Alison Leishman, cofounder of Spitfire Inbound, joins the show to talk about her team’s onboarding process. She teaches us about why defining and documenting a process is so important, how she customizes onboarding tracks by role and function, and how she ties a defined onboarding process to happy clients and positive results.
Hi Folks! My name is Kevin Dunn. And welcome, to Agency Unfiltered. A bi-weekly web series and podcast that interviews agency owners around agency operations, growth and scale. Nobody knows how to scale agencies better than those that are already doing it. And they're happy to share an unfiltered look into what has worked, and what hasn't. Joining us today, Alison Leishman, Strategic Director and co-founder of Spitfire Inbound based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Spitfire has been very intentional in documenting and defining their onboarding program, customizing learning paths by role and function, and investing in their employees development through a process they call continuous onboarding. Learn how to build your own onboarding program, customize it by role, and how to leverage it for better client results. Agency Unfiltered, starts now.
KD: Well Alison, thank you so much. Welcome to Agency Unfiltered, we're happy to have you.
AL: Thank you.
KD: What we're talking about today is employee onboarding, documenting onboarding processes and why those are so valuable for agencies to have. And so, I think the easiest place to start, just at a high level, how does Spitfire organize their onboarding processes for new agency employees?
AL: Okay, so on a high level we look at it from three aspects. So we look at it in terms of skills, and that's almost what we see as a quick , because, skills in terms of HubSpot skills at the HubSpot Agency that's essential. Also other software skills. Then we look at skills in terms of our agencies, onboarding to our agency and then onboarding to the clients. And those are, those are three core components to onboarding, but beyond the skills, it's also onboarding in terms of culture. And then at the end goal, third aspect of our onboarding process is whether both us and the employee are going to commit to continue to invest time in each other. It's a conscious decision to go together we're going to move forward. Just as we have to onboard them to us, we almost have to be onboarded to them, because they bring a whole lot of new flavors and insights and knowledge to the agency. And I think that's part of the onboarding that often we used to miss.
KD: Sure. So we have these three components and obviously right now you're very intentional with the way it's organized. Why is it so important, or why were you so intentional in having this process documented, formalized? Why has that been so valuable for you?
AL: The why would be because we've learned a lot of lessons from doing this. So with onboarding staff, there's a lot of mistakes we've made, and having a clear process... Onboarding is not a one person job, so having that process in my head doesn't help because you, there's a lot of people involved in the onboarding process. So, if it's not documented, firstly, everybody doesn't know the ethos, and where we're going with it. Secondly, it's the person who's been onboarded is left in the dark. They're not sure what's happening in this kind of three month onboarding process, either. So I think that's the why. And it also really helps with is when people know where people are at, they know what to expect. So, it just creates a smoother transition. I think the other reason to highlight would be the fact that, often with onboarding, you onboard and then you leave them. So you like onboard, and then it's like a stop. It's just like, okay you're onboarded, you're good to go, you're on your own. What we do in our onboarding process is the person being onboarded gets to put up their hand and go, "I'm ready to take this much. I'm ready to go it alone." As they go through, but continuous onboarding. So we don't stop onboarding at the end of our three month onboarding process.
KD: So there's onboarding but then you also have what? After that three month period, there's continuous onboarding as well?
AL: Yeah. And we don't always frame it as continuous onboarding. It is framed as it's keeping up to date, keeping abreast with how the agency's changing, how the clients are changing, how HubSpot's changing, because it's always growing.
KD: I mean I think just in our line of business, right, things, tactics, strategies, everything, software, things are changing so quickly, yeah.
AL: I think that you can't position that as ongoing training but it's still part of the onboarding, because you do it the Spitfire way. Everyone does it differently. If you go to another agency, they're going to have a different process. They're going to have a different way. You have to get used to that. So that's why we carry on with continued
KD: I would imagine with the initial onboarding it's pretty intensive, pretty heavy, probably a lot of requirements, things that they have to learn and pick up rather quickly. For continuous onboarding, how does that change? What is the format? What does continuous onboarding look like for Spitfire?
AL: We do have a training requirement, so from a HubSpot certification point of view. For the Academy...
KD: I'm not biased, great education.
AL: You're not biased at all.
KD: No, of course not.
