Curbside Coaching

Much of the frustration with sales training today is that some of the sales people who need it the most don’t apply the training in the field. They seem to understand the tr1aining but still make the self-defeating mistakes that have become habits. They can answers all of the training questions correctly in class, they stand out in role plays and exercises, yet they don’t improve in front of the customer.

The assumption is that sales training has failed; yet, when we test sales professionals they have learned the principles.

The problem is we want “results” not just well “trained” sales people.

Why preseason “training camp” works.

Right now, the NFL is busy preparing for the regular season. They do this each year to introduce new plays and techniques, to train new players and to reinforce the skills of veterans.

The players do a lot of classroom training at each camp. They occupy their time studying play books, watching films, analyzing strategies…then they march out on the field and slam into each other for a couple of hours. So where does the learning occur? The most important part of learning happens as the coach watches the drills and corrects techniques.

When Bruiser makes a mistake in his footwork, the coach can stop the play, correct Bruiser and then replay the exact situation again until Bruiser gets it right.

Classroom theory ends when the pads go on and the work begins in the trenches at camp. By the time the regular season comes around, the team is prepared. But the coaching continues, before, during and after each game. Getting better never ends.

What lessons can we learn from the NFL’s training methods?

Training begins in the classroom.

Players need to understand the game plan before they can be expected to carry it out. Motivational training has no place in the classroom until the player has mastered the skills. The most motivated, dedicated, hard working and “pumped-up” player will get destroyed physically and mentally, if he doesn’t have the skills to perform! (Turnover starts where people are told to “hang in there” and then given nothing to “hang” on to.)

Classroom training needs to be principled, skills centered, specific and realistic. All successful training is based on a set of principles that support corporate strategy or philosophy. The sales person needs to understand the right direction. Are we taking a long-term consultative approach or are we selling on price hoping to capture volume. (i.e. Peddlers sell boxes; sales professionals sell solutions that help the customer make more profits.)

The sales person then needs to understand the basic sales skills. How will the sales person establish a favorable selling relationship? How will they ask open-ended questions that discover customer needs? How will they ask questions that get the customer to acknowledge the value of a solution, before the sales person asks for the order? How will the sales professional deal with premature price questions? How will he or she ask for a commitment?

In your industry, training must be very specific. The food service sales professional needs to understand how the product applies to the customer’s menu, how it will work in the customer’s kitchen. Specific training needs to deal with how product knowledge is used in selling situations, insuring that the sales person is answering customer needs instead of pushing boxes.

Realistic training is focused on situations and selling events that will occur each day in the field, not vague generalities. The sales person needs to work with and learn from case studies and role-plays based on actual selling challenges. These training techniques help the sales person recognize and understand how the sales principles apply to real field experiences.

Improvement and good habits begin in the field.

Just like the players in the NFL, our players will get the most meaningful learning experience when they are in the field, looking the customer in the eye. As you watch football games this year, watch closely what goes on, on the sideline. You will see position coaches frantically involved in animated coaching sessions with their players. The coaches will be drawing up plays or physically showing players how to handle blocking and tackling situations.

Your players need the same kind of coaching in the field. And you can give that coaching while the experience is fresh on their minds and just before they practice the new idea or skill on the next sales call. We call this “curb side” coaching and it can be the most productive learning experience the sales professional will ever get.

Selling them on improvement.

The best sales coaches recognize that the greatest opportunity to improve selling skills is in the front seat of the sales professional’s car. Here our job is to first, get the student to recognize what went right and what went wrong in the last sales call. The best way to do this is to ASK them rather than TELL them. It’s like selling; things go better, when we ask the customer what they need, instead of trying to tell them what they need.

Immediately after the call the manager can begin coaching by asking, “Tell me what you think went well?” This gives the sales rep the opportunity talk about the successes of the call. If he or she can’t think of anything that went right, then you should. People need to know what they are doing right so they can continue to repeat those things. Here the manager has an obligation to reinforce the sales rep’s strengths, acknowledging a good job.

Next, the sales person needs to recognize what is not working, so the coach will ask a question like, “What do you think could have been improved on the call?” This gives the sales rep the opportunity to talk about what did not work well on the sales call. This is where the coaching skills are most important and it is very much hands on but it is not “constructive criticism.” The coach that constantly focuses on the players’ faults is doing little more than frustrating the player.

Again, instead of telling them all of the things they need to do, ask, “What do you think you need to do differently next time?” This allows the sales rep to think about options to improve. It allows them to think about and develop their own prescriptions for a cure.

It is possible he or she will develop an answer that the coach feels is unacceptable. When this happens, there is a tendency for the manager to rush in with the “right” answer. This is counter productive, picture yourself telling the buyer that he shouldn’t use a particular technique to do his or her job. Instead, tell the rep, “That’s one option, what else might you try?” This gives the sales rep a chance to think about it again, instead of defending his or her first ideas.

Coaching should be an experience that the sales person and the coach look forward to, not an experience to be avoided. Coaching is conversational and non-threatening. It’s a discussion on improving and growing. It’s an opportunity to take the classroom education and make it work in the field.

Your training can be three times more effective.

Studies by the American Society for Training and Development find that 70% of actual job skills learning happens on the job. They estimate that classroom training only account for 30% of learning. And experienced coaches in the NFL seem to agree, for 100% effectiveness we need to be doing both sides of the training.

Rick Phillips, a veteran of three decades of sales and management, founded Phillips Sales and Staff Development in 1984. His core training philosophy is that much of the training being offered in American business was at best inadequate or woefully misplaced. “People are still taught to memorize words and techniques…instead of understanding the principles. Principles are constants that don’t change.” Rick has been a featured speaker at the international convention for the American Society for Training and Development. He is a past winner of the ASTD Training Program Design Award. Rick has received Toastmasters International’s highest earned honor being named Distinguished Toastmaster and was a featured presenter at their international convention. As a member of the National Speakers Association, he served as president of the Louisiana Chapter and has been named Chapter Member of the Year.

For more information, contact Phillips Sales and Staff Development at or [].

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