As I wrote in my first post, one of sales enablement’s key responsibilities is preparing and supporting your sellers to go-to-market as effectively and efficiently as possible. In my second post, I shared how sellers need to adapt to modern buying behavior.
When clients mull on these topics, a question I often hear, is:
“Okay, so how do we actually do that? How do we best prepare and support our sellers to go to market and make the necessary changes to adapt to evolving buyer behavior?”
(In my head, I’ve often imagined them ending that question with, “Well, Mr. Smarty-pants? Hmm?”)
The first part of the answer is training, which is obvious to most. Almost everyone gets that, although the failure of training (or training done poorly) to drive change, foster adoption or improve performance is almost legendary. The second part of the answer is more elusive. The reason this is so puzzling to so many, is that the most powerful and effective solution to guiding change on the frontlines is also one of the most misunderstood and underutilized methods.
Coaching is the single most powerful tool for guiding behavior change and improving employee performance and company results.
While it was quite a few years ago, I once read a study comparing training alone to coaching combined with training. Training increased productivity by 22.4% while training plus coaching increased productivity by a walloping 88%. The power of coaching done well is undisputable.
The common response from clients after hearing this: “Oh! Coaching? Great, we’ve got that covered.”
And now, because turnabout is fair play, in my head, I hear myself saying, “Oh, no, you really don’t.”
The Coaching Perception Gap
- 54% of sales managers reported that they provided an optimal amount of coaching. Only 37% of sales reps agreed.
- 93% of sales managers reported the coaching sessions they’re providing are of high quality. Only 68% of sales reps agreed with that.
These perception gaps are not even close, where we might wonder about the statistical significance. They are substantial gaps.
Why Does This Gap Exist?
In the same study, we did an interesting comparison between what managers say they do, what reps say their managers do and the support that training and enablement departments provide.
It’s fascinating, isn’t it, when you look across the three columns. Take a moment; it’s worth it.
This study confirmed what I’ve seen in other research and have observed firsthand in so many companies. Managers spend far more time on tactical, opportunistic, in-the-moment coaching that is specific to an opportunity and yields a short-term outcome. They don’t spend enough time (or any) on purposeful, developmental, skill-based coaching that improves capability across opportunities and yields a broader and longer-term performance impact.
To a degree, this is understandable, given how overburdened most front-line managers are – and especially because so few have been trained in performance-based behavioral and skills coaching. But it is not the most effective use of their time nor energy, and does not allow them to be the force multipliers that they can be, to truly make an organizational impact.
Many managers think they are coaching when they are simply firing off feedback, telling reps what to do, stop doing or do differently. I say this confidently based on multiple research studies, my own 37 years in the profession and having conducted a dozen topperformer analyses, including best practices for both sellers and managers. Feedback is an important part of training and coaching, but it is not coaching, and does not replace purposeful, developmental, behavioral and skills coaching.
In many cases, managers do not:
- Orchestrate what they want to observe, based on a review of available analytics and discussion with the rep. Instead, they react to what they’ve seen by happenstance. (Management by luck is not a great strategy.)
- Conduct a true root-cause diagnosis (or they rush it).
- Slow down enough to think through the best possible solution (training, coaching or something else), or consider the best-practice content needed to close the gap.
- Engage reps in a dialogue, ensure two-way communication has occurred or foster practice with feedback and coaching loops.
This is all part of the sales culture that we’ve allowed to develop in our companies, which I often refer to as “Harder, Faster, Longer, Louder.” We push, instead of pull.
While reps may not articulate this using the same language as I did above, these factors consistently emerged in focus groups and interviews that I’ve conducted over the years.
Enabling Great Sales Coaching
So, what is sales coaching, what is a sales coach, and what does exemplary sales coaching look like?
Sales coaching is a formal developmental process where sales managers partner with their sales reps to improve sales performance.
A sales coach:
- Identifies performance gaps
- Wins commitment to learning and improving
- Constructs applied practice sessions
- Fosters continual application and reflection to:
- Lift competence to achieve sales mastery
- Improve work performance and results
- Facilitates, leads, empowers, inspires, enables, and acts as a guide. And as part of that process, a coach may also provide feedback or training, as needed.
