Questions and Feedback: Must-Haves in the Sales Coaching Toolkit

December 2, 2015


Based on the book Sales Coaching: Making the Great Leap from Sales Manager to Sales Coach by Linda Richardson, this is the third post in a series that summarizes the key themes of the books and highlights best practices. In the previous post we outlined a coaching methodology designed to help sales reps successfully overcome obstacles to success. In this post, we cover the essentials around needed skills and effective feedback.

As we discussed in the previous posts in this series, effective sales coaching is focused on empowering reps to take more initiative and responsibility for their performance and improvement. To that end, a major difference between a boss and a coach is that a boss tells reps what to do and a boss asks questions that help reps do their own problem solving. The best sales coaches ask questions in a way that encourages thoughtful and honest responses.

Ask the right questions

The book outlines four main types of questions to ask when sales coaching:

  • Drill-down. This can be as simple as asking “Why?” The point is to probe further into what reps are saying to get at the most complete, meaningful response possible.
  • With these questions, get the salesperson to focus on something specific, for example, the quality of a proposal or their answer to a certain objection voiced by a prospect.
  • Neutral. With the ultimate goal being to enable self-sufficiency, it’s vital to not show your bias or position when asking questions of reps.
  • Open-ended. To spark a true discussion rather than elicit a simple “yes” or “no” response, start questions with the words “what” or “how.”

While it’s helpful to keep these question types in mind, it’s also important to remember ways to encourage your sales reps to provide full responses.

  • Acknowledgement. Before asking a question, acknowledge what the rep told you. For example, “I see what you mean about struggling to get a word in edgewise with that prospect. What are ways you can make sure you have time to make your presentation without interrupting her?”
  • Positive reinforcement. There’s a reason for the saying “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” In other words, people respond better when engaged in a positive manner. To that end, start your discussion with a compliment or by showing agreement with the rep. This draws the rep in and makes her more open to a conversation. “I like what you’ve captured so far in this plan. What do you need to do to finalize it and when do you think you’ll finish?”

Overcoming resistance

Though this approach should prove effective with many of your reps, some may view sales coaching negatively, feeling as though you are asking them to do your work. In response, you should stick with the questioning technique, asking the rep why he feels it’s better to be told what to do than taught how to analyze and problem solve. The book suggests using the following Objection Resolution Model covered in the previous post:

  • Acknowledge: Show you are listening and interested
  • Probe: Ask a question to further clarify
  • Position: Share your perspective
  • Check: Ask a question to find out if you are in agreement

Flip feedback on its head

Too many people – both sales managers and reps – view feedback as negative and confrontational. When you give feedback using the right intent and skills, it comes across as helpful rather than critical. At its simplest, the book says, “feedback is the process of describing to a salesperson your perception of his behaviors or actions and the impact that those behaviors or actions are having on someone or something.” And the book goes on to say that feedback is one of the most important parts of the Developmental Sales Coaching methodology. Just remember: it’s only part of coaching.

In the world of sales, there are two kinds of feedback:

  • Evaluative: assesses performance. This type of feedback is all about rating the rep’s performance and is usually given quarterly and annually.
  • Developmental: improves performance. This is the feedback of coaching, and revolves around you and your rep partnering to drive better performance. Because of this focus on continual improvement, development feedback occurs daily.

The book suggests these 13 guidelines when giving developmental feedback:

  1. Be accurate. Before talking to the rep, do research to prepare for your conversation, and then ask the salesperson for their perspective before giving yours.
  2. Stay focused. Keep coaching meetings short and focused: 15 minutes or less discussing a single issue.
  3. Strive for balance. Strike a balance between the positive and “negative” by providing feedback on both strengths and areas for improvement. By starting the conversation off on the rep’s strengths, you increase the likelihood of the rep listening to your constructive feedback.
  4. Be specific. Be as precise and concrete as possible when giving feedback.
  5. Share impact. After giving specific feedback and sharing examples, describe the impact of the rep’s recent behavior or action to ensure the message comes across clearly. For example, “I know you spent a long time on the proposal. There were several errors in it that gave the prospect pause so they chose to go with our competitor.”
  6. Be timely. Give feedback as close to the event as possible.
  7. Be current. Give recent, relevant examples.
  8. Be open and honest. Be candid, yet sensitive to cultivate trust: “I know this may be hard to hear…”
  9. Be confidential. Only give developmental feedback with only the rep present.
  10. Watch your tone. Be calm, direct, clear and in control when giving feedback.
  11. Don’t be a go-between. Encourage your reps to discuss any issues they have with each other, rather than expect you to mediate “What do you think about giving him feedback directly so he understands how you feel and the impact of his actions?”
  12. Receiving feedback. When reps give you feedback, don’t interrupt or explain. Ask questions, take notes, and give thought to and act upon the feedback to improve.
  13. Give praise. Show your appreciation by showcasing reps’ accomplishments to the team and the overall organization.

Check in soon for the next post in this series, in which we will review the focus and discipline that makes up the management dimension of sales coaching. In the meantime, sign up for our blog to stay in the know on this and other sales-related topics.