When top sales managers are asked what advice they would give to someone wanting to improve their coaching, a pervasive answer is – stop trying to teach your sales team and start trying to help them learn.
This is hardly new news. Back in the day, 400 BC, Socrates is reported to have said to one of his Athenian colleagues – “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”
Now, history is unclear as to whether he was chatting with an aspiring salesperson. Whatever the case, the point still holds. Great teachers and coaches withhold their opinions and solutions because they recognize, in the end, the best ideas often come from the person on the other side of table.
As one sales manager put it, “Effective coaches ask, listen, and then tell.” The simple but powerful idea of ask, listen, and then tell applies across a wide spectrum of coaching situations – from call debriefs in the field to one-on-one sales strategy coaching sessions.
Like most good ideas – ask, listen, and then tell is easy to say, but not so easy to do. Believing in the power of the idea is the first step, but execution requires developing the skill set to ask the right questions.
A good starting point is developing a shared vision with the sales rep as to the purpose of a sales coaching session.
Sales managers should ask questions that help salespeople generate an awareness and self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses and expand options for improvement – help them think versus simply telling them you should do more of this and less of that.
Being clear about purpose is important, because there is a difference between the type of questions one asks to solicit information and questions that help an individual expand their awareness and options. For example, when attempting to expand awareness, questions like, “Why are you planning to take a basic refresher in negotiation skills?” are of limited value in broadening the other person’s perspective.
In fact, “why” questions like these tend to beg justification and usually generate defensiveness. To expand awareness, a more helpful question might be, “What new skills do you think you need to grow your sales revenue next year?”
In general, the most effective coaching questions are ones that raise awareness – beginning with words like: What, When, Where or Who.
Questions that begin with Why or How are likely to be less effective because they often put the person being coached in a defensive position since they imply a right or wrong answer.
12 Questions Sales Managers Might Ask
What are some specific questions that might generate awareness and expand options? The best questions are open-ended and are intended to help salespeople gain a broader perspective. They help salespeople assess where they are and what they should do next. Some examples are:
- What if that doesn’t work?
- What did you do that was particularly effective?
- What do you think was the customer’s reaction to that?
- What did you have the most difficulty with?
- If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
- Do you think that will be true in the future?
- What is your assessment of our chances?
- What other options could you pursue?
- Could you share an example of that?
- What will happen if you continue to do what you’re doing?
- What do you need to do to make that happen?
- What could you do to parlay your greatest strength?
Successful Sales Coaching and Accountability
One more significant purpose of using questions in sales coaching has to do with accountability. The purpose of sales coaching is not only to help salespeople improve their skills – the ultimate measure of the success of any sales coaching relationship is whether it drives business results. To accomplish this, accountability must be an integral part of the sales coaching relationship. Four questions that can help establish that accountability are:
- What will you do?
- When will you do it?
- What support do you need?
- What is the best measure that you have done it?
Sales coaching is a vital piece of the puzzle if your objective is to develop a world-class sales team. A great recommendation for developing better sales coaching skills is to: ask more than tell, and listen more than talk. Getting better at asking the right questions is one of the important skill sets for applying this concept.
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