AL: HubSpot Academy is definitely one of our key components. It's certification a quarter. Everybody has to do a certification a quarter. And, not necessarily the one that's about to expire. And, the one, the one that you need based on your clients and your job role. It's not just about adding up the certifications so that you've got most badges. It's really about going, which of the certifications are going to help me do my job better? As people grow, are going to help me manage my team better. That's the one component. And then, the other onboarding is getting involved in onboarding new staff. By being involved in onboarding the staff member, and then, having gone through it yourself. So, what we do is, when a new staff member arrives they get allocated a buddy. It's not a mentor, it's not a coach. It's somebody who's recently been onboarded, who kind of felt the experience and it's fresh. They realize that they couldn't remember how to print something, or what the code was. They completely get it. And that person becomes a go-to person. So, that also helps our onboarding process, because they give us feedback going like, "That was too much in one day", or "It wasn't okay for me".
KD: Do you source feedback from folks that are just completing onboarding? And how does employee feedback feed back into the process itself? Are you actively changing, updating based on feedback? Where does that fit into the process?
AL: We get the feedback. We do have somebody who drafts it. She meets with them, and that feedback definitely re-shapes what we do next time. So, our three-phased approach around going, let's do skills, let's do culture, let's do mutual investment, came out of feedback, whereas traditionally you would go, "Okay, you need to get training, do a whole lot of training", and they were like: "It's too much. We can't do all the certifications". So now we look at, okay , have a look at lessons. Then, put the lessons into your certifications, and do your certifications. And keeping it in line with what clients they're working with, what team they're working with, and what practical implementation they're going to do, because you learn it better if you do it.
KD: Yeah, right. Actually get your hands on it. For some of the, like HubSpot, obviously you're a HubSpot agency, some of the training at HubSpot Academy is just available, right? It's on-demand, it's self paced. How do you do all of the agency's specific training? What format does that exist in? I would imagine that you might have project management tools. If they track time or log hours, or something like that. So, the HubSpot stuff is video based. But, what does the format of the agency specific education look like?
AL: So, some of that is video based. So, it used to be one-on-one. Now, we tend to, We have videoed a couple of those trainings so people can do them in their, in their time. But, we do do one-on-one training. So we'll have for example, where we use G Suite. We have an internal champion, and she's responsible for onboarding new staff to the full software package. So we kind of create a champion per-For our project management tool, we have a champion. She introduces them to the time tracking tools. So, that's why I say that it's everybody involved.
KD: You spread out the learnings across the team, yeah.
AL: And, it encourages the new person to meet more people within the team. We're not a huge team. There are eighteen of us, which is a fair amount. It allows them to meet everybody. And I think it also just allows them to get trained by different people. Everyone learns differently. Everyone onboards differently. It's a great way for them to get it from, with a different flavor. We've got a very diverse team, so it's really great because it just encourages that kind of bonding at a much earlier level.
KD: Sure. Yeah it makes sense. So, you've mentioned that the onboarding program itself is about three months. I can imagine that if you're making a hire, we want these folks on client accounts and working with clients as quickly as possible. Are they doing any client work?
KD: So, where does that fit into the three month process? Because, I can imagine you want to get them ramped up as quickly as possible.
AL: Yeah, so they're involved with clients from the word "go". And that's also another learning. As opposed to having onboarding and then meet with a client, they're involved at different levels. Their skills matches what the client needs. So, it depends on what they're involved in. So, if a client is, for example, if we've got a lot of automation work on a particular client, then that drives where some of the training starts.
KD: It matches the client needs for wherever that person is going.
AL: But we have very clear goals by the end of our onboarding period, as to which HubSpot certifications they have to have completed, in order to go, "Okay, we agree to continue this relationship", and that's dependent on the role. So if they are in a sales position, the certifications that they are required to complete are quite different than those in a client service.
KD: Which makes sense. So you contextualize or you customize based on role, and where they fit in the organization—
AL: But, everyone has to have done the inbound marketing.
KD: So there is a baseline that everyone takes that.
The other important thing is before people start we ask them to do some of the free certifications. We'll give them an email address and get them to do the certifications before they start. So that, when they come in, it's not into this unknown world of a different language. They come in with a baseline knowledge, and I think that also helps us, from almost like a standard, standardization point of view, so that you know that everyone has got that baseline. So everyone speaks—
KD: —the same inbound language.
AL: Everyone speaks it.
KD: And so these are assigned before they even walk through the door?
AL: A hundred percent. Particularly the funnel to flywheel. Because people come with a funnel and then we have to flywheel it.