The Sales Coaching Framework
This is the framework I teach in Sales Coaching Excellence.
It starts with a foundational knowledge of sales competencies (such as a sales methodology) and a review of available reports or sales competency survey results.
Great sales managers encourage their reps to take responsibility for their growth, foster an environment of psychological safety, and act as a guide for their reps, along their development journey.
- Diagnose: With the inputs and people role/expectations clear, the data-driven process starts by exploring the inputs (through analysis, discussion and observation) to understand what the rep is currently doing and figure out what they should do differently.
- ROAM is a root-cause analysis method meaning Results versus Objectives, Activity, plus Methodology. When results are less than the objectives, managers and reps explore the rep’s activity (what they’re doing, with whom, how much, and if applicable, when and where), and then the methodology, or the quality of the activities (how and how well they are performing them).
- Plan: As a results of this root-cause analysis, the team explores solutions.
- Solution Chart: This chart, adapted from the work of Ferdinand F. Fournies, helps managers determine the right solution (training, coaching or something else).
- Outputs: The outputs of this stage include a personalized learning plan. This may include training and/or coaching, with feedback, and possibly other interventions – meaning that training, coaching and feedback alone will not address all root-cause performance problems. (Sometimes, knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do.)
- Field Training: When the rep doesn’t know what, why, or how to do something, training is the right solution. I use a simple model of Tell, Show, Do, Review with Understanding Checks at each stage. With training, it’s okay to be directive since you’re teaching someone something they don’t already know (or don’t remember).
- Sales Coaching: When the rep knows how to do something but needs to do it better, coaching is the right solution. I use a simple model of Engage, Practice, Do, Review, again with Understanding Checks at each stage. Coaching is facilitative, since you are guiding someone to improve something they already know how to do but haven’t yet achieved mastery.
- Leading Individual Sessions: The framework, process, and models are procedural and logical, but don’t specifically address how to orchestrate and lead an effective session. This is the purpose of the SLED model, which is used throughout the process and when training or coaching. SLED is Set the Stage, Lead the Performance Analysis Discussion, Explore Solutions Options and Agree on the Best Solution, and Develop and Implement an Action Plan. Managers and reps will “sled through” each meeting, working through the process and applying the right models as they go.
- How Feedback Fits In: Feedback is an opinion, evaluation or expectation of an adjustment to be made. In the Show and Practice stages of the training and coaching models, managers offer feedback, as needed. It should be offered freely during early-stage training (positive first, then constructive). During coaching, managers should first try to draw the answer out of the rep, and offer feedback only as necessary to guide and shape performance. During coaching sessions, I recommend asking permission to offer your feedback.
- Do: Now it’s time for the rep to implement their Action Plan and use their newly honed skills with prospects, buyers and customers.
- Review: With a few trials under the rep’s belt, the manager and rep should reexamine ROAM (to see if results are improving) and meet to evaluate progress and next steps.
Results: The Do/Review cycle continues until the desired results are achieved.
Cadence: When the results are achieved, it’s time to return to the beginning to reexamine performance, find something else to improve, and start the cycle again.
Creating a Coaching Culture: This repetitive loop is what creates a cadence of continuous improvement and begins to foster a coaching culture.
The big takeaway here is this: Instead of just telling reps what to do, world-class sales managers act as guides to help reps uncover the best strategies and acquire the necessary skills to achieve their goals. This creates a developmental partnership and is a journey the rep and manager go through together.
Here’s the entire sales coaching system, as described above.
Final Clarification and Disclaimer
There is no silver bullet or magical answer to the complexity of human and organization behavior. Coaching is not a miracle cure, if there are other strategic issues that need to be addressed in the company. Yet, as I said earlier, coaching is the single most powerful tool for guiding behavior change and improving employee performance and company results.
Take a good look in the mirror.
- Have you engaged, enabled and empowered your front-line sales managers to function as force multipliers and excel at coaching, as I’ve described here?
- Have you removed any obstacles or barriers that prevent managers from collaborating closely with their teams to develop them, foster growth, and lift their performance?
If yes, continue your journey and feel free to let me know. I’d enjoy hearing about your successes.
If not, it’s time to get started.