Having observed a number of B2B sales organisations over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that sales training is over-rated, and sales coaching is under-appreciated. In fact, I believe that their ability to coach their sales people is the critical skill of frontline sales managers.
Sales training and sales coaching are clearly linked. We’ve all read the statistics that prove that without on-going reinforcement through day-to-day coaching, most sales training is a wasted investment - forgotten or ignored within a just few weeks.
But capable coaches go far beyond simply reinforcing their organisation’s chosen sales methodology - they develop the sales people under their care in a rich variety of different ways that enable them to realise their potential.
Sales coaching contributes to the performance of the individual and the organisation in at least 3 different levels: at the team level, at the individual level and at the opportunity level - and no sales coaching programme can be called complete until and unless it addresses all three aspects.
Let’s start with team-level coaching. In addition to sharing their own ideas and experiences, the manager has a key role in facilitating lateral learning and the sharing of experiences and best practices across the whole team.
These team-coaching sessions are an invaluable element of the regular regime in many top performing sales organisations. They acknowledge that sales people can learn a great deal from the experiences of their colleagues.
In addition to general skills development, they can be particularly useful when a new campaign is being introduced or a new product being launched - they give the whole team the chance to improve their understanding and practice key messages.
This is a traditional focus of sales coaching - helping individual sales people to develop specific skills and practice their moves under the supervision of their manager, and it depends upon an accurate diagnosis of the key areas for improvement.
Some of these themes will inevitably come from the manager’s observations, but it’s always a good practice to encourage the sales person’s self-awareness and to have them identify areas where they feel their skills could be enhanced, or strengths further amplified.
Holding these sessions on a 1:1 basis allows the manager and sales person to systematically and sensitively address shortcomings which it might not be helpful to expose to the sales person’s colleagues.
The third dimension of sales coaching - and one that is often under-used - is opportunity-level coaching, in which the focus is on a particularly important or complex deal where the choice of strategy and tactics would benefit from more than one perspective.
Sometimes, these reviews are part of a regular pipeline or forecast meeting: I think this is a mistake. It’s hard to switch from the fact-and-status approach that typifies most regular pipeline reviews to the explore-all-options perspective that is required for complex deals.
So I’ve become a evangelist for opportunity-specific review sessions, to which the people whose experience is most likely to be valuable are invited, and I’m convinced that it’s better to do a few of these reviews really well for the most important opportunities, rather than water them down.
The cadence of coaching
So - how much resource should be allocated, and how often? The truth is, many sales managers don’t allocate enough time to coaching, even though a variety of studies have shown that it is the factor that has the biggest impact on sales performance.
For team coaching, the answer seems to be little-and-often, punctuated by less frequent in-depth sessions that focus on a particularly important new idea. For 1:1 coaching, the cadence needs to be determined by a personal development plan that highlights agreed areas for improvement.
And for opportunity-level coaching, the challenge is which deals to focus on, and when to hold the sessions. The primary focus should be on breakthrough deals that either have a significant impact on overall performance, or which could provide a platform to break into new market areas.
As far as the timing of opportunity-level coaching sessions is concerned, it’s too late when an RFP has already been issued. These coaching sessions are most valuable while the prospect’s sense of what they need and how they will decide is still pliable.
The impact of a good coach
Coaching isn’t about teaching or telling: it’s about helping people to realise their potential and bring out the best in themselves. Perhaps that’s why, done well, it has much more of a sustained impact than putting people on an occasional training course.
But it is critically dependent on the coaching abilities of your first-level sales managers. If you’re not considering this factor when recruiting them, you must. And you need to put a programme in place to "coach your coaches" and equip them to master the most important job they could do for your company.