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  • Transforming Sales Managers into World-Class Sales Coaches

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If you’ve read beyond the title of this article, you probably already know something about the overwhelming case for sales coaching. Such evidence as displayed by a recent Aberdeen study, shows that total team attainment of sales quota is 11 percent higher among companies providing real-time, deal specific rep-coaching. Also, time-to-productivity improves by 21 percent among companies using analytics-driven sales coaching methodologies. While evidence for the value of coaching continues to mount, many companies are struggling to embed this key behavior into their sales culture. Oftentimes, it seems that developing a team of effective sales coaches may be as elusive a goal as capturing video of the Loch Ness Monster.   

If you are among those looking for a clear, concise plan for making sales coaching a core competency in your organization, please read on. What follows is an overview of the five obstacles that keep managers from coaching and specific steps you can take to transform your sales managers into world-class sales coaches. 

1| Missing or ineffective coaching model 

Despite the recent focus on coaching, it remains largely misunderstood by the very people we expect to provide it: sales managers. When asked, most will respond that they are good coaches and they genuinely believe it! The reason for this is simple: their mental model for coaching isn’t properly developed. They do have consistent conversations with their sellers and provide them with feedback about their performance. They may even be following a well-defined model for providing this feedback. However, feedback is not the same as coaching.  

The performance pyramid can help illustrate the difference. To produce a desired result, performance professionals (sellers) must engage in the appropriate behaviors. In a competitive profession, they must execute key behaviors better than their competition. To execute these behaviors and in turn produce the desired results, these people must possess the requisite skill and knowledge. Knowing that I should hit a golf ball in the fairway (behavior) to achieve a score of par or better (result) does not mean that I can execute the swing (skill) that will make that happen. Meanwhile, these skills are built on a foundation of innate qualities or capacity and will to do the work or commitment.

For the manager-seller conversation to qualify as effective coaching, it should follow a basic model, which we will refer to as the GUIDE. First, all great coaches start with goal setting. By working with their players to set specific goals and a plan by which these goals will be achieved, they earn the right to interact with the person along the way. Handing a seller a quota is not the same as understanding what she wants to achieve, why she wants to achieve it and helping her to create a clear plan to do so. 

Second, effective coaches then uncover gaps in both performance and behaviors that may negatively impact the person’s ability to accomplish his goals. Given the proper information, most managers are relatively effective at uncovering performance gaps and sharing their observations. Unfortunately, this is often the extent of their coaching conversation. 

Great sales coaches, like great coaches in other fields, then observe, ask questions and even role-play with players to identify the root cause of their performance or behavior gaps. These managers know that telling someone to behave differently won’t help if they don’t have the skills or knowledge to do it.  

Next, when a skill or knowledge gap is uncovered, effective coaches define corrective actions. Think of this as a short learning activity designed to address the specific skill or knowledge gap. Generally, these activities take an hour or less and will help the person learn or refresh learning. 

Finally, effective coaches evaluate the impact of their previous interaction. This may involve role-playing, a joint call or merely a follow-up conversation to determine whether a learning assignment was completed and the desired impact achieved. 

If we want to transform the manager-seller interaction from feedback to coaching, we must begin by introducing a complete coaching model and securing 100 percent buy-in from managers. If your managers aren’t committed to the model, there is little chance your coaching initiative will work. 

2| Inadequate performance and behavioral targets 

Most modern sales teams have some CRM solution and more sales performance data than they could ever digest. Oftentimes, this data is cumbersome to access and won’t support a productive coaching conversation. The typical CRM doesn’t allow managers and sellers to create individual sales success plans, which causes companies to revert to more generic “funnel standards.” However, missing or exceeding these standards is not necessarily a clear indicator of success. Missing a target like “keep 3X your quota in your funnel” may not provide enough insight to allow the coach to really understand a performance issue. In this environment, sellers and managers often spend more time debating the merits of the funnel standards rather than understanding the root cause of legitimate performance gaps. 

