Episode 49: Bill Parry on Building a Cohesive Onboarding Program

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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 are here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so they can be more effective in their jobs.

Today, I’m excited to have Bill Parry from Redwood Software join us. Bill, I’d love for you to just introduce yourself, your role, and your organization.

Bill Parry: Well, thank you very much. I would be happy to. I am here at Redwood as the director of enablement of an amazing company that specializes in process automation and robotic software and some really fantastic stuff in the financial world.

For me, I am just a poor kid from Northern New Hampshire living in Texas. The first half of my career, I started in the U.S. Coast Guard. I spent the majority of my time studying training, training development, process improvement, human performance, instructional design.

My last three and a half/four years in the Coast Guard, I was working at a training center, a giant think tank. So, I developed a real passion and love for training and teaching and coaching and understanding the process behind it all. And then when I left the Coast Guard, I jumped into the sales world and I realized that there’s a great disparity between training and what actually happens out in the street.

My first sales job, I go off to sales training, I’m fired up. I’m excited. I come back and the first thing my sales manager says to me, he says, “Bill, don’t about what they told you, I’m going to show you the right way to do it.” So, from where I came from, that was a big red flag. Then he goes on to say, “what I want you to do is I want you to hang out with Bob next week.” Okay. So, you just told me that training’s wrong and now you’re passing the buck to Bob. So, I go home, I go to Bob. “Hey Bob, I’m going to hang out with you this week.” Guess what you think Bob said? “Why me?” And that was the beginning of my passion for connecting training with real-world application.

That is something that I see all the time. You have so many sales managers out there that have been promoted into a role they really don’t know how to do, and their only way of coaching and teaching is just do what I did. Just do what I did. You’re going to do it. You’re going to crush it, and that really doesn’t work or doesn’t help.

In my career, I’ve either been in sales or I’ve been training. And that really gives me a unique perspective when I’m coaching and teaching a seller. Because I know what it’s like to have that quota over your head. I know what it’s like to be at the end of the quarter, end of the year, and you’ve got nothing, and how to get out of that so that you can be productive and be a consistent performer.

SS: Well, I love it, Bill. I think that scenario is one that a lot of sales professionals encounter when they go into a new organization. And I think specifically that the kind of first interaction with an organization is really critical to getting a sales rep off on the right foot.

You co-led a session at the Sales Enablement Society event on great onboarding. And I would love to understand from your perspective, what makes an onboarding program great and what are kind of the core components of a successful onboarding program?

BP: Onboarding really has to be personalized and specific to the role that you are trying to coach and teach. Too often, we have HR that gets involved and HR has got their onboarding that we’ve got to do here. We’ve got these people, “Oh wait, what is a sales onboarding?” And we don’t understand that a seller, yes, they’ve got to do HR onboarding because they’ve got to learn how to get a paycheck and how to get healthcare and all that other stuff. But the seller has to learn the specific things about their role and how they can be successful and what do they need to know or be able to do in order to be successful in their role.

Many times, people create an onboarding program by assembling the kitchen sink and just throwing it at the person and saying, “okay, there it is. Just go learn it.” And one of two things happen. They figure it out painfully or they say, “forget this, I’m out of here”. And that can be very exhausting and costly. So for me, for a really good onboarding program, there are four key elements that you’ve got to really focus on.

First and foremost is the industry. What is the industry that the seller is going into? Show them how to be a student of their industry, show them where to learn about their customers and their competitors, and where do their customers meet? What networking groups do they participate in, what user groups they participate in? Where did their customers go to find help so that this seller can immerse themselves into and understand that the industry that they’re selling into and the pains and the frustrations of their customers so that when they do engage with a customer, they’re having an intelligent, businesslike conversation that hopefully elevates them to the level of a trusted advisor. Somebody that the customer wants to talk to, not just some knucklehead who’s trying to sell them something. So, the first bucket is they’ve got to be a student of their industry.

The second is they’ve got to understand and know the systems that they’re going to be using and what resources are available to them in their job. Systems like Salesforce, Outlook, how to input an order. Those systems need to be second nature to them. So many sellers hesitate calling somebody because they don’t know how to input a lead or how to finish an order or how to insert frustrating process that we have created and they don’t know how to do it right.

