Giving sales feedback – hard to learn, difficult to do and really important

Sales coaching

Sales manager coaching is one of the cornerstones for developing a superior sales team.  One aspect of effective coaching is the ability to provide feedback to sales reps as to what they are getting right and what they need to improve.

But providing effective feedback is not a skill that comes easily.  The old notion that some people are just naturally good at it does not hold up very well under inspection.  It is a composite skill that requires training and practice.  And even when one does get good at it, there are numerous barriers in the way.  Let’s take a look at this starting with one particularly troublesome barrier – receptivity.

Although the number is somewhat notional about 30% of feedback is not really received – that is people don’t take it seriously.  There are several reasons driving this view.  In some cases the recipient believes it is incorrect or based on flawed observations or they don’t view the person providing the feedback as creditable.

In other cases the recipient believes the feedback but they don’t have the ability to change so they ignore the suggestions.

Because of the complexity there is no magic cure for a receptivity issue.  However, regardless of the underlying reason, it can be minimized if more time is spent up-front with the sales manager and rep discussing the coaching process.

A good portion of this discussion should be devoted to where the sales rep is coming from.  What do they think about the whole idea of coaching, what are their expectations surrounding feedback, and what are they concerned about?  Given that coaching time is limited, the sales manager should also recognize there are situations where it might be best to postpone coaching.

But what about the 70% of time where the recipient is receptive and serious, what are some tips for optimizing the effectiveness of the feedback?

  • Recognize the difficulty of change. Changing behavior is hard even when you want to and have the ability.  Therefore it is best to focus on one behavior (for example: asking questions or handling objections) at a time.  Also recognize that change is incremental – it doesn’t happen over night and it needs reinforced along the way.
  • You can’t coach it – if you don’t know it. If you are going to provide feedback on asking questions, you have to know what a good question is.  You don’t have to have been the best ever but you do have to know what constitutes top performance.  As a sales manager, if the are areas where you are deficient it is often helpful to leverage someone else in your group or company that can fill the void.
  • You can know it and not know how to coach it. Besides “knowing it” sales managers who are good at giving feedback have learned to listen, know how to developed trust, and have developed a process for providing feedback.  This is one of the reasons why the best sales person does not automatically make the best coach – they know it but they can’t coach it because they never learned how to coach.
  • Balance matters. Great coaches realize the importance of providing balanced feedback – both strengths and weaknesses.  If a sales rep is particularly good at something help them leverage that skill to accomplish new challenges.

Some sales managers have gotten the “you’re good at that” feedback down pat – but they don’t tackle areas requiring improvement.  Granted it can be harder.  Difficult feedback can result in conversations laced with tension. However, avoiding areas requiring improvement and hoping for change is not beneficial for the sales rep.  In fact, sales people often know areas where they need to improve but don’t know how to tackle the change.  So, the feedback is welcomed.

Providing feedback may be challenging to learn and difficult to do but it is good to remember it is also really important.

Some additional posts on sales coaching you might find interesting are:

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About Richard Ruff

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. During his career Dick has authored numerous articles related to sales effectiveness and co-authored "Managing Major Sales", a book about sales management, "Parlez-Vous Business" which helps sales people integrate the language of business into the sales process, and "Getting Partnering Right" – a research based work on the best practices for forming strategic selling alliances. Dr. Ruff received his Ph.D. in Organizational Psychology from the University of Tennessee and a B.S. from Rennsselaer Polytechnic Institute.
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