With 2016 almost in the books, it’s time to reflect on the year that was and focus on how best to achieve even more aggressive sales goals in 2017.

Perhaps the biggest lesson learned in 2016 is that sales forces are combatting elements of distraction on a daily basis. According to a recent Accenture report co-authored with CSO Insights, sales reps are bombarded with information and disaggregated customer data. Today’s sales reps are facing fierce competition in just about every category, and the sales rep is called upon to know more and deliver it in less time. The research also revealed that 58 percent of sales executives are concerned about achieving this year’s sales targets. Their concern is real: research shows sales productivity has decreased from 41 percent five years ago, to 36 percent today.

In this era of information overload and competitive assaults, how can sales executives focus their teams to deliver against revenue goals?

The Missing Link Addressed by Just 23 Percent of Companies

As the study highlighted, there’s no shortage of predictive and prescriptive actions based on algorithms and machine learning of past actions and outcomes, that are provided to sales teams. While AI-driven insights are helpful, they can get lost in the shuffle when not accompanied with a critical element: sales coaching. Unfortunately, consistent sales coaching is a rarity. In a Sales Management Association (SMA) survey, approximately 77% of firms surveyed (SMA study) admitted they don’t provide enough coaching to their salespeople. This, despite the fact that implementing a formal sales coaching process generated much stronger results (53.6% win rate) in comparison to informal coaching (45.7% win rate) and discretionary coaching (44.7% win rate). Ignore the impact of coaching at your own risk: when optimized for quality and quantity, coaching has been shown to help grow revenue up to 16.7% faster.

Coaching doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process based on gut reactions and instincts. Data-driven coaching can direct and inform customized coaching actions, helping busy sales executives tailor coaching actions for each rep on their team, regardless of size. While it may sound complicated, it’s really not. Here are the four keys:

  1. The first step to coaching success: quantify sales rep capabilities – a fundamental first step toward knowing what reps can do, so managers can coach at scale. It’s important to establish quantified metrics on critical capabilities as a first step toward knowing what reps can do, so managers can coach at scale. The process can include knowledge reinforcement delivered in the form of scenario-based challenges which ideally should be combined with observed competency and confidence ratings for a 360-view of a rep. This quantification in itself serves to reinforce the knowledge and behaviors that matter most in the selling environment. Data analysis can provide real-time management updates, trends and comparisons. Employing a quantified metric sends a clear message that more was expected of reps than just their pipeline, and that manager 1:1s become something more than just pipeline reviews.
  2. Respect time demands. Systems that add time demands and distract from selling are part of the problem here, not the solution. Knowledge reinforcement that’s designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, can achieve results at scale, and delivers a user experience that’s time-efficient yet meaningful, will ultimately deliver strong user engagement which is essential to boosting performance with impact to the bottom line.
  3. Guide coaching with data, not hunches. It’s well documented that sales managers are often promoted into those positions from the sales ranks and, as such, are proficient at selling but may have little insight how to coach their sales reps. Applying data to coaching establishes a coaching culture where teams are guided by data insights, not hunches. Likewise, these systems can and should be used to track the coaching history and effectiveness of field managers to know where and how to invest in sales coach development.
  4. Address the human side of selling. Industry analysts have called the human factor in selling the “rocket boosters” of any sales stack strategy. Via CRM integration, sales managers can correlate ongoing sales capabilities data against KPIs such as pipeline, quota and win rates to assess the effectiveness of their sales teams in ways they can impact. By using data insights to address the human side of sales, companies can achieve proficiency gains, higher quota attainment, improvement in gross margin, and market share uplift.

Ultimately, it’s people who deliver the numbers, not technology or systems. By focusing on the one word that matters – coaching – and using data-driven insights to support it, sales leaders gain the confidence to know which sales reps and managers are on track, the ability to jump start those who are not, and the wisdom to know the difference – before it’s too late.