Five years into a very successful career at IBM, Shawn Fowler realized something was missing.
At the technology giant, he’d worked his way up the ladder from humble sales consultant to worldwide director of sales enablement with 50 direct reports. But he longed for more frontline interaction with his sales team.
When Fowler reflected on how his role had developed, he realized he had no more interaction with the reps in his own office than he did an engineer in a completely different city. “You don't actually do the day-to-day work as much as manage other people's focus and efforts,” Fowler tells 360Learning. “I missed being engaged directly with the reps.”
So when an opportunity arose to join SalesLoft, then a small 200-person sales technology startup, as director of sales enablement, Fowler’s eyes lit up.
In February 2018, Fowler left IBM, trading his large 50-person team for something much smaller. “At SalesLoft, I had one [direct report],” he says. “But [the role] was exactly what I had hoped it would be.” With no one to delegate work to, Fowler was able to get his hands dirty again.
Before Fowler joined SalesLoft, sales enablement was something of an afterthought. Its one-person team had designed a makeshift two-week onboarding process but it was basic and underperforming.
Fowler decided to scrap the existing process and designed a brand new system to train and integrate new sales employees. Drawing on his experience at IBM, he built a three-week onboarding process that was “very intentional” in the way it trained and educated reps.
The first week of Fowler’s system focuses on SalesLoft itself, explaining the ethos and purpose of the company. While most onboarding processes have a small segment on company or culture, Fowler dedicated the entire first week to it—and for good reason.
Before entering the world of sales, Fowler completed a Ph.D in educational psychology. His focus was on the role of social engagement and the feelings of relatedness in motivation. So he understood how important it was that reps had a powerful emotional connection with the company they were joining.
New reps spend a full week learning about the company itself, exploring its customers, their problems and how SalesLoft can help. “When people feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves, they're going to be more motivated,” Fowler explains. “That means they're willing to try harder, do more, and take risks.”
Next, the onboarding process pivots to personas. SalesLoft is popular among sales leaders, sales operations, marketing, and sales managers—and its sales reps need to understand the different wants, needs, and demands of each role. Fowler says he spends a week on personas, drilling into the minutiae of each customer segment.
Beyond the basic characteristics of each persona, Fowler encourages his reps to think critically about each individual person they were talking to. How old do you think this person is? Do you think they're married? Did they go to college? What car do you think this person drives? What are the different tools and resources this person uses every day? What is the biggest pain in the ass for this person on a daily basis?
When a sales rep calls a prospect, they’re selling to a person who's in a specific emotional state, says Fowler. Understanding that state as much as possible increases the likelihood that they’ll land the deal.
Finally, Fowler’s onboarding program focuses on SalesLoft’s actual product—a sales enablement platform. During the last week, reps learn about the platform’s functions and capabilities. And perhaps most importantly, they learn how to demo the system and show off every last feature.
After the third week, reps officially graduated from onboarding and hit the phones with live leads.
Fowler’s new onboarding program had an immediate effect. But, just like before, he wasn’t content to leave a process as-is. He knew it could be better and was determined to make it so.
Over the last two years, Fowler has steadily improved his onboarding process with scientific precision. And he owes much of that progress to the advice and feedback from his sales managers.
As director of sales enablement—now vice president of sales enablement—Fowler is always one step removed from the actual sales process. He designs the training and supports the sales org—but he still lacks the day to day contact necessary to understand how specific strategies are performing. For that, he turns to his sales managers.
“I care a lot about manager feedback,” he says. “The longer I spend in enablement, the more I realize that sales enablement really is manager enablement, because you can't be everywhere all the time.”
From his very first week at SalesLoft, Fowler scheduled regular meetings with sales managers. Every week, for one hour, they’d sit down and discuss the performance of their reps. To structure the conversation, Fowler created a performance scorecard with every competency a sales rep needed to excel in their role—business acumen, prospecting, teaching, qualifying, demoing, objection handling, negotiating, and so on. Before the meeting, sales managers had to review each of their direct reports and grade their performance in each competency.
Those scorecards and conversations provided Fowler valuable insight into what’s working and what isn’t.
For example, he once discovered an element of his onboarding process was producing an unexpected consequence in inexperienced reps. In an early iteration of onboarding, reps were formally assessed twice—once for discovery and once for product demos. For the product demo assessment, Fowler asked each rep to perform a harbor tour, which is demoing the entire product, one feature after another. “I needed to see that they could demo the entire product,” explains Fowler. “I would tell [reps] in onboarding, ‘I never want you to demo like this. I just need to see that you can do it all.’”
But when reps graduated, they did exactly what Fowler advised them not to. Instead of demoing features and capabilities specific to their prospect, they showcased the entire product, which bored prospects and ultimately lost deals.
