The Sales Coaching Dilemma

In common with training and management, coaching is unregulated, and therefore anyone can call himself/ herself a coach, and they do.

There are four distinct levels of coach and as you move from one level to the other, the need for skill and experience increases commensurate with the complexity of the coaching process.

LEVEL 1 (L1) – CAREER COACH AND LIFE SKILLS COACH

Level 1 coaching is typified by the coaching process being in the hands of the person being coached, which means that they drive the agenda rather than the coach. This is where most of the coaches in existence (up to 80% of the coaching population) operate. The focus of the coaching effort tends to be on life skills and career coaching. There is a significant gap in experience, knowledge and skills between coaches operating at this and the other levels.

LIFE SKILLS COACHES

Life Skills Coaches will have arrived in the coaching role from a variety of routes; some from training; some from a period of redundancy; in fact – just about anyone, from just about anywhere. They do not need any specialist knowledge, or experience. Some will have been trained; a few will hold a qualification; most will have picked up their coaching knowledge and skills from books or from attending a short course.

Some are very dangerous. They will be self-taught psychoanalysts and can often be found exploring people’s deep routed emotional problems without the ability or experience to know when to stop. They seek to advise people how to be healthy, wealthy, and happy. Most will certainly not be wealthy. Others might be healthy. Significant numbers are blissfully happy to have anyone to listen to them.

Some will have bought an expensive franchise offering untold wealth; most will be earning below average incomes. Some will be advertising themselves as Executive Coaches (Level 4); most will never actually engage in anything close to Executive Coaching.

They represent 90% of the coaching population at Level 1. You will encounter them at each and every networking event, in increasing numbers.

The coaching process is open-ended, meaning that providing the person being coached is able to pay the fees involved, it will go on indefinitely. There is rarely a definable, measurable goal.

CAREER COACHES

Career Coaches are usually to be found in-company; sometimes employed from external sources; often they are in the HR Department. In the same way as the Personnel Department became the HR Department, ‘Jack and Jill from personnel’ – became ‘Jack and Jill, the Career Coaches’.

Career Coaches will be probably be annoyed that I have placed them at Level 1, implying that they don’t need specialist knowledge or experience. Nevertheless, it is true. That said, many internal Career Coaches will have undergone various levels of formal training; some via the CIPD route; some will use career preference inventories to help them add a pseudo form of credibility to their efforts.

As with life skills coaching, career coaching is often disguised as executive coaching although it bears little resemblance to the executive coaching process described at Level 4 here. Career coaching offered to senior managers is usually a precursor to sending them on an expensive study programme in a European Business School which for many has no outcome other than an attendance certificate. No one fails. The only time career coaching is offered to lower levels of employees is when redundancy follows and the expense of providing career coaching is seen as an unavoidable cost in order to mitigate industrial disruption and employment appeals.

LEVEL 2 (L2) – SALES COACHING

Level 2 coaching is where Sales Coaches operate – in theory.

The coaching process at Level 2 is focussed on business outcomes and is driven by the coach. This is why a significant number of coaching initiatives in companies have failed, and continue to fail. The reason being that the people involved in being a Level 2 Coach are either only being trained at Level 1 – which is not a lot; or not trained at all.

A lot of companies who they say their managers have been trained as coaches, have invested at best two days, and at worst half a day in training their managers as coaches. In addition, the coaching models being used begin with the employee’s agenda, not the manager’s, and not the organisation. A classic example would be the use of the GROW model, which begins with either

– What is the Goal?

– What are you trying to achieve?

– What is your Goal?

– What are we trying to do?

The last type of question is meant to show inclusivity – i.e. we are all in this together.

Beginning with the salesperson’s agenda is an abdication of the Sales Coach’s role in ensuring that the organisation’s aims are placed firmly at the front of the queue.

Sales Coaches should have some experience of sales. Not from the perspective of specific knowledge of the product and/ or service being sold, but of the emotional pressures associated with being in a sales role. Salespeople are very sceptical of coaches who do not have sales experience. Whether this is right or wrong is immaterial. The reality is that you will tend to get on better with the target audience if you understand about selling from experience. And getting on with the salesperson is important. Sales coaching in this form works because the coaching relationship is built on trust. Trust from the salesperson of the coach; that performance short-falls and experimentation to improve will not be criticised, even though any lack of effort might. Trust from the coach of the salesperson that the latter is trying to improve and not just pretending.

