Improving sales coaching – what do you do when you’ve done everything?

Sales Manager and Sales Coaching

Sales Manager and Sales Coaching

Yesterday we got a call from a company about helping their sales managers do a better job of sales coaching.  Since over the years we have published a lot about sales coaching and designed some very successful sales coaching programs for clients, we thought we might be able to help.

As we listened, that thought soon faded.  Here’s why.

They’ve had already done “everything right” when it comes to training their sales managers to do a better sales coaching.   First, they trained their sales reps in classic selling techniques so the managers did not have to start at ground zero.

Then they trained their sales managers in coaching techniques.  We first thought perhaps they had not done such a good job at training their sales managers to coach –  but it wasn’t so.  They had designed a customized sales coaching simulation that was exactly what we would have proposed as the highest impact training design.  After that they even engaged a premier consulting firm to identify future competencies they needed to work on as a follow-up to the training.

After all that, we asked what were the problems they wanted to solve with additional training.  What were the sales managers doing or not doing that needed to be fixed?  Here the answer was interesting and a good lesson for all of us concerned about sales coaching.  The basic problem was our old friend the “selling and telling” trap.  Let’s just break that down and look at each piece.

  • Selling.  Rather then spending their time coaching most of the sales managers fell back on what they were really good at and really preferred doing – selling.  They sometimes just took over the accounts.  Sometimes they were less aggressive and on “coaching calls” they just jumped in and took over the call if the rep was not doing “the right thing.”
  • Telling.  When it did come to sales coaching the approach used could be summarized as follows:  “I’m the expert – I’ll diagnose what’s wrong and suggest what you should learn.  Your job is to practice what I recommend.”  The company was, we think rightly, concerned that such an approach was not the best path forward.  The preferred approach they summarized as follows: “You are the one responsible for the learning.  I’m responsible for helping you become more aware of your performance and expand your learning choices.”

Following thus sales call we spent some time thinking about the lessons learned and what we might pass along in our next call.

Regarding lessons learned, the major walkaway is that skill development and hence training is only one piece of the puzzle for improving sales coaching.  If one were to specifically focus on the “selling and telling” trap, two additional considerations are:

  • Sales coaching expectation needs to be front and center when selecting sales managers.  We’ve observed many companies just pick the best sales rep – defined as the person who sales the most – to sales manager.  This is probably the first step towards creating the trap.
  • To address this trap, as well as, the one about there is never enough time to coach, the sales leadership has to get involved.

So what would we recommend for companies who are facing this same situation?  Although right answer is company-specific, here are four ideas to consider:

  • Additional Sales Coaching Training.  If you have conducted some well-designed sales coaching training yet you still have issues around sales coaching – like the company we recently spoke with – then conducting additional training on sales coaching is probably not a good investment.
  • Coach-the Coach.  If you are a company with a smaller sales team with say fewer  then 15 sales managers or a larger company where only a subset of sales managers need help, then adopting a coach-the-coach model could be one of the answers.  The best approach would be to solicit the help from an expert in sales coaching not coaching in general.
  • Modeling.  Another approach is for the sales managers to whom the front-line managers report to become role models as to how to coach.  This is particularly effective for addressing the “telling” problem.  This of course assumes the Sales Directors are good coaches and if not then that is a situation where a coach-the-coach approach is definitely worth the investment.
  • Blueprinting. Usually there is a subset of front-line sales managers that are getting it right.  Recognize and award their performance.  Then blueprint how they do what they do and codify it into a set of best practices and leverage the findings to help others.

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©2014 Sales Momentum, 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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2 Responses to Improving sales coaching – what do you do when you’ve done everything?

  1. Jim Trunick says:

    Classic. All the best intentions, effort, desire, mgr. training and inspiration – not good. Suggestions, ideas, coaching and not working. We are so determined to help and be valued, respected, liked or perceived as knowledgeable and valuable to our team, that we get in our own way. We need to let them fail.

    When I ask managers when they learned the most in their career, and how they changed behaviors that stuck, I hear stories of them losing an account, or mis-managing an important conversation, or screwed up a project or missed a deadline. We learn through the lessons of our mistakes. Jack Nicklaus said, “I never a learned a thing from the putts I made”

    We are so anxious to be right and share our learning with our team, that we don’t let them grow or learn. We wonder why we get compliance and can’t get commitment.

    We need to let our people fail. As leaders it is our responsibility to create a safe learning environment, so people aren’t set up to fail, or in failing will really hurt themselves, you or the organization.

    So, your rep. is losing the sale and you can save it – what to do? Lose a sale create a learning. And prepare before the call, so the rep., knows what they are responsible and you are responsible. So if product or competitive knowledge is discussed its their role, and we stay out. If corporate policy or broader-based industry issues arise, beyond the knowledge of the rep., then step in.

    We can control people or grow them – can’t do both. The Rule of 5 and 50. Involve yourself in the employees effort to improve an outcome, and you may improve the result by 5% ; and hurt their commitment and engagement to the outcome by 50% !

  2. Guy Blevins says:

    Basically, according to Jim, without some pain, no permanant real learning will occur. I agree with that in theory, however if you step in and teach someone to keep/get the account with the understanding that they were on the threshold of pain,
    communicate what got them to that threshold and use it as a reminder and teaching tool, you are training them, not controlling them. You can do that without hurting their commitment and engagement.

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