10 Ways to Become a Better Sales Coach
Research shows that salespeople lose 87 percent of the knowledge they gain from training within 30 days. Here’s how you can reverse that troublesome trend.
By Kevin Kearns
Given the challenges of little time and little preparation to be a coach, sales managers often pass along tips and tactics by telling the sales reps what to do. Our research shows this type of coaching usually is unsuccessful. The best sales coaches are involved in planning, observing and giving focused feedback to their reps. Rather than telling the reps to “sell consultatively,” for example, you need to be sure they understand the principles of consultative selling and that they are comfortable executing those skills in the field.
Some managers push coaching to a backburner because they’re overwhelmed by other duties. Some who have gotten into management because of their own sales success short shrift coaching because they find selling to big customers more exciting. Both groups are making poor choices. They will always be limited by the existing capabilities of their sales staffs.
Once you have embraced the importance of sales coaching, you can leverage its effectiveness by using 10 tactics:
1. Concentrate your firepower
Don’t look at the current sales results alone to decide who needs your help. Include a realistic assessment of each rep’s long-term potential. You may have sales professionals who consistently meet their goals but who could do more (and are motivated to do so). Coaching time spent here is a great investment.
Likewise, there are those who are not yet performing but who clearly have great potential. They make excellent candidates for your coaching, too. Beware of spending too much time with sales reps who, regardless of whether they make the numbers or not, will never significantly improve.
2. One size does not fit all
Each rep has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. This means each rep needs customized coaching. One rep may be good at asking questions, another in presenting features, still another in planning an effective sales call. It’s important to determine exactly what kind of coaching each rep needs. When selecting which skills to coach, concentrate on what’s teachable, repeatable and measurable.
3. Use metrics
What gets measured gets done. Metrics should be used to drive accountability for the coaches. If coaching expectations are not set, coaching quickly drops down the “to do” list for a busy manager. At one company, metrics for coaches assure that they review a given number of the reps’ call plans prior to the calls being made, make an established number of field coaching calls, hold regular reinforcement meetings, and conduct strategy reviews for a predetermined number of accounts. Without measurements, you won’t know how well the training is working. You also might signal, unintentionally, that the training isn’t really important.
4. One skill at a time
It’s hard, indeed, nearly impossible, for the reps to discard totally the behaviors used in the old way of selling and switch immediately to those taught in the training. You shouldn’t ask them do this. Instead, encourage them to apply their new skills one at a time.
Prior to any coaching call, you and the rep should determine which skill he or she will practice. If you are unsure of which skill needs attention, observe an initial call and give the rep feedback on the skill gap that’s most apparent. Then you can agree to observe that behavior on the next call. A rep should feel comfortable with the first skill before moving on to the next.
5. Practice makes perfect
The new strategies being worked on may not feel comfortable or natural to the rep the first time around, hence they may not produce the desired result. Sales reps can quickly lose confidence in their ability to apply the skill. If the rep was unsuccessful in using questions that probe into the implications of the customer’s problems, the rep might conclude implication questions don’t really work. The benefit of that critical part of the training would be lost.
You can address this problem by helping your sales team use each new skill several times to give it a fair test. In fact, studies have shown that people may need feedback on a new behavior nine times before it becomes a habit. As their ability improves with each application of the skill, it soon becomes an integral part of the way they sell.
6. Effectiveness over efficiency
It’s natural in difficult times to rely on making more and more sales calls. The more calls your reps make, the better their chances, right? Unless you’re in a transactional business, making more calls is only emphasizing quantity over quality. This leads to an increase in sales activities with negative sales results and a downturn in customer satisfaction. Worse, you’ll probably burn your salespeople out with the proliferation of measurement and paperwork that is sure to follow.
World-class sales organizations make better use of the calls on which they’re already investing time through improved planning, coaching and debriefing. This focus on effectiveness has been shown to increase the dollar value of each deal while shortening the sales cycle.
7. Safe Practice
Reps sometimes hold back on using their new skills until they’re going on an important sales call. That’s where the skills will give the biggest payoff, they reason. That’s a mistake.
Going on an important call is stressful enough. Trying to incorporate a new skill on that call can worsen the situation. Encourage your reps to practice new skills in safe situations instead – smaller opportunities, existing clients, etc. This allows your salespeople to learn the skills without jeopardizing large opportunities. Once they’ve achieved proficiency, move on to the bigger opportunities.
Calls with Reps There are two types of coaching calls. In the first, you model behaviors the rep can use and the rep’s interaction with the customer is limited. In the other, the observation call, the rep sells and the coach observes to collect feedback. Remember, good coaches can’t sell and coach at the same time. Whenever a rep requests a coaching call, be sure you agree to what your individual roles will be.
Both types of coaching calls need advance planning in line with what you and your rep want to accomplish. A role play is an effective way to prepare. For the modeling calls, the rep has to be aware of the specific skill you’re going to model for him or her. The rep should also know the boundaries for his or her participation.
Resist the temptation to take over a call. You’re there to help the rep become a better performer, not to make the sale. You can increase your productivity by deploying a more highly skilled sales force than by playing the role of super seller. Remember the adage about it being better to teach someone to fish rather than giving someone a fish.
You should hold a debriefing session as soon after the call as possible. Discuss whether or not the call achieved its objective and what you and your rep could have done better. One last point: The customer should know in advance that you’ll be making a joint call. If appropriate, the rep can tell the customer you’ll be coming because the company is important to your organization.
Studies have shown that people may need feedback on a new behavior nine times before it becomes a habit.
9. Reward the Behavior, Not the Result
Your training and reinforcement process won’t produce increased sales overnight. The reps need to internalize the new way of selling. For that reason, it’s important in the short run to measure productivity not by the business the reps bring in but rather by whether or not they’re using the behaviors taught in the training.
Your instinct may tell you that sales success is always measured by success in selling. For the present, put that instinct behind you. To make your training and reinforcement program meet its goals, you need to be fixed on the reps’ behaviors.
10. Avoid the Common Traps
Most coaches have an excellent track record of sales success. The problem is that can lead them into several traps. Among the most common:
The manager becomes the super closer. Salespeople have a tendency to bring in managers for the late-stage deals. The coach then becomes the closer and hurts the credibility of the sales person.
The manager becomes a fire fighter. This, too, makes the salesperson look powerless in the eyes of the customer. What’s worse, the next big problem has the client calling the manager instead of the salesperson. Now that manager is trapped in the account.
The manager becomes the objection handler. Guess what happens when the manager steps in only to handle objections? You got it, the salesperson’s credibility is damaged. The coach should be involved only when he or she makes a unique difference. Plan roles in advance and have an exit strategy that keeps the customer from becoming dependent on you.
Coach the correct people. Monitor the metrics. Encourage the reps to use their new skills. Be available to help the reps meet their individual needs. Focus on effectiveness. Avoid the traps. Putting these strategies into place will allow you to get the most from your sales force.
Is Your Sales Training Not Sticking?
10 Ways to Become a Better Sales Coach