I recently heard an experienced and well-intended sales leader quip; “My job is to make sure my salespeople do their job.”
This mindset is likely part of a massive problem reflected by a precipitous decline in the average sales team performance over the past decade despite major investments in the people, processes, and technology designed to improve results.
Today’s salespeople need a leader who’s in the boat with them, not badgering them from the beach to paddle faster and harder. They need someone who is part of the team, not a drill instructor or just a boss. The question is what does “in the boat with them” mean?
In my mind, it’s clearly sales managers who adopt more of a “coaching” style vs. a “directive” style – i.e. they teach vs. tell. Sales coaching is defined by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) as a continuous and dynamic series of interactions between a sales manager and their subordinate, designed to diagnose, correct, or reinforce the behaviors specific to that individual. The purpose of this approach would be to improve future performance in a way that is both consistent and predictable. But what skills are required to be a great coach?
After reviewing numerous research studies on the topic of sales coaching spanning the past three decades, I believe the following behaviors and skills are not only most relevant to aspiring sales coaches, but also the ones most valued by their salespeople. They are:
- Active Listening: Nobody cares how much you know until they know that you care about them. In the chaotic arena of Sales, this is not always easy, but it’s certainly appreciated.
- Asking Questions: The best sales coaches ask the best questions. The same is true for the best doctors, therapists, podcast hosts and salespeople. Both parties benefit from the sales manager who asks great questions. Questions are the answer!
- Providing Specific & Balanced Feedback: This is a core component to any effective coaching approach. It seems to be a very difficult skill for managers to acquire. A manager’s feedback is often too focused on the negative and prefaced with less-than-helpful phrases like “you should…” and “the way I would do it is…” However, research tells us positive feedback is considered to have the most significant impact on individual performance. Additionally, sharing formal feedback aligned with an action plan is directly linked to improved team performance.
- Setting Goals & Follow-Up: Employees come to work for their reasons, not the company’s. The sales profession is largely comprised of high achievers who have goals – personal and professional. Studies consistently find the coaches who were rated the highest in “coaching style” by their employees were those who set goals in consultation with them and then follow-up on these goals. Moreover, commitment to personal goals that are aligned with organizational objectives are directly linked to higher team performance.
- Building trust is the outcome of this work. Every positive relationship is built upon trust. This applies to the managers and their employees, too. When trust is present, candid conversations take place and obstacles are overcome faster. Coaches can quickly uncover the root cause of problems vs. trying to put band-aids on surface problems or symptoms. Delivering on the four behaviors above is a great way to build trust.
When it comes to sales coaching and executing the key behaviors noted above, the “how” is not as embedded into Sales culture as one would like or expect. Various studies suggest only 14-17% managers leverage a specific coaching model and often admit they’re “self-taught.” The best way for managers to learn to coach is when they themselves have been the recipient of great coaching and/or enjoyed the benefit of effective managerial coaching programs. Our experience, and the data, tells us neither is happening at scale. The Sales division is typically allocated a training budget that is lower than other lines of business within a company. Furthermore, typically less than 10% of the sales training budget is allocated specifically to sales management training. You’ve seen this movie. Last year’s top rep earns a “battlefield promotion” into a front-line management role. The promotion is often unaccompanied by relevant job training or even a playbook, leaving managers without adequate preparation. The consequence of this is clearly visible to executive leadership, the board of directors and outside investors. What needs to happen?
There’s a simple fix; however, it’s certainly not easy. Salespeople need to be coached more effectively and consistently. For this to happen, sales managers need to learn the necessary coaching skills. This is most likely to happen when a culture of coaching is created and valued. While there’s never only one way to address a problem, the data clearly shows the coaching of sales managers has a meaningful impact on the performance of sales teams. Frontline managers who engage in consistent sales coaching positively impact the behaviors of their salespeople which, in turn, improves individual performance. Not surprisingly, there’s also a positive correlation between sales coaching and employee productivity, job satisfaction, tenure, and the achievement of organizational goals.
Companies who rely on their managers to figure this out on their own will likely be disappointed Companies should consider investing in sales coaching programs for their leaders. Even better would be to leverage a complementary platform like CoachEm, which empowers managers with the skills, the tools and the data to address issues sooner and develop their people faster. Regardless of the solution, companies will benefit mightily by helping their managers become better coaches. At minimum, a stronger foundation of trust will be cemented and they will have earned a seat in the boat with their team!