Dispatching three myths of sales coaching

Sales Coaching Session

Sales Coaching Session

Many, including me, agree that sales coaching is a critical piece of the puzzle in developing a world-class sales team. Yet, there is less agreement on how to best go about it. Many great companies start sales coaching initiatives with commitment and vigor. Far fewer exit the other end of the tunnel having succeeded. Why? One reason that usually comes up early is the lack of time. A lack of well-defined incentives for sales coaching usually makes the list, too. 

Although individual managers can’t alter some of the institutional  issues that frequently get in the way of successful sales coaching, let me share three common hobgoblins of sales coaching that can be dispatched. 

Myth 1 – Sales coaching is about teaching sales people skills to improve their performance. This may sound right initially, but it turns out that effective coaching is not so much about teaching people, as it is about helping them to learn. This is not a play on words; these two statements say very different things. The traditional sales coaching model says, “I’m the manager – I’ll diagnose what’s wrong and suggest what you should do to improve your performance. Your job is to practice – my job is to give you feedback.” This model is about teaching people how to fix a performance problem. It often doesn’t work because its objective is to teach something to someone, rather than help someone learn something. 

Newer coaching models, however, say, “You’re the one responsible for the learning. As your sales manager, “I’m responsible for helping you become more aware of your strengths and weaknesses and helping you expand your alternatives for improving your performance.” These models are based on the notion that performance change is more likely to be achieved when the sales person being coached takes responsibility for change. The sales manager’s job is to facilitate, provide direction, and hold individuals accountable vs. telling them what they should or should not do. This alternative model helps explain why top coaches ask more than tell – and listen more than talk. 

Myth 2 – Most people can accurately assess their own strengths and weaknesses.  Unfortunately, this is not true.  Most people struggle when attempting to construct an accurate self-assessment of their abilities and have difficulty pinpointing the true nature of their strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, most people seek out evidence that confirms their positive opinions about themselves and often ignore contrary evidence.  This often results in people holding onto a positive self-assessment even after their coach has provided them feedback that contradicts that assessment.  It is very difficult to travel the performance improvement road unless everyone agrees on where the journey begins.  

Recognizing the myth – so a shared vision of capabilities can be developed – is one of the opportunities for improving the sales coaching process.  Some ideas are: First, the coach can change the standard against which team members self-judge. For example, shifting to a best practice standard vs. “what everyone else is doing” will help neutralize explanations for performance weaknesses.  Second, the coach can be specific when describing behaviors such as “selling value” or “developing customer relationships.”  Third, the coach can respond to unlikely explanations for certain behaviors or lack of performance by pointing out how others facing the same challenge are able to achieve the desired results.  Fourth, the coach can help people depersonalize negative information to make it easier to confront and handle.     

Myth 3 – Results must be reinforced for performance to change.  This is more a half-myth than a full-blown myth.  More accurately, for performance to change, progress – not just results – must be rewarded.  Somewhere along the path to achieving real change, most people need some help when trying out new behaviors and instituting new practices. The performance change journey can be frustrating, tedious, and sometimes, even a little scary.  After all, it’s not easy to try new things, particularly when a sales person is trying them out in front of customers.  Everyone needs recognition and acknowledgement of their efforts along the way to results. Top-performing coaches understand this, and they not only help their sales people get off to a good start in their change process, they continue to stand by to help them deal with the risks of fear of failure.  

Check out other posts on sales coaching at the Sales Training Connection.

©2011 Sales Horizons, LLC 

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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9 Responses to Dispatching three myths of sales coaching

  1. Howard says:

    I think the three myths you reference are correct. But there are other reasons why coaching fails to yield the results people expect. Coaches lack a long range plan for observation and feedback. All too often, coaches stop coaching after one or two sales calls saying “they get it” or “it’s hopeless”.
    This happens because coaches have conflicting priorities. They are being pulled in multiple directions. Commitment to coaching in a systematic way requires an investment in time that many sales managers can’t afford to make.
    Additionally, positive results aren’t immediate. Sales people and their coaches want/expect immediate results. That rarely happens. So participants lose commitment to the process and everyone loses.

  2. Richard Ruff says:

    Yes, Howard brings up a critical point. One of the main reasons coaching never happens is do to the problem of time. This is why any company that wants to implement an effetive coaching effort has to have top management support.

  3. I like this post very much – more and more companies seem to place an empahsis on coaching, but without a clear and executable plan, and, as you state, with some of common myths in place that present barriers to sustainable impact on performance outcomes.

    One thing I would offer to the perspective outlined in your post is that often times, coaching is not connected to specific performance outcomes for a particular role. I’m not talking about outcomes such as quota attainment, but rather outcomes of value that are determined when an organization really unpacks what success in a given role looks like.

    Take a pharmaceutical sales representative, for example. One of the outcomes of value that we could argue a rep needs to produce is an office advocate for each physician office she has in her territory. If that is true, then coaching models, interventions and self administered and self paced learning can connect directly to the production of that outcome. From there, coaches can, as you say, help reps learn, and self assessments also become much more objective, as there are specific things (tangibly and intangibly) that produce office advocates.

    This performance based approach brings clarity for sales reps, managers, and learning teams, all of whom are pointed at better serving the customer and growing the business!

    • Richard Ruff says:

      Thanks for comment – excellent point. I have seen the problem you noted time and again. It is one of the reasons that companies should spend more time doing best practice analytics with their top performers – that is what are those folks doing that the average rep is not. They in fact don’t “unpack” success even though they could.

  4. Michele May says:

    This is a great article and the remarks only enhance the content. As a former pharmaceutical and medical device sales representative I am familiar with being on both ends of the sales coaching process. The most important factor is that both parties- the manager and sales representative- are open to one another’s thoughts and suggestions. Personally, once I got past the point of focusing on what I was doing and understood why I was doing it I experienced tremendous growth. Every person learns differently and brings different experiences to the table so the sales coach must be patient and assist the sales representative in uncovering their strengths and weaknesses. It is best summarized by the Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

  5. Richard Ruff says:


    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Michele brings up several important builds to the article – a word or two about them.

    Michele notes the importance of considering individual differences when coaching. It is hard to over emphasize the importance of that notion. Coaching is one of those areas where one size does not fit all. And, the differences occur across several dimesions – e,g., perfomance level (super stars vs underachievers), or time on the job (new hires vs senior reps). So, this just tees up that the manager has to be really good at coaching to get it right most of the time – it also begs the question with whom does the manager start their coaching effort.

    Michele’s second point is about strenghts and weaknesses. Too many times coaches just focus on the “weaknesses.” You can get a huge performance hit by helping people to see how to leverage their strenghts.

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