In a survey I conducted a few years ago at a Fortune 100 telecommunications company, I found an interesting contrast:
- Sales leaders report that they provide considerable coaching to employees and score themselves high.
- Sales leader direct reports responded by saying that they receive little to no coaching from their leaders and score them low in this area.
This is not just the front line. It’s from managers, directors, and vice presidents, too. And the higher up the data went in the structure, the worse the discrepancy.
Coaching is about improving performance—improving performance by developing ability. It is not entirely different from the way a coach in athletics or the arts does it. They provide a model or a standard of performance, and then they carefully analyze the performance in order to make necessary changes. Sometimes they participate; other times they simply provide guidance and direction. But the focus is always on improving the ability of the person being coached.
In sales, requesting forecasts, reviewing pipelines together, revising forecasts, and asking if there is anything else that can be done to close business in this quarter—among other activities—isn’t coaching. Those things may be part of the job, but they aren’t coaching, and that is why my survey data showed those outcomes. Too often, management interactions are more about requesting information and discussing results instead of coaching to improve performance.
So, no matter the role, if you want people to perform better, you have to dedicate time, effort, and energy to coaching. And if you manage a sales team, it is useful to be clear on which of the following tactics you’ll employ. (As an aside, the same tactics hold true for sales leaders coaching their direct reports, though these examples are for coaching sales professionals.)
4 Sales Coaching Tactics
1. Role Model: You manage the sales call
There are plenty of reasons why you may choose to run the sales cycle or a sales call entirely, especially if you are working with new salespeople. You may want to illustrate a certain skill set, such as asking strategic questions, or you may want to demonstrate how to manage a particular kind of client.
When you set the example, it is important to discuss the specific behaviors you will be modeling prior to the call. That way you can draw attention and reference the approaches that you used and to what effect during a post-call debrief.
Demonstrating different approaches to client interactions can be effective even with senior sales professionals because it can highlight subtle adjustments that can lead to greater effectiveness.
2. Active Observer: You watch the sales call, paying attention to specific behaviors
It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to be a seller and a coach at the same time. So, if you are going to coach, then as much as possible you ought to be in the observer role and allow your salesperson to manage the entire client interaction. Do that even if it means your salesperson makes mistakes or manages the call differently from how you would like to see it handled.
There is nothing harder than watching someone struggle with something you know how to do, but allowing your seller to do so will enable him to learn and grow. There is one giant caveat here, and that is I’d never suggest being an observer on a high-profile call that has a great deal of business at stake. Do observation calls with low-risk clients or with accounts that don’t represent a significant opportunity. This is practice, and you need to actively identify areas to build on, as well as address weak points.
3. Teammate: You actively participate in the sales call with a clearly defined area of focus
When manager and seller are both in selling mode, it is crucial to be clear on who is responsible for what topics, what questions each of you will ask, and what issues each of you plans to handle.
Team selling is powerful when both members of the team are coordinated, but without the appropriate pre-call planning, you run the risk of stepping on each other’s toes and looking unprofessional in front of potential clients.
Think of a kayak with the rowers in sync and the velocity they achieve compared with a kayak in which both rowers are out of rhythm. The latter can be counterproductive, so take time to carefully plan your calls.
4. Strategist: You support the sales call with guidance and advice in planning and in debriefing
You can’t go on every sales call, nor should you. In those cases, your coaching involves providing strategic input on an account or client situation. You provide guidance and coaching before client interactions and after them to help your team advance opportunities.
A few ways you can help without actually going on the sales call:
- Help your sellers plan calls effectively
- Develop strategies to move prospects through the pipeline
- Get clear on how your sellers intend to create value and uncover needs
When you are coaching your people, odds are you are fulfilling one of the above roles. If you aren’t, then you ought to ask yourself if what you are doing is really coaching.