What is Sales Coaching?

February 22, 2016

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Gather a hundred sales managers into a room. Ask all the members of the group whether they provide coaching to the members of their sales team. The odds are good that all one hundred of them will say “Yes.”

And ninety or more of them, in our experience, will be wrong. Effective sales coaching might not be what you think.

Consider Wally, who manages a team of twenty inside sales representatives. Wally is a busy person. His day is always full, and with the addition of five new people to his staff last month, he’s begun to feel as though he’s no longer in control of his day. Even more troubling, his team’s numbers this quarter are not where they should be.

Wally spends most of his time strolling around the sales floor, listening in on salespeople making calls. Every once in a while, when he thinks he’s overheard a problem, he’ll stop, lean in, and offer some advice. Wally’s typical “coaching session” lasts between five and ten minutes. The “coaching” consists of Wally noticing something a salesperson said to a prospective customer that could have been said better, and then detailing the various ways the salesperson could improve – in front of his or her peers. Usually, only adding to stress to the salesperson’s day, and not altering their performance.

Wally thinks walking the sales floor and telling people what to do and how to do it better is “coaching” – but it isn’t.

Or maybe you can relate to Sara? Whenever she makes it back to her desk, Sara usually finds a salesperson there waiting for her, looking for the solution to some problem or another. In fact, Sara often finds multiple salespeople hovering around her office with problems that she is supposed to solve. No wonder she’s feeling stressed! With those five new team members to keep track of, along with the fifteen who are already used to lining up to “ask a quick question,” Sara has a whole lot of problems to solve.

Many of the problems Sara ends up solving for Salesperson A show up in nearly identical form five or ten minutes later for Salesperson B, C, D, and/or E. By the time five o’clock rolls around, she has “solved” all the problems her salespeople have dumped on her … but she hasn’t spent any time at all moving the team toward higher levels of performance. Her “desk time” has been devoted exclusively to putting out fires. The daily numbers aren’t any better, and she’s exhausted.

Again, Sara believed she was “coaching” the salespeople who came into her office – but she wasn’t.

Contrary to popular belief, coaching salespeople is not “showing them how to do it.” Nor is it “solving their problems.” At Sandler Training, we have developed a powerful, workable definition of effective coaching for sales managers:

Sales coaching is a formal process that uses one-on-one meetings to help salespeople achieve new levels of success by discovering hidden issues that inhibit their performance.

Effectively coaching your salespeople to improve their performance and results requires four key elements:

  • Formal (it happens at scheduled intervals)
  • Private (it takes place during one-on-one meetings)
  • Sustained (it happens over a series of meetings)
  • Focused (specifically, on removing obstacles to independent problem-solving and the deployment of skills the salesperson already possesses)

That last point often comes as a big surprise, but it’s non-negotiable. The manager should be removing obstacles that prevent salespeople from figuring it out on their own, not solving problems for them. That’s in no one’s best interest! Solving problems only facilitates a cycle of learned helplessness. Also, if the salesperson lacks the skill in question, you’re looking at a training issue, not a coaching issue.

When we share our definition of coaching with sales managers, and suggest that what they have come to they think of as “coaching” really isn’t, we often find there’s some discomfort to deal with. We even hear responses like, “But that’s my job – telling salespeople what to do!” All too often, though, when the sales manager says something like this, we dig a little deeper and find that the dynamic of the relationship with the sales team is similar to Wally’s or Sara’s: less productive than it should be, stressful, and ultimately unsustainable.

Many sales managers fail because they view coaching as an event designed to correct some specific, narrowly defined problem and/or achieve a particular numerical result. Instead, the goal of coaching is continuous growth of the employee as a person, over a measured period of time.

In short, if you want your team to perform better, become a better coach. Schedule a series of formal, private meetings with each person on your team, specifically focused on their problem-solving skills and making the most of their sales skills.

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