a consolidation of our restaurants and hotels business and a shift in our sales motion from acquisition to support.

Thankfully the hospitality industry is resilient and by the start of 2021, we were starting to see some really good green shoots of recovery. With a massive pent-up desire to travel and a global vaccination program that was accelerating the path to recovery. It was at this point that we felt it was the right time to start recruiting again and we set about the task of recruiting and onboarding over 130 new sellers across our global SMB business. As you can imagine with a high philosophy hiring plan, we needed a way to onboard reps that was firstly scalable, secondly, could fast track reps to productivity. We were aiming for three months from our traditional seven months that we see in pre-Covid and a processor plan that allowed us to identify people at risk and take action quickly. We built an onboarding program that spanned 12 weeks with the first two weeks focused on the sales academy equipping reps with the product, system, process, and sales skills required to be successful. The remaining 10 weeks were focused on sharpening these skills on the job where managers and team leaders could provide high levels of coaching and support to help build activity and deliver revenue. To successfully graduate from the onboarding reps must pass the number of formal control gates hitting or exceeding set KPIs. That in a nutshell, Shawnna, is how we went about designing the program.

SS: I think that’s fantastic. What were some of the key levers you focused on in order to accelerate that time to productivity and how do you track progress to continue to optimize your programs?

GH: Yeah, great question. If you bear with me and go to digress for a moment, trust me, I’ll get to answering your question. I’m a big believer in inputs driving outputs and actively try to utilize a concept from engineering called the transfer function. The transfer function simply is defined as Y is a function of X. It’s a simple way to model the relationship between the system’s inputs and outputs. So in a business or a sales context the why is the revenue and the X are the variables or the activities that drive that revenue. In general, I found that sales leaders think in terms of Y’s, so be it like I need revenue, I need productivity, I need to deliver results, I need to drive people which makes total sense when you think about it. That’s what they’re accountable for. In contrast, it’s been my experience that in sales enablement we think in terms of X’s, the inputs or activities that deliver the Ys.

Sales enablement doesn’t drive revenue, they’re not accountable for that, but in my humble opinion, they do influence and impact the inputs that drive the revenue. How I see it as sales enablement is responsible for thinking and designing and ideation on performance and defining and influencing the Xs. To have a successful ecosystem, you require a symbiotic relationship where you’ve got sales leaders and managers that are held accountable for those specific activities that drive revenue, and sales enablement is accountable to develop the skills to create a spike in activity.

Back to your question, outlining the key levels we focused on to accelerate ramp in terms of the transfer function where the Y, in this case, was monthly recurring revenue, MRR. More specifically we focused on profitability at the end of month three. Our goal was to ramp reps to a point where their revenue contribution covers our costs. Now ideally you’d like to ramp reps to productivity and we define productivity as the average monthly MRR in 2019 because 2019 was our last normal year before COVID, but we felt with market uncertainty that this just was a leap too far to jump through productivity, so we put the stepping stone to profitability in first. So with the Y around the profitability benchmark in terms of MRR, we focused on the X’s, the activity or inputs that could drive that Y. We define those as talk time daily, activities in Salesforce, opportunities created over a week, obviously monthly recurring revenue, call quality as determined by a call review and adherence to a call flow and behavioral feedback, how reps were engaging, attitude, etcetera.

Having established the metrics, we set about mapping a ramp path across each role and function. We put in place three control gates at weeks four, eight, and 12 where there was a formal review of rep performance against the agreed metrics. We put in place a RAG status which we use to assess progress with green indicating they’re hitting or exceeding KPIs and are good to proceed, orange meaning that they are close but can proceed with coaching and a plan to address gaps, and red indicated the need to move to a short term improvement plan or even exit. We set expectations upfront with new hires in terms of interviews in contracts and even an all-true sales academy that we are a performance-driven organization and to be successful they need to meet or exceed the KPIs otherwise they wouldn’t be able to proceed.

We also aligned our control gates to coincide with probationary periods. Working with our RevOps team, we built out a report that showcases performance in trending benchmarks weekly by role, by team, and by region. Now having robust reporting that both reps and team leaders can utilize is fantastic, but we also needed a cadence of utilizing the reports to drive performance conversations and corrective actions. With that in mind, we created tools to support team leaders and managers to manage performance. These included behavioral scorecards where they could assess engagement, participation, attitude, and things like openness to feedback, so that they could assess the how as well as the what and a control gate report to track performance against KPIs on a weekly basis and a feedback loop to share best practice, identify blockages and validate performance conversations were taking place.

Finally, we met managers bi-monthly to review how each cohort of hires is performing on average pinpointing areas of progress and concern and we use this meeting to identify and track corrective actions and continuous improvements.

SS: Absolutely. Now beyond the new hire training, you also focus on enhancing productivity and efficiency through ongoing talent development. What are some of the core ways you support long-term development through learning programs?

