How To Use Neuroscience For Onboarding and Training Sales Reps

memory for sales onboarding and training

Think back to your first job.


What happened during your first week? First two weeks? First month? Year?


If it’s anything like mine, you probably met the team, were vaguely told what to do, shown your tools, and then expected to get going right away.


Hire an A-player. Give them a patch and a quota. Show them the sales process. Cram them with useless company information. Show them how to demo. Shadow a good rep for a while. Then figure it out.


No wonder quota attainment is on the decline.


Unfortunately, this is how many fast-growing SaaS companies treat their sales onboarding and training. In fact, I bet you’re probably experiencing the same at your company right now, aren’t you? So keep reading.


When you don’t set your reps up properly from day one and give them the knowledge they need to do the job effectively, you’re really saying you don’t care about their long-term success at your company.


Part of this attitude could be due to the 90-day probation clause that most SaaS companies have - why spend so much time, effort, and money on onboarding and training when you don’t even know if they’ll make it past probation?


Guess what - if you don’t give them any onboarding and training, or if you don't know how to measure training effectiveness metrics, they most likely won’t make it past probation anyways. They’ll suck. And managers will suck too - for not getting their reps to quota and having high attrition. Then, they’ll get fired.


Or even worse - there will be a pattern of unsuccessful new hires happening. Then, as a sales enablement manager, you’ll be escorted to the front door by security, and asked to go find happiness elsewhere.




Alternatively, the manager might be a nice person, and decide to keep reps past 90 days even if they didn’t hit their targets because they worked SO hard and made SO MANY cold calls. And hiring cold-callers these days is almost impossible. So you’ll keep them. And you’ll do onboarding and training to turn them into A players.


But because you didn’t put the rep on the right onboarding and training path to success from day one, they’re now going to be full of bad habits. Like, really bad habits. Stuff that you would never want to see from your reps, ever.


And it’s REALLY hard to change those habits later on with training – and even harder to prove 

But why?


It’s all in your head (literally).

Your brain is a living, breathing, powerful mechanism

Let’s get really nerdy here for a bit. We’re going to look at the cognitive science behind sales onboarding and training. There’s going to be two main parts here - memory and learning.


Let’s start off with the easiest one first - memory. Essentially, memory is the encoding, storing, and retrieving of information.

  • Encoding: This is where your brain transforms information into a form that can be stored into memory.
  • Storing: This is where your brain maintains the encoded information.
  • Retrieving: This is where your brain re-accesses information from the past which has been encoded and stored.


Encoding is really about content, and there are a few differnet levers you can pull to improve encoding:

  • The volume of the material (the greater the volume, the more difficult the encoding)
  • The degree of organization of the material (the better organized, the easier the encoding)
  • The degree of familiarity that the rep has with the material
  • The place occupied by the information in the structure of the content (beginning, middle, or end of material)
  • The nature of the material


Once content is encoded, it needs to be stored.


Information gets stored in short-term or long-term memory.


Both of these act as filters that protect our brain from the mountain of information we come across every day.


The more information is repeated or used (e.g. in onboarding and training), the more likely it is to be retained in long-term memory.


Then there’s retrieval.


You retrieve information through recognition or recall. “Oh, I recognize this person’s face… Oh that person’s face I recognized, her name is Sally… Sally works in Sales Enablement...”


This is how your brain accesses the information you learn.


Although memory is part of learning, it’s not learning itself. Let’s look at how the brain operates while learning.


Learning starts with the efficient functioning of the memory system, that is encoding, storing, and retrieving information.


But it gets much nerdier after this…


Learning is a physical process in your brain. Your brain is continually being shaped through experience - there’s a physical change that takes place in your brain when you learn.


Our brain has a system of neurons that are linked together through a web of connections.


When we learn, our neurons are hit with inputs, deciding what they choose to pay attention to.


When neurons get activated during learning, their connectors get coated with white brain matter The more a neuron gets activated about a piece of learning, the more goopy the connectors get, which facilitates faster information transfer and protects the connection.


The more we use a connection, the faster it gets triggered as well.


The brain learns best through multiple pathways. Our brain has evolved over time to prefer multi-sensory experiences for learning.


Most sales organizations doing onboarding and training forget how our brain is built, and provide information in a single format, e.g. boring classroom slides.


But our brain needs more.


We’ve all experienced how hands-on onboarding and training usually sticks best, and how reps typically enjoy it more.


Information is stored in networks linked to multiple regions of the brain, as language, nonverbal images, feelings, sounds, sensations, and smells.


When several senses are stimulated at the same time, there are more brain connections available when sales reps need to recall memory later on. So this means that memory can be retrieved by more than one type of cue.


For example, having a rep listen to a presentation from a trainer, then read about the material accompanied with graphics provides three pathways to learning the material, which in turn makes it easier to store in long-term memory for retrieval.


Then you can start manipulating the information - problem solving, role plays, experiments - to add even more connections.


All of this - memory, neurons, networks, connections, and pathways - is what develops knowledge (schemas). To say you “know” or “know how to do” something means that you’re able to access the relevant representation and activate the right schema.


Once you’ve activated the right schema, you can use it to do everything - your daily plans, solve a problem, learn something new.


So now that we know how the brain learns, how can we go back to our onboarding and training programs to make sure new reps have the best chance of succeeding.

How to use brain science to make your sales onboarding and training better

There are multiple forces working against you. Whether reps have had previous experiences or they’re completely green, the brain learns in a specific way. Knowing how the brain develops during training can give you an advantage and help your reps master skills faster than your competition - and that’s a HUGE advantage.


Here’s what you can do now to make it easier for your reps to remember:

1. Stop cramming

There's nothing wrong with having a boot camp. But onboarding and training doesn’t stop there because there’s something wrong with spending 4 weeks cramming every single nugget of information about your company down your reps’ throats to make sure they don't miss anything. 


With that amount of information in a short period of time, they'll miss almost everything.

2. Use multi-sensory exercises

Don’t just do classroom, or PDFs, or videos. Onboarding and training should do all of them, multiple times. If you have a great classroom session, reinforce it with reading customer case studies and whitboarding diagrams. Multiple pathways will help reps recall information better when they need it.

3. Incorporate teachbacks

Make sure your reps understand the onboarding and training. Have them upload a video explaining the material they’ve just learned and how it will be useful to them. If they can’t do it, or it’s not the right explanation, then catch the misunderstanding early. Reps retain information much better (90%) if they teach it to someone else immediately (compared to 5% retention from lectures)

4. Practice

You’re more likely to remember information with frequent practice. Think about how actors need to memorize lines - they practice over and over again. Your reps need to do the same. During onboarding and training, the more they practice, the easier it will be to recall the information when they need it. You don’t want them to have to think super hard when they get a prospect objection - the right answer should come to them quickly.

5. Monitor their development

The worse thing is when you think your reps are ready to hit the phones, only to find out that they completely botch their pitch.


Make sure you record your reps on prospect calls, and have managers actively coach reps. You want to correct a misunderstanding happening in the field frequently and immediately before it gets really stuck in their head (literally).

Wrap up

Go back and take a look at your onboarding and training. The brain develops in a specific way - don’t fight it, it’s science. Instead, use the brain to your advantage. Are you doing everything you can to make it easy for reps to retain the information from your training?


I bet you’re not.


Go back and make adjustments. You’ll be thankful when your reps close their first deals much faster because of it.


To learn more about what information reps should know during onboarding, download these slides from our webinar, “How to Build Sales Onboarding Programs for Faster Ramp Rate.”

Cover image: Fredy Jacob via Unsplash