“We do that” said Tim, “that’s part of the sales managers’ role”. I was going through a checklist of effective performance drivers with a client, a senior sales VP of a financial software vendor. We came to coaching the sales people.
Tim and his sales managers sincerely believed that they coached their sales people. I don’t think you would get a very different response from sales chiefs in most IT companies. In our experience, however, the reality is that sales management doesn’t coach their salespeople effectively. There’s a lot of vague thinking about coaching.
Depends What You Mean by Coaching – People tend to associate coaching with sport. The majority of the top professional golf and tennis stars have a coach. Occasionally, they fire the coach and go it alone. Generally coaches are credited with helping the sportsperson to improve their performance – in the fastest way possible. The hallmark of a successful sports coach is a one-on-one relationship, built on trust and dedicated to improving the “coachee’s” performance. A coach has the advantage of objectivity – being able to see and show exactly where the coachee can improve. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that coaching sales people, if done properly, really does produce improved sales performance. Some US research identified a 35% increase in sales just by coaching. Neil Rackham, founder of Huthwaite Research (the people who invented SPIN) says “no other activity has so positive an impact on the success of consultative selling… a strong coaching culture is the hallmark of success”
Sales Coaching – the Wasteland of Corporate America? Linda Richardson, President of the Richardson Company and a lecturer at Wharton Business School argues “Every organisation and every person has blind spots. The power of coaching lies in turning those blind spots into perspective”. She goes on to say: “The critical importance of coaching a sales force is universally acknowledged – as is its almost total absence. Sales coaching is the wasteland of corporate America”.
Lip Service to Coaching Working one-to-one with a salesperson is generally considered coaching. An example of this – reviewing the salesperson’s pipeline or progress with a particular opportunity. Let’s look at a typical example of what all too often passes for coaching. Suppose a salesperson requests help from his/her sales manager because they feel that they need some assistance with a big deal. They may have set up a meeting with a more senior person and want the manager along. Maybe I’m being too cynical but perhaps the salesperson feels that by involving the sales manager they are covering their backside. That way they can spread the blame if anything goes wrong! Who handles the call? The sales manager. How much learning takes place? Some – the ‘watch- how- I- do- it’ method of training has its place. This is thought of as coaching. But is it? According to Neil Rackham, there are two types of sales coaching – strategy coaching and skills coaching. Strategy coaching is a bit like the coach and the player poring over a map of the course in the club house discussing the way the golfer might play the course. Tactics could be likened to the coach observing play – perhaps noting the way the player positions his feet and suggesting a better stance. Similarly, sales strategy coaching might take place in the office – discussing what needs to happen to win a deal. Using something like Target Account Selling or Miller Heiman’s blue sheets is a form of strategic coaching. Even if the salesman sometimes feels that it’s a way of catching them out, this coaching is very valuable. What is largely missing, in our experience, is skills or tactics coaching. This may be because there’s never enough time. Or perhaps because sales managers like to think that they have hired salespeople who know how to sell.
What Happens Typically on Call Accompaniment Let’s revisit the sales manager out on a call with one of his sales people. More often than not little or no preparation gets done. A few words may be exchanged over coffee in the local Starbucks or driving to the call. Worse, (and I’ve done it) a few words are exchanged in the lift on the way up to the meeting!
Next, how often does the sales manager assume the running of the call? 95% of the time? Why does this happen? The sales manager is there for a purpose. He or she is there to help close the deal perhaps – and that generally involves, as they see it, controlling the meeting. If it’s an important deal the manager doesn’t want to see the call go wrong. Once the sales manager takes over the conversation, the prospect’s focus switches away from the salesperson. Result? The salesperson is sidelined; their authority shot to pieces. But our sales manager fondly imagines that he has coached the salesperson in how to do it. Whatever the outcome of the meeting, doing the call for the salesman isn’t developmental coaching any more than the tennis coach playing a shot for the player in a match would be coaching.
What Should be Happening? Sitting down with the salesperson to plan the call. Careful preparation is never time wasted. Question the salesperson about their objectives for the call. How is he/she going to handle it? What issues is the prospect likely to have? Is there any skill that the salesperson wants to improve and practise in the call?
The meeting should ideally be run by the salesperson with the manager saying as little as possible. (A useful accessory might be a large piece of sticking plaster for this to happen!) After the call, a formal de-brief should happen. The manager asks the salesperson about the extent that the call objectives have been achieved and listens to the salesperson’s answers. What does the salesperson think could have been done better? The manager should went wrong!
Ok, I know life isn’t like that and the relentless pressure to make the numbers can militate against doing coaching properly. But no sales manager can sell everything personally. The more he can develop and enhance the skill sets of his sales team the greater will be the improvement in their performance overall. The immediate sales manager is THE best placed person to improve selling effectiveness. Personal coaching is increasingly recognised as the best vehicle for him or her to accomplish this.
Tim and his sales managers plan to devote a proportion of their time to real coaching and not playing the shots themselves. They are developing some KPIs to allow them to measure individual performance improvement. Linda Richardson again: “The sales manager role is re-emerging into a new and vital role – from evaluator to developer, from expert to resource, from teller to questioner… it is a 180 degree shift from how most sales managers manage”
Author: Graham French, gfa Sales Improvement.
Graham French of gfa Sales Improvement can be reached at
email@example.com +44 (0) 20686 4930
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