You’ve got the industry, you’ve got the systems and resources. Then the next thing is selling skills or selling process or selling methodology. Whatever you want to do. What do your sellers, or what does your company subscribe to to help your sellers do their job? It could be customer-centric. It could be solution selling. It could be Challenger sale, it could be insert methodology, but we need to have an understanding of the process. And then the last thing that they need to know is the product and what are the product solutions? What are the pains that we solve? Who are the competitors? What are my success stories? And I like to put them in those orders.

I share with sellers that, the product is the last thing that you need to know. And so often new hires want to, like, “I just got to know the product and I want to go out there and sell.” Okay, cool. But you need to know why people are buying our product. You’ve got to know what problem our product is solving. You’ve got to know why we even created this and why is the industry in need of this. If you can understand the need and the business needs and the industry, the product is secondary, because that same person that’s begging for information on the product, what are my features benefit? That’s the first seller that’s going to drop price in order to close a deal and we don’t want to drop price. We want to provide solutions and we want to help the customer solve a pain problem.

SS: Absolutely. I love those four buckets. I think what I’d love to understand from you are maybe some of the challenges that you’ve encountered when trying to design or implement these onboarding programs within a new organization?

BP: Sure. There are a lot. There are many challenges. The first challenge that you have to do is you have to clearly identify what does the seller need to know or be able to do to successfully do their job well. Just simply identifying those key elements can make the process that much better.

For example, sales really is simple. Who do I call? What do I say? And what are the next steps? Who do I call? We want to spend a lot of time clearly identifying who is the target customer that we’re going after. Teach your sellers how to identify the proper target, the proper prospective buyer. Show them how to get that information. If you can clearly identify what they need to know or be able to do, you can now bake out, how do they learn that, what resources are available to them? Who’s my subject matter expert on this? Where can this learn the seller learn this information?

Too often a lot of organizations just kind of create things without thinking of the end in mind, they just kind of say, “okay, you just need to know this.” Well, yeah, I know I need to know how to close a deal, but before I know how to close a deal, I’ve got to learn where the hell is the guy? How do I find the guy? Okay, great. Now what do I say to the guy? How do we overcome this objection? What is my conversation starter? How do I engage with this customer? What is my demand creation process and methodology? And there are baby steps that you’ve have got to develop these things.

Now, to help you understand that, you’ve got to be engaged with the senior leadership. I can’t emphasize the importance of this. The enablement process needs to be a top-down function, a top-down, cross-functional, synergistic process. They’ve all got to work together. If you don’t have that mutual buy-in, you’re not going to have any level of success.

I’ve done it the wrong way and it doesn’t work where you work with just the sellers. Because any teaching that you do, the seller is going to be useless unless the leadership supports it. If you can get the leaders in one room and talk about it and clearly identify it and help them clearly identify what are the top five things that a seller needs to know in the first week, what are the top five things that the seller needs to know in the second week? By the end of the first month, what’s a reasonable expectation of our sellers? And the skills that they need to know or be able to do that. Just engaging with senior leadership and getting them in the process is key.

One of the things that I really like to do is when I start building an onboarding program, or I’m building a pipeline generation program, or I’m building anything that engages the sellers, I want the sales leadership involved. And I tell them, “this is your process. This is for your team. I’m really good at this. I kind of understand it. I know how it all works, but unless you help me build this, and unless you support it, we’re not going to get anywhere with this. So, let’s do this together so that collectively we’re building a program for you and your team. It’s not my quota, it’s your quota.”

SS: I think that’s a great approach. And you mentioned obviously sales, leadership, and also cross-functional alignment. So, from your perspective, obviously cross-functional alignment is critical, but why specifically for onboarding? Then, who beyond the sales leadership within the organization should enablement partner with to deliver great onboarding?

