Sales coaching puzzle

A while ago we received a call from a company wanting to talk about coaching training for their front-line sales managers. They were real cheerleaders – they believed sales managers were the pivotal job for sales success and coaching was the sales managers’ key responsibility.

Since over the years we have published a lot about sales coaching and designed some very successful sales coaching training for clients, we thought we might be able to help. But as the conversation unfolded that “we might be helpful” thought began to fade. Here’s why.

From a getting sales coaching training right perspective, they had taken all the traditional steps and had executed them to perfection. It certainly was fair to say they had done “everything right.”

First, they trained their sales reps in classic fundamental selling techniques so the managers did not have to start at ground zero.

Then they trained their sales managers in coaching techniques. We first thought perhaps they might not have done such a good job at training their sales managers to coach – but it wasn’t so. They had designed a customized sales coaching simulation that was close to what we would have proposed as the highest impact training design.

They also took a subsequent step. When a new sales skill was introduced they trained the sales managers first and then had the sales managers participate as coaches during the program for the sales reps.

After all that, we asked: What were the sales managers doing or not doing that needed to be fixed? Here the answer was interesting and a good lesson for all of us concerned about sales coaching.

From their analysis, the basic problem was what we would label as the “doing and telling” trap.

– Doing. Rather then coaching, too many of the sales managers fell back on what they were use to doing, really good at doing and in some cases preferred doing – which was selling.

A number of the sales managers had been promoted from internal sales rep positions and some maintained close ties to their favorite accounts – often failing to completely turn over those accounts.

In other cases when the sales manager went on sales calls where the pre-planned purpose of the call was coaching, they would just jump in and take over the call at the first sign the rep was not doing “the right thing.”

– Telling. Despite the training when it did come down to coaching, the approach used by some sales managers could be summarized as follows: “I’m the expert – I’ll diagnose what’s wrong and suggest what you should learn. Your job is to practice what I recommend.”

The company was, we think rightly, concerned that this implementation approach was not the best path forward. We suggested they might consider an approach that could be described this way: “You are the one responsible for the learning. I’m responsible for helping you become more aware of your performance and expand your learning choices.”

We discussed with our new friends their observations were not atypical. Even if you do a great job in sales coaching training, it is easy for sales managers to fall into the traps they had identified.

So regardless of the type of coaching training, specific steps need to be taken during the sales coaching implementation to address these traps because they are likely to occur and are unlikely to be self-corrected. Most importantly, they will probably high a significantly negative impact on the sales coaching initiative.

Following the sales call we spent some additional time thinking about what it takes to implement an effective sales coaching effort and what ideas we might pass along. Let’s take a look:

Overarching principle: great sales coaching is a puzzle of many pieces. The major walkaway is that skill development and hence training is only one piece of the puzzle for getting coaching right. To optimize the potential of coaching, it is necessary integrate coaching into the culture of the organization and that requires viewing the challenge through multiple lenses.

Implementation ideas. Although solving the larger puzzle is company-specific, here are some ideas to consider:

– Management selection process. Often companies will just select from their pool of high performing sales reps – the higher on the list, the greater the chance of being selected. If sales coaching is a priority, think about what other criteria might be important. For example, have they shown any interest in coaching in previous positions or outside of work? Have they served as formal or informal mentors for other sales reps?

An additional perspective is to consider the “soft skills” that people tend to possess that become effective coaches. Integrity Selling have done some great work on this topic – Are Communication Skills Really Soft Skills?

– Time management. In many cases, sales coaching fails not because of the lack of skill on the part of the sales managers, but because they simply run out of time. Coaching gets pushed backed to Friday and it never happens.

This is a problem that can only be solved by the top sales leadership. Sales coaching takes time. If you want sales managers to start committing more time to coaching, to what do you want them to stop committing time?

-Recognition and rewards. Ask the following question: What are the forms of recognition and rewards for those that do a great job coaching? If all “pats on the back” are about what deals were closed today, then coaching is unlikely to flourish. The problem with sales coaching is the results usually do not turn up in the short run – the real payoffs occur down the road.

-Participation in additional training. When the sales team is introduced to a new sales skill or process make sure the sales managers are included in the sales training. You can’t coach it if you don’t know it.

Here the best model is to introduce sales managers to the content first, then have them participate in the sales rep training as coaches. The more difficult the content, the more important this design idea becomes. The difference in the performance change out on the job can be dramatic.

-Coach the coach. If you are a company with a small sales team, say fewer then 10 sales managers, or a larger company where only a subset of sales managers need help, then adopting a coach-the-coach model can be an idea worth trying. The best approach is to solicit help from an expert in sales coaching in your industry.

-Blueprinting. Usually there is a subset of front-line sales managers that are getting it right. If that is the case, blueprint how they do what they do, codify it into a set of best practices and leverage the findings to help others.

Making coaching happen. If you talk with sales managers, most think coaching is a good idea and that it makes a difference and they are right. CSO Insights reports that 20% more reps achieve quota at companies that develop effective coaching efforts.

So the issue is how to get it right and here we suspect it’s true – sales coaching training is necessary but not sufficient.

In many situations coaching fails not because of the incompetency of the sales managers – they have experience with what sales excellence looks like and they have a good sense about coaching.

So it is not about incompetency; it’s about ineptitude – that is the lack of being able to make happen something as difficult as coaching on a continuous basis when operating in a demanding and complex environment. Sometimes the ineptitude is due to a lack of awareness on the part of the manager but more often it is related to factors that are in part or totally outside of their control.