GH: I suppose our top three initiatives that spring to mind when considering long-term development for me are firstly our management enablement program and this is one that I’m really passionate about. Because of a reduction in force, we now have a lot of new managers, many in the early years of their management careers. The management enablement program is a structured investment to help uplevel our managers and help them build a sales management operating rhythm so that they have skills to build high-performance teams, manage performance and drive rep productivity. We spend time initially upfront aligning with our sales leaders and defining playbooks to guide our managers around what’s expected of them in the role, so what we expect them to do when it comes to coaching, what we expect them to do in terms of pipeline and forecasting in performance management and building high-performance teams. We’re now at a stage on that program where we’re rolling out skill development components to build the skills to execute against these playbooks, and of course, we’re tracking all of this against set KPIs.

The second area of investment is around sales methodology, I believe it’s impossible to improve our sales capability without a consistent methodology. We set about solving the problem of how we can implement a practical repeatable scalable way to sell a Tripadvisor that spans across our full B2B sales businesses. We selected a consultative selling methodology, built an internal certification program, and are in the process of rolling this out globally. In addition, we’re utilizing conversation analytic tools that we can measure adoption on customer calls and we’re starting to see a clear correlation of performance uplift from reps utilizing the methodology, so that’s quite exciting, and more to come in that space.

The final of the three big initiatives we’re looking at is continuous professional development. If you look at professions like doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, and so on, they all have continued professional development. In other words, they learn from what’s happening out there in best practice and apply it to get continually better. So utilizing launch and learns and external speakers, we’ve rolled out a series of CPD events to provide opportunities to help continually improve our sales professionals.

SS: I love that, that sounds like a very thorough approach. How do you partner with subject matter experts as you are developing some of these training programs?

GH: When it comes to requirements for training for new products or new functionality launches or even strategic initiatives, we’re very fortunate in Tripadvisor in that we have a great go-to-market team who supports the project management and cross-functional coordination for us. They make our lives easy by working with us on contracting subject matter experts to support the development of our programs. In some ways, it’s a little bit easier for us compared to other organizations in that we have this function and they help us contract subject matter experts. We then put in place a set of expectations in the timeline and we work closely with our subject matter experts to turn that into a robust instructional design program with clear tracking and measurement.

SS: That’s phenomenal. Now to another point that I think is of a lot of interest to our audience, you shared on LinkedIn that you’ve been able to position learning as a key factor to influence revenue growth. I think there are a lot of enablement practitioners that would love to be able to do this better. How do you correlate your learning programs to revenue impact?

GH: That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I’m still struggling a little bit with that one, but I’ll tell you what we are doing in the success we’ve had. I’m going to go back to what I talked about earlier, the transfer function. I’m using that concept as a North Star to help my team transition from talking about our activity, so in other words, hey, this is all the things we did this month and talking about how that activity was perceived, so hey look, we’ve got this great feedback and happy sheets, and talking about how many people have passed certification. These are all amazing and great, but we were trying to move beyond this to really look at adoption over time and talk in terms of impact and their contribution to the success equation. For our key initiatives, we spend time upfront determining what are the Y’s we’re trying to impact and more importantly, what are the X’s that drive the Y and how can we influence these Xs?

Let me give you an example, I talked earlier about methodology. One of the Y’s we’re tracking for methodology is how do we improve conversion rates? How do we get more closed deals? We’re doing that by looking at some of the Xs that might influence that Y and those Xs are things like certification and methodology, so have we trained people on this new methodology, and have they passed that training and shown that they’ve acquired that knowledge. We’re looking at the adoption of the methodology. We’re using our conversational analytics tools to go into those calls and track where we hear on calls adoption of that methodology and use of the tools and techniques that we’ve trained on. Another X for us is coaching activity and we’re looking at are our managers support our sellers in building the habit of using that methodology in terms of the coaching activity and we’re also looking at the coaching quality score cards to determine, look might be a lot of activity but is a good activity and what is the quality of that coaching like? Hopefully, that gives you a sense in terms of we’re constantly looking for that transfer function. What are the Xs that we own and can influence that we believe can drive the Y and we spend a lot of time upfront defining and contracting those in.

SS: Phenomenal. Now, the last question for you, as sales enablement continues to evolve, what would you encourage organizations to focus on in regard to onboarding and training programs?

GH: I think there are a couple of things that spring to mind. The first one is to be crystal clear on what you’re trying to influence, and what are the Xs that drive the Y. Ensure you can measure them, ensure you baseline the data before you start so that you can track improvement over time is the first one. The second thing I would encourage people to do is truly partner with your sales function and be clear on who is accountable for what. If sales enablement is about creating an activity, then our sales are accountable for sustaining that activity over time and building that habit and how do we support them with that? The third area I would encourage people to do is embrace technology. Utilize the vast array of amazing tools that are out there to help you fast-track adoption and drive accountability. Finally, leverage peer learning. Sellers love to learn from other sellers. They love to hear from people that are on the ground doing it every day and being successful. If you can find systematic ways to leverage that peer learning, you will accelerate your sales enablement initiatives.

SS: Gerry, thank you so much for joining our podcast today and sharing your expertise on onboarding, training, and overall learning programs. I enjoyed learning from you.

GH: Thank you so much. I appreciate getting the opportunity to share my story.

SS: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there is something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know we’d love to hear from you.

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