BP: That’s a great question. Let me tell you a story to explain this. My first job after I graduated college, I went to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and my first job was to drive a very large ship. My first duty station was in San Francisco. When I reported aboard, a young 24-year-old kid, do you think the captain said to me, “well, here you go, Mr. Parry. Take the keys. She’s all yours. Drive through the San Francisco Bay with all the traffic and work your way underneath the Harbor.” No, no, not at all. That would have been the stupidest thing for them to do. I was handed a binder and in that binder were specific skills and knowledge that I had to clearly demonstrate to subject matter experts that I knew how to do my job.

For example, I had to go into the engine room and I had to trace oil lines and fuel lines and sewage lines, and I had to completely understand the insides of the engine so that when I was driving the ship and I said, “all ahead flank,” I knew what happened down below. I had to navigate the ship, I had to spend time with the cooks and the deckhands and I had to touch almost every single department on that ship. Why? Because on a cold January morning at one o’clock in the Alaskan ocean in a storm, our crew needed to know that I knew how to do my job so that they could sleep. I was engaged with everybody.

Now, how does that apply to a sales world? How many sellers do you know that leave a wake of pissed off people because the seller just doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what happens? I’m just closing deals. We all know that person. They’re out there, and the reason why is because we don’t set up a system in their onboarding process and teach them what happens when you hit send. How long does it take to install your product? And when you do order the product, what is the process to get that? What is the implementation process?

My onboarding is very similar to what I did with the ship. Granted, it’s not like a year and a half long, but I make sure that the sellers are engaged with sales operations, that they spend some time, even if it’s 10 minutes, here are the five things that I need you to go talk to finance about. I want you to go talk to Sue so that Sue knows that you know what you’re doing with your job. There’s an ecosystem, if you will, of everybody that that seller impacts.

I want to make sure that that seller engages, shakes a hand, has a face-to-face and meets them. Not just the first week, because we all know the first week is pretty much a waste of time. In the first two weeks, nobody’s going to remember anything. So, I want my seller to engage with them in the first or second week and then come back in six weeks and reengage with them. Now that they have a better understanding of what the process is, when I hit send, when I do sell something, so that way there is cross-functional support. The people in finance no longer are thinking, “ah, those guys are just in sales. I don’t like them.” But it’s, “Hey, how can I help the sellers do more? I like John.” John knows what he’s doing so that when John picks up the phone and he calls Sue in finance, “Hey Sue, I need some help.” Sue wants to help because she knows that John knows how to do the job. Does that make sense?

SS: Yes. I love that you are helping the sellers build out their ecosystem internally. that’s fantastic advice. I would actually, love to get some more advice from you, particularly around kind of being able to reinforce the knowledge learned during the onboarding program. As you mentioned, the first two weeks are kind of a wash. How do you ensure that what you’re teaching the sellers sticks long-term?

BP: Years ago, I had a boss, wonderful human being, and he would always challenge us. “How do you know, Bill? How do you know?” Too often, managers send their sales guys off to a “sales training” or a certification program, and then when the seller gets back and they’re “certified”, we all hope and pray they can do their job because we don’t know.

We’ve all heard the term inspect what you expect. So, with onboarding, I help the managers with a specific milestone checklist. This is the behavior that I want your sellers to demonstrate to you. And it’s usually taken from a QBR review, because every quarter you’re going to review these five things of your sellers. So, now with your new hires, I want you to inspect with them. And it literally is the manager. I’m going up to the guy or girl and saying, “Hey, demonstrate this to me. Show me how to do this”.

Too often we can be very complacent. A manager will go up to the seller, “Hey, did you do that training that you’re supposed to do?” It’s like, “Oh yeah, yeah, I got it. I know how to do it. Yeah, it’s great. It’s easy.” Okay, cool. As opposed to, “Hey, show me what you learned. Walk me through this. Demonstrate to me that you know how to do this.” We don’t want to hurt their feelings. We don’t want to upset them. We don’t want to challenge them or embarrass them. Forget that dude. Show me that you know how to do your job. That key element is important.