A similar challenge exists with respect to selling behaviors. Many companies don’t have a commonly understood model for key selling behaviors. Without this shared understanding of the ideal models, managers and sellers talk past one another as they consider and debate the merits of specific activities instead of focusing on maximizing proficiency with them. 

Want to enable exceptional coaching that drives consistent results? First, create individual sales success plans and track progress against these predictive metrics. Actionable performance gaps will be easily identifiable. Next, implement a shared model for your key selling behaviors, preferably a comprehensive model supported by online learning that would facilitate ongoing development. 

3| Lacking diagnostic questions 

This is arguably the most difficult obstacle to address. Despite training managers on the GUIDE coaching model, (i.e., developing personalized sales success plans with every person on the sales team, reporting against these metrics, and establishing a comprehensive selling model that the entire organization agrees represents the optimum selling behaviors), most managers still won’t coach. Why? Simply because they cannot remember all the questions to ask to diagnose performance issues, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. 

Even in the most basic selling environment, the matrix of potential performance gaps, behavior gaps, and corresponding skill and knowledge gaps can become quite large. Even if it was created for managers and given to them, it’s doubtful they could memorize it. However, the good news is that while this matrix may be big and cumbersome, it is not infinite. Once defined, these “coaching flows” can be documented and managers can be provided with tools to help them explore an issue with the seller until the root cause has been defined.  

Whether as simple as a spreadsheet linking these three elements or as sophisticated as a wizard that leads the coach through the conversation, providing managers with a diagnostic tool can do wonders to shift their conversations from simple feedback to meaningful coaching. If you want to enable your managers to have meaningful coaching conversations, it is essential that you equip them with the questions/activities needed to diagnose performance gaps.  

4| Learning is not readily available 

Once your coaches uncover a performance or behavior gap and diagnose the root cause of the gap, they need to address the issue. Unfortunately, in most organizations, this would require the coach to become a sales trainer. While most training programs are accompanied by reinforcement, few companies invest the energy to tie the learning back to specific skill and knowledge gaps, let alone back to affected behaviors and sales performance indicators. Thus, managers cannot easily assign learning activities to sellers as they simply don’t know what is available to help address the specific gaps they uncover. Considering this, it’s understandable why many managers skip diagnosing the root cause of a performance gap altogether. 

If we want to help managers address skill and knowledge gaps easily, we need to link learning assets, irrespective of how simple or sophisticated they may be, back to the specific skill or knowledge gaps they address. A low-tech version, such as a searchable spreadsheet, may not be as good as a coaching wizard that presents the manager with appropriate activities that can be assigned with a few clicks, but it is infinitely better than providing them with nothing at all. Similarly, interactive microlearning activities are naturally the preferred approach to support continuous learning, but even reading materials are better than nothing. 

5| No accountability for change 

A clear model, actionable metrics, diagnostic questions, and a learning library can be used to remove the most vexing barriers to effective coaching. However, these things alone won’t transform your team into world-class coaches. If your managers aren’t already having meaningful coaching conversations, this will become a change initiative, and many people are resistant to change. To help drive the change, you will need to make coaching a top priority at your senior management level. This includes: 

  • Making a compelling case for change
  • Setting clear objectives
  • Measuring and reporting progress
  • Providing rewards that recognize your early adopters, encourage your laggards and help you quickly identify issues that could derail the initiative

The good news is that effective coaching conversations leave a measurable artifact: the learning or developmental assignment. By tracking coaching conversations, assignments given and completed, your organization can celebrate your progress throughout the journey. 

Make no mistake, the journey to a world-class coaching organization can be a difficult one and it won’t be completed by dropping your managers into a sales coaching class, no matter how good it is. However, implementing the strategies outlined above will remove the barriers that keep most managers from coaching and allow you to drive dramatically better conversations and business results. 

Bob Sanders is CEO of AXIOM Sales Force Development, LLC. 

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