KD: Yeah. You have to be up to speed with the flywheel. You have to. You've talked about contextualizing, kind of learning paths based on role. How many different types of onboarding customizations do you make? How many different variations of your process are there?
AL: Role based, essentially would be sales, content, and we call them IMSs, inbound marketing strategies.
KD: It's like an Account Management type role.
AL: So those would be the main three pathways, but within that there's the CVR routine. So, if you're coming on as a junior, without a lot of prior learning, then what we tend to do is they don't necessarily do the end-to-end training. So for example, client relationship management would come further down the line. If somebody's coming in as a senior, that's core to their job. That training always gets ramped up to the prioritization and the order of the training changes. It depends on their job role.
KD: So, it's not just the responsibilities itself, but it's also like seniority within that career path that gets looked at.
AL: There's a blend of that. And I think the other thing that's been interesting as we've learned is that people do come with prior learning. They'll go "This part of the onboarding", or "This part of the training, we've done it like this before. How do we merge those two?" From a growth point of view for the agency, that's good. It's not just about "This is our way, and we don't move, and it's stuck", it's about "Let's build on that, let's adapt to it, make it better" with the people we've got. That's been a good experience. As we grow, we get more and more learning, which is really fun.
KD: If I'm an agency, or a partner, and I've onboarded people, but I don't have it processed, documented, formalized or anything like that, where's the absolute easiest place to start? What is step one for creating more of a process, versus winging it each time I bring somebody on?
AL: I think the easiest place is with the certifications with a HubSpot agency, because it's contained, they're set, and you can very easily align them with different roles. So then Kevin, the timeline for that is really important. I think our biggest challenge is onboarding to clients, and documenting that process, because every time there is a change or an introduction with a client, you've got to make sure that that is handled collaboratively with the client. I think onboarding to clients is a big challenge, so how to document that is a place we're still learning, because every client is different.
KD: How do you formalize a process if it's going to be different every single time?
AL: Clients have different needs, what services we do with them is very different. That would be a challenge, I think. Onboarding them to your process, that's quite easy, you can create a checklist, what is our time-tracking tool? Have you learnt that? Have you got an email signature?
KD: Spread responsibility across the team.
AL: That I think is the simplest, to onboard to your agency. If you've got processes within your agency, you've got certain people, you create a checklist, you allocate responsibilities, and that becomes seamless. It's almost the softer side of onboarding to people.
KD: Any tips?
AL: Any tips on onboarding to people. Listen. I think ask questions, and be who you are. We hire people for what they're going to bring to the agency, and they need to bring that to the clients. Just be--
KD: Your authentic self.
AL: That's why you're there, and that's a value you're going to add. As agencies, we shouldn't be trying to mold people into agency selves. We want them to be good representatives of our brand, and adopt the SpitFire way, as such, but they have to do that within themselves.
KD: Yup. That's a great point. Last question for you. I ask this question in every episode, what is the weirdest part of agency life?
AL: We have an award called the SPAM Can.
KD: The SPAM Can?
AL: Literally, when we came to our first inbound, we brought in a can of SPAM. Every time somebody does something that's slightly out there, or not really thinking, and it can be really silly things, like people getting stuck in a turnstile, or whatever the case may be, they get awarded the SPAM Can.
KD: That's great.
AL: It's just a cool little thing that we do. I think the weirdest part of agency life is every agency you go to has that thing. They have some off-the-wall tradition that you're like "Where did that come from?", and you can try to create it, so we tried to create the award, which is ironic.
KD: Yeah, right. There, right. Couldn't tee that up any better.
AL: The Lack All award never took off, but I think it was because we were trying to drive it, whereas the SPAM Can—
KD: —happens organically.
AL: Just happened organically. I think that organic culture within agencies, that's really cool to watch and observe and be a part of.
KD: That's great. Awesome. We are officially out of time, I really appreciate you coming on, it's been an absolute pleasure. That's Agency Unfiltered. That's all we have.
AL: Thanks Kevin.
KD: Yeah, thank you.
Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Agency Unfiltered. If you like what you saw, heard, or read, make sure to subscribe to our playlist on YouTube, our Podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, or our newsletter on AgencyUnfiltered.com Alongside episode launch notifications, the newsletter also comes with a ton of all our helpful, strategically curated agency content from yours truly. If you want to keep the conversation going, or provide a counter-point to this episode's discussion, tweet me, at @Kevin_Dunn. I'll see you again in two weeks, but in the meantime, keep it unfiltered, and let's all grow.