So, for a confirmation of learning, which is the technical demo, the technical term in instructional design, you can do a quiz, which really just means they just know how to take a quiz. They can demonstrate it to you. You can see them in action. What I like to do with onboarding is several levels of confirmation of learning. One, we’ll do a quiz. You went through this module, take this quiz, fantastic. But I’m also going to pair you up with a mentor, one of your teammates.

Who you choose for a mentor is important. You want to make sure that you find young sellers that want to become leaders and want to become managers. You don’t want to just hand it off to somebody and say, “Hey, can you walk this guy through it?” You’re going to demonstrate to the mentor that you know how to do the job. But I also want to build the behavior and the comfort level that it’s okay to talk to your peers because I want a room full of sellers to coach each other. I want a seller to totally screw it up on the phone, hang up, and look to his peer go, “dude, what the hell did I just do wrong? Let’s walk through this. Can you look? Where did I blow it?” “Oh, Bob, I heard you, man. You really ran into that challenge. Why don’t we try this? We’ll do a quick role play.” If my onboarding is working correctly, you can walk through the sales floor and you can hear the sellers coaching each other. That allows the manager to go do other managerial things.

So, I went on a couple of tangents here. For the confirmation, you want to do a quiz, you want a coach, a peer coach, you want a manager to do spot-checking. And then, another element that you can do, is you can have kind of like an informal session at the end of the onboarding. You can bring the new hire into a conference room and walk and go through their training, demonstrate and show it to us.

Going back to my ship, when I had completed my entire program and I finished, I checked off all those boxes that I had to do and I spent all that time with subject matter experts. I still wasn’t qualified. I had to spend time, I had to sit in a room. With the captain of the ship and the second in command of the ship and my boss and the weapons officer and like two other people. It’s like this kind of magic. Imagine a conference room with VPs and the entire C-suite grilling you and asking you questions. If something happens, what do you do if this situation occurs? Walk me through it. If we’re in port, what happens here? So, you can do the same thing with a seller. You get a seller that goes through an onboarding and HR program. They’ve completed their eight weeks, whatever it is.

Now, bring them into a room, bring the VP of sales in, bring a regional manager in, bring a sales manager in. Bring somebody from finance, bring somebody from sales operations, put them in a room and grill them. “Hey, demonstrate to me. How do you do your prospecting? Show me what your operating rhythm is, and demonstrate to me how you’re going to set up your weekly schedule. Walk me through what your quarterly reviews going to look like at the end of the quarter. Demonstrate to me where you find prospecting. Let’s do a quick role play.”

That simple exercise can take 40 minutes, a half an hour, but imagine all the work and preparation that’s going into it. If you tell your sellers in week three, in four weeks, you’re going to be meeting with the VP of sales, these five people, and you’re going to demonstrate your clear understanding of this material. I’d be willing to bet their pucker factor goes up and they’re going to get really quick about learning it and being able to demonstrate it.

SS: Absolutely, absolutely. I think sales can be a stressful role and that’s a situation they should be able to handle it, and it prepares them well for the field. So, we’ve talked a little bit about how you kind of measure, retention of the knowledge from onboarding within reps. How would you say you measure the success of onboarding as a whole back into your organization and particularly your stakeholders?

BP: Yeah. In sales, it’s really easy. Are you selling? Are you closing deals? And in the past couple of years, I’ve really been thinking about this and I’m having some really fun and challenging conversations that usually involve alcohol and late nights. So often, I hear sales enablement people get all excited about time to the first deal. Let’s reduce the time to the first deal. Well, I’m going to throw the BS flag on that because I think that is a stupid marker.

SS: Please do.

BP: Because how many times do we hand things to new salespeople? How many times do we just say, “Oh, here, just try it. Close the deal. Let’s walk them through this.” That’s BS. Stop.

I think the best marker of success is the time to pipeline. When you have reached X amount of quality pipeline, now you’ve got it, because the lifeblood of a seller’s process is not the deals that they close. It’s the pipeline that they generate. Quality pipeline. If you teach a seller how to get quality pipeline, they cannot fail, period.

SS: I think that is an excellent metric to be tracking the success of an onboarding program. It sounds like you’re going to be very busy for the next year, Bill, so thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today.

BP: Absolutely, happy to.

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

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