So when Fowler sat down with his sales managers, he saw consistently low numbers across the demoing competency. And when an entire group is underperforming, it’s clear that something structural is wrong. After discovering the problem, he analyzed the onboarding process and identified the root cause—the harbor tour. Fowler tweaked the onboarding process, removing the harbor tour assessment and adding a practical scenario-based sales evaluation at the end. “We focus on different scenarios and get them to form that connective tissue that's going to help them sell better,” he says. Like the harbor tour, it tests reps knowledge of the product but it doesn’t cultivate poor habits. After tweaking onboarding, demoing scores amongst new hires shot up.
In another case, Fowler’s managers reported that their sales reps were struggling with a previously ignored skill: controlling the deal. This time, Fowler didn’t have consistent numbers to point him in the right direction, but he did have the same conversation repeating over and over again, indicating a structural trend. After talking to his managers, Fowler found junior reps, in particular young reps, were allowing their prospects to dictate the direction of conversation. In doing so, they relinquished control of the deal. To fix the skills deficit, he added deal control as a new competency, designed new modules for SalesLoft’s onboarding, and rolled out a skills clinic to train reps who had already graduated.
With the assistance of his sales managers, Fowler steadily tweaked, tested and refined his onboarding process. Two years on, he estimates that he’s gone through ten iterations—and it’s returning better results than ever. “We make small tweaks usually but I’m happy with what we have at this point,” he says.
When Fowler reviews his sales managers’ scorecards, he isn’t just looking for company-wide trends. He recognizes that there’s always variance between individual sales reps and regular evaluations provide an opportunity to design highly targeted ongoing learning plans.
After each meeting, Fowler has a stack of scorecards quantitatively evaluating each sales reps’ competencies. For each sales rep, he and his sales managers pick out one competency to focus on improving during the next month—say, prospecting for leads or handling common objections. “Each time we find the one thing you want to work on,” Fowler says. “Because you can't fix everything at one time. You get distracted.”
With the competency set, Fowler designs a targeted development plan for each rep to improve their selected competency.
Consider a rep who has weak qualification skills, suggests Fowler. This rep is great at finding leads and always has a well stocked pipeline but when they’re working out whether a lead is a high-value opportunity or time-wasting tire kicker, their performance plummets. They ask the wrong questions, struggle to build rapport, and can’t get a handle on pain points.
For this rep, Fowler suggests they need a better example of what good qualification looks like. So he finds five recorded calls from other reps who have great qualification skills. The reps on these calls are able to quickly qualify leads by digging into their pain points, needs, and desires. Then he hands the calls to the rep and tells them to listen to them. “We give them a scorecard of things to look for as they're scoring the meeting,” says Fowler. “The scorecard makes them basically be more insightful and more engaged when they listen to the call.”
Once the rep knows what qualification should look like, they go back to their own calls and score all their conversations for the next month, highlighting the parts that were good and the elements they could improve. “I want them to take ownership and accountability for their own progression,” explains Fowler. But to ensure they’re focusing on the right stuff, sales managers still check in once a week during their one-to-ones. If reps are not progressing in the right way, sales managers will provide gentle guidance.
At the end of each month, Fowler meets back with his sales managers to review progress. If he sees a sales rep’s competency has improved, he might double down on the training or shift the focus to a new competency if he’s happy with the rep’s achieved skill level. And if a piece of training isn’t working, Fowler isn’t afraid to scrap it and try something else.
Month by month, Fowler and his team nudge SalesLoft’s reps towards perfect scores across all competencies. As the sales org balloons in size, that’s an increasingly difficult challenge—but Fowler is confident he can get there.
Many sales professionals would have been content to stay at IBM, secure in a high-profile role. But Fowler is quick to explain his decision to join SalesLoft. “[At SalesLoft] I work in sales enablement at a company that sells sales software, so I literally teach salespeople to sell sales software to other salespeople,” he says. “It is probably the best place in the world to do what I do.”
At SalesLoft, everyone from its senior company executives to its individual sales reps have a deep understanding of, and passion for, sales enablement. And that means the sales enablement team isn’t just Fowler and his colleagues, it’s everyone who works at the company.
When refining SalesLoft’s onboarding process, Fowler isn’t working alone. He is supported by a legion of sales managers and an army of sales reps, all of whom help uncover areas for improvement.
With a whole company behind him, Fowler has built the best sales enablement processes possible. That has delivered huge results for the company. In just two years, Fowler has slashed 30 days from his rep’s average time to first deal and brought the org’s average time to full quota to within his targets. In doing so, SalesLoft has reached an ever-growing customer base, cementing the company’s position as a key industry player.