The Sales Coach does not need a significant amount of knowledge about the product and/ or service the salesperson is selling, but it could reduce the amount of time needed to help the salesperson focus on improvement solutions. On the other hand, often, prior in-depth knowledge of the product and significant experience of the actual sales role can often be a barrier to effective sales coaching. Quite often, the less you know, the better the coaching questions are.

In sales coaching there has to be a clearly defined sales process – the Game Plan. Without a clearly defined game plan, the Coach will be working at Level 1. A game plan focuses both the Sales Coach and the salesperson on what has to be done, and how it to be done, in order to elicit an outcome – the performance. If performance is low, then either the game plan doesn’t work and needs to be changed or the salesperson is not following the game plan – and might have to be changed. Once you have a game plan, it can be enhanced in order to enhance performance but not in one day and not all at once. This brings me to the last point in Level 2 Sales Coaching – timescale.

Many people, when asked the question, is sales coaching short-term or long-term, will opt for long-term. The correct answer is short-term. By this I mean that the focus of each coaching session is on a short-term activity. In football, you often hear the clich√© – ‘we take it one game at a time’; and so it is with sales coaching. The football coach may have a long-term goal to win the league, but slavish focus on winning the league is fraught with failure, without the focussed activity of working out what it will take to win the next game. In this way Sales Coaches work on one thing at a time. Taking one piece out of the total sales process and working with it until it is improved. It is called whole-part-whole. By taking a small part of the whole process and improving it, the knock-on effect is to improve the whole.

The Sales Coach should be the line manager.

LEVEL 3 (L3) – METACOACH

The MetaCoach is the Coach of the Coach. In a sales or a business environment this should be the line manager but it can also work by using either internal trainers as the MetaCoach or external MetaCoaches provided there is a significant level of interaction between the MetaCoach and senior management. If the MetaCoach is not the line manager, then the MetaCoach needs to have direct and regular access to the senior line manager, and preferably to the manager above them.

The agenda is driven by the organisation. The MetaCoach should have management experience. As with the Sales Coach, there should be clearly defined sales management process, but there rarely is. One of the main reasons why MetaCoaching fails to materialise in most companies is the lack of a detailed management process. Just as it’s vital to have a game plan for the sales process the same should apply to the management process. We already know that the greatest influence on sales success is management. In the same way, the greatest influence on the success of sales managers is the senior manager they report to.

The MetaCoach does not need either product knowledge of the products and services being sold, or specific experience of the sales or sales management role, and the lack of these is often an advantage. Some management experience however is desirable in order to have empathy with the difficulties of line and senior management.

The timescales involved in MetaCoaching is medium to long-term improvement in management performance and behaviour.

MetaCoaching should be provided by senior management, but rarely is, and therefore external coaches are often used, when the budget allows, to provide coaching to line sales managers. The difficulty is that external coaches have little or no authority and surprisingly (given the cost) minimal interaction with senior management. MetaCoaching by external coaches tends only to work effectively if it is combined with Executive Coaching for the senior manager.

LEVEL 4 (L4) – EXECUTIVE COACHING

Executive Coaching is almost exclusively provided by external coaches to senior management as either a development tool, a career advancement process, or sometimes simply as a way of spending an allocated budget without any particular end game in mind. It should lead to the provision of an opportunity to engender some blue-sky thinking on the part of the senior manager being coached and in some environments it does work. It depends on how experienced the Executive Coach is, why they were engaged in the first place, and where the outcomes of the coaching sessions are reported.

Executive Coaches should have some senior management experience and should be able to use this experience to be upfront in declaring whether the coaching provided is having any effect or not. True Executive Coaches should be charging enough not to be concerned about telling the truth when it is needed, whether palatable or not. Unfortunately there are a number of people who call themselves Executive Coaches who should really be working at Level 1, not Level 4.

Executive Coaches work with senior managers helping them develop leadership skills and behaviours. The instance of executive coaching being provided by internal coaches is rare. In any event, the best coaches are often frustrated by the manner in which coaching is viewed by the organisation and the constant introduction of the latest training fad; and they leave to set up their own coaching consultancies.

THE DILEMMA

The most effective type of coaching in business is sales coaching. However, the budget for developing line sales managers as true Sales Coaches has to be agreed by senior managers, and senior managers have to become involved in regularly supporting their Sales Coaches by the provision of MetaCoaching. Unfortunately because of the proliferation of Life Skills Coaches operating at Level 1, many budget holders believe that coaching exists at only two ends of the spectrum – Level 1 which is generally ineffective as a business tool, and Level 4 which is expensive and reserved for senior management. Regrettably that belief means that many sales organisations miss out on the significant positive impact that sales coaching can have on revenue improvement.

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