Improving sales coaching feedback – the importance of pronouns

Sales Coaching

People knowledgeable and experienced in sales know sales coaching is worthwhile; it can make a difference and it should be a priority. The pros agree coaching is a critical piece of the puzzle in developing a world-class sales team.

Because getting coaching right is important for building a superior sales team, we have written a number of blogs on the topic over the last year.  However, because it is not only important but also difficult, we are always looking for additional best practices.  Let’s take a look at an idea that relates to giving coaching feedback and begin with this premise.

When it comes to giving coaching feedback – most managers don’t do it enough, many times it is water off a duck’s back, and sometimes it makes matters worse.

There are a number of reasons why giving feedback often fails to make a difference.  Some relate to the mind-set and attitude of the person receiving the coaching while others pertain to how the feedback is provided.

First, let’s look at the person being coached.  One of the underlying reasons why feedback often doesn’t work, stems from the fact that most people struggle when attempting to construct an accurate self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, most people seek out evidence that confirms their positive opinions about themselves and often ignore contrary evidence. The result is many people hold onto a positive self-assessment even after their coach has provided them feedback that contradicts that assessment.  So, receptivity is an issue.

Obviously a part of the receptivity issue relates to the content of the feedback.  The other, and equally important part, is how the feedback is provided.  A partial answer for the second part is giving more attention to the details of the language used – specifically the pronouns.

If receptivity is to be improved, it is important to distinguish between situations where you are providing feedback about a positive behavior or action versus a negative behavior or action.  The positive piece is usually a non-problem.  On the other hand, the negative piece can be much more difficult to handle effectively.  So, let’s compare two different approaches for handling feedback about a negative.

  • Approach 1. “Lee, in the call yesterday the way you handle the objections didn’t go very well – that is something you need to work on.”
  • Approach 2. “Lee, in the call yesterday I couldn’t track the way you handle the objections – that is something we need to work on.

Now, if you are giving someone feedback only once every two months, than this subtlety of language will probably not make a difference.  But if you are on your game and giving coaching feedback more frequently, than the I-We versus the Double-You configuration will make a difference – words matters – they can influence receptivity.

As a sidebar there is one old idea about this topic that is unlikely to carry the day when you are facing the constraints of sales coaching. The ideas is – solving this problem by always avoiding giving feedback about a negative action by simply waiting for a positive situation and then reinforce the positive behavior.

In this regard, it is a small but important difference that by using Approach 2 you are not giving “negative feedback” – you are giving feedback about a “negative action or behavior” – over time small differences can make a difference.

If you found this post helpful, you might want to join the conversation and subscribe to the Sales Training Connection. You might also find these posts on sales coaching interesting:

1. Selling sales managers on coaching

2. Sales coaching – let the sales rep keep responsibility

3. Dispatching three myths of sales coaching

4. Dispatching three myths of sales coaching – some best practices

5.  Feedback to millennials – more is better!

©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

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About Janet Spirer

For more than 30 years Dr. Richard Ruff and Dr. Janet Spirer - the founders of Sales Horizons - have worked with the Fortune 1000 - such as UPS, Canon USA, Smith & Nephew, Boston Scientific, Owens & Minor, Textron - to design and develop sales training programs. Janet has followed two different, yet complimentary paths. First, as a B-School Professor she taught marketing, sales, and business strategy courses. She also managed a consulting practice focusing on sales productivity and marketing – working with a variety of clients ranging from Xerox to IBM. She translated those experiences into a book – “Parlez-Vous Business” – that helps sales people develop the business savvy to sell successfully. Since co-founding Sales Momentum® in 2000 with Richard Dr. Spirer received her Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, an M.P.A. from The University of Texas at Austin, and a B.A. in Economics from Brooklyn College. She holds the appointment of Professor Emeritus at Marymount University.
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