When it comes to sales managers coaching their sellers, there is a significant gap between what companies intend to do and what they end up doing. Here’s a look at what’s going on and how to make your training dollars work as you intend.
Coaching is one of the most important activities—if not the most important activity—a manager can do with his salespeople. In a survey we conducted with the Sales Management Association, we asked organizations to select from a list of 17 topics, the top priority for sales manager activity. The answer? Coaching.
Sales Management Association/Vantage Point Performance
These results weren’t surprising considering the significant impact coaching has on sales performance. In our recent research, we found there is a 39-point revenue difference between the top quartile and bottom quartile of sales managers—and coaching was a key contributor to that gap.
Organizations know coaching is important and many offer their managers coaching training. The problem is this: more training on coaching does not equate to more coaching by managers. We see this all the time. For example, in one case, a large global company put their sales managers through five different coaching training programs, yet internal surveys indicated that half of the managers who attended the programs were not coaching. Coaching matters. Companies want it and they prioritize it as their number one training topic for managers and they train on it. Nevertheless, coaching fails to occur. Let’s see why.
One of the main reasons for the training-execution gap is that much of the coaching training that’s available today doesn’t align with the type of coaching that managers need to do. It is too generic. For instance, there is a popular coaching methodology that aims to close performance gaps. While this seems, on the surface, to be a great way to improve performance, it actually doesn’t help a seller improve performance in ways that are sales-specific. So while managers could use this kind of coaching in a general performance-evaluation situation, they find it irrelevant when it comes to helping reps mine territories, close sales, prioritize prospects and other key selling activities. So the coaching training goes unused—or is used only periodically during performance reviews.
Another reason that coaching training doesn’t necessarily lead to actual coaching is that many training programs are over-engineered, with so many steps that must occur at specific times and in specific sequences, that they don’t work in anything but ideal conditions. Yet the sales manager’s reality is never ideal. There is a constant barrage of change and pressure. And if the manager’s reality is that he can only coach each rep for two hours a month, a 12-step coaching program that focuses on “behavioral gaps” and demands five hours a month to be successful, won’t ever be implemented.
Finally, we see training-execution gaps in coaching when coaching training is too narrowly focused. For instance, if a company implements a selling methodology that focuses on how to conduct sales calls, it is often accompanied by manager training on how to coach that skill. While conducting sales calls effectively is certainly necessary, there are many additional activities sellers need to accomplish in order to be successful. If a manager’s coaching training is only on one of those activities, the manager may be ill-equipped to coach in the many other areas that are necessary for sales success. And he or she may wind up overemphasizing one specific type of coaching. We see this overemphasis on a regular basis when working with clients. When we ask about coaching, sales managers often interpret the question as, “How much time do you spend in the field observing sales calls and providing feedback?” Contrary to popular belief, effective coaching is far more multi-faceted than mere sales call observation.
The common thread underlying these three failures is that organizations view sales coaching by managers as an isolated behavior. But coaching training will only become sticky and embedded when it is part of a larger set of management practices and integrated with the reality of the sales manager’s day-to-day job.
Let’s take the forecast as an example. This is a mandatory management activity and sales managers often use pipeline review conversations to gather the required information. Low- and average-performing managers have these conversations very quickly as they simply scrub the pipeline data with their reps and move on. Top-performing managers, on the other hand, use these interactions as an opportunity for coaching. They dig into individual deals and, in particular, they examine early-stage deals. The result is improved performance across the entire sales team. Sales coaching works in this context because the coaching conversations are integrated into the reality of the manager’s job and into a conversation he or she would be having anyway; the manager simply needs to be trained to leverage those conversations into a deeper coaching interaction.
Finally, for coaching training to be applied consistently, it needs to align with key rep activities. If a rep needs work on retaining and growing a few large accounts, coaching needs to align with that. If a rep needs help prioritizing who to call on, coaching needs to align with that. Coaching must have the breadth to target whatever a rep needs to do well—not concentrate on a single, discreet activity. Without these guiding principles, as many companies have learned the hard way, all those costly training binders will simply collect dust.
Michelle Vazzana is co-author of Cracking the Sales Management Code and a partner with Vantage Point Performance. Michelle is a sought-after speaker on the topics of sales management and sales transformation, and she is a regular contributor to the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) and the Sales Management Association (SMA).
Michelle has personally trained and coached thousands of salespeople, sales managers, and sales leaders. She has designed and facilitated programs for effective sales management, coaching and reinforcement, face-to-face selling, major account sales strategy, and telesales. She designs and implements global end-to-end engagements for clients that create the environment for long-term performance improvement.