In a recent survey, sales managers said their biggest challenge is getting new salespeople up to speed.

In the survey, sponsored by the sales automation company Velocify and conducted by USC professor Steve W. Martin, 79% of respondents said that the long ramp-up time for new reps was their number-one sales challenge.

If a costly problem, which will only get worse if the economy continues to accelerate and companies hire more reps to keep up. I’ve heard estimates that a new salesperson — even one with prior sales experience — takes about six months to reach full productivity. Those can be a pretty unforgiving six months for most companies, when existing business is at risk, new sales may be lost and sales managers’ time is sucked up by the demands of coaching and training. So anything you can do to accelerate the learning curve is money in the bank.

It turns out that one element in particular has a profound impact not only on how quickly new hires get up to speed, but also on their long-term success: the first assignment you give them. Studies done by AT&T in the 1950s and 1960s found a high correlation between the new hire’s success at the first assignment and where they were in their careers ten years later.

And a just-released study offers some insight into how that critical first assignment should be structured (Rollag, et al. (2005). Getting New Hires Up to Speed Quickly. MIT Sloan Management Review).

While the study didn’t look at salespeople specifically, the conclusions apply directly to sales. It found that the most important goal of onboarding is to help new hires create strong networks within the organization.


Those networks are especially important for salespeople. They allow the rep to go beyond the standard features-and-benefits spiel and create unique solutions for customers. A good salesperson is like a conductor, coordinating all of your company’s efforts on behalf of his or her customers. In fact, one study shows that reps with strong internal networks sold nearly twice as much as those with weak networks. (Claro, et al. (2013). The enhancing impact of friendship networks on sales managers’ performance. Brazilian Administration Review.)

To help build these networks quickly, the first assignment should be one that requires the new hire to seek out input from others in your organization — not only the people they’ll be working with day-to-day, but others who have knowledge and insights that can help them succeed. For a new salesperson, such a task might involve, for example, conversations with people in customer service, marketing, product development, finance, strategic planning — even the CEO. These conversations should involve more than the standard “glad-you’re-here-how’s-it-going” exchanges that usually happen during onboarding; they should be meaningful, goal-oriented meetings that involve real issues.

How you create such assignments will, of course, depend on your organization and the job. But here are some ideas to get get you started:

  • Analyze our customer base to learn what attributes our most profitable customers have in common
  • Create a presentation showing how our product line compares with the competition’s
  • Research and write a plan showing how to increase sales in your territory by 10% over the next year
  • Create six FAQs based on recent customer-service calls, along with the answers

New reps will have to go on a scavenger hunt to get the information to complete the assignment. And that’s a good thing. It means they’ll have to learn how the organization works and dig deep to find the answers. Inevitably, that will jump-start their networking efforts and get them to full productivity more quickly.

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