Sales Coaching: To Bear Fruit, Build on the Fundamentals

By David Szen on Jun 26, 2017

If you’re like most sales managers, your inbox is crammed with the latest and greatest coaching secrets. Each year, hundreds of books and workshops promise new techniques to help your sales team exceed its targets, out-sell the competition, and generate greater-than-ever revenues.

But let’s get real: year after year, does the art and science of coaching actually change all that much?  Has selling evolved in a way that requires a brand new perspective every cycle?

We think not. In fact, we’ve come to see successful sales coaching as more incremental than transformative. It’s like tending an orchard. Tree farmers read up on new techniques in irrigation, fertilization and pest control, but the essentials – the best practices – evolve. Same with sales coaching: While new models and methods can be useful, sales leaders who build on the fundamentals are likely to get the best results.

If you have one bad harvest, you don’t uproot your entire orchard; you go back to the ABCs, make small-but-continual improvements based on new knowledge, maybe prune a few under-performers – and pretty soon your efforts will bear fruit.

But what does an effective sales coach look like? And what are the basics of the discipline?

In this blog, we look at the fundamentals of sales coaching – the traits of great coaches, coaching to the bell curve, and managing sales reports.

The Traits Of Great Sales Coaches

It seems that some leaders have a keen ability to elevate performance, while others are just warm bodies in the passenger seat or office.

To identify traits of great coaches we've asked sales professionals one question a myriad of times and always get the same answers, regardless of the industry or the level of the sales reps, or leaders experience:

“Tell us about the greatest leader/coach you have ever had.  What qualities did they have?”

Consistently, we hear:

  • Inspires me to achieve
  • Communicates openly and honestly
  • Fair, tells me where I stand, lets me do what I needed to do
  • Always there when I need him/her
  • Can still sell when he/she has to
  • Demands excellence
  • Is fun to work with/for
  • Listens to me and shows flexibility

On the flip side, we ask another simple question:

“What are some of the traits you don’t like about certain leaders/coaches?”

Consistently, we hear:

  • He/she micro-manages me
  • He/she wasn’t there when I needed help!

Which of these camps do you fall in? Are you getting out of your sales team’s way at the right time or the wrong time? Are you inspiring or frustrating? Communicative or missing in action?

If your team’s feeling micromanaged and discouraged, but you know they’re capable of delivering more, before you buy the new book or sign up for the latest seminar, we suggest revisiting a few traditional practices and theories.

Like tending a grove of fruit trees, it takes some time, but it can yield quite a bounty.

Coaching To The Bell Curve

With finite hours in a day and too many demands on your time, whom should we coach?  Where do you spend your time?  99% of all organizations that employ sales reps see three distinct groups in the field:

  • The bottom 10%
  • The middle 80%
  • The top 10%

Often, organizations form clever names for these groups.  If you’re in sales, you’re probably familiar with them. Countless meetings have taken place over the years to determine who gets the coaching attention.

Of course HR departments tell the sales leaders to spend time with the bottom 10% and find ways to document performance in order to avoid any legal issues arising from termination. The result: sales leaders may end up spending what feels like all their time in the field trying to pump life into those who can’t be saved.  We refer to this as “improper triage.” 

And who gets ignored?

  • The middle 80% offering plenty of high potential and in need of coaching to break through on your sales reports; and
  • The top 10% who can still improve and wants some attention.

HR might not like us for saying this, but let’s face the cold hard facts: The bottom 10% almost never become sales super-heroes.

The bottom 10% move from sales job to sales job, draining every ounce of coaching life blood from the leaders. Neither fair nor effective, this needs to change.  Yes, the bottom 10% need some attention. Yes, we need to determine they are not able to be fixed.  Yes, we need to document what we observed.

And then, like a tree farmer, cut your losses and trim them so you can help those who can and will drive your numbers.  Give the new accounts to your middle group as a reward once in a while.  They will appreciate it.  Proper triage helps those who can be saved.

Your middle 80% will give you the biggest bang for your coaching buck.  Many of these reps are only a few sales away from greatness.  Your time is better spent diagnosing their skills and helping them improve.

Here are some very quick and effective tips for moving the middle 80% group:

  • Figure out what they need on an individual basis.  You can’t view this group as a whole.  Not every tree needs the same mix of nutrients. So dig in and find out about their individual needs. Some may need further skill development (prospecting, presenting, questioning/probing, handling objections, closing).  Some may need more focus on the right types of accounts or territories.  Some may need more education of the verticals your company focuses on.  Some may need more focus on day-to-day prospects and clients.
  • Consider “peer coaching” from the top 10% group to the middle group.  This achieves two things:  One, you will acknowledge and engage the top 10% in a way they like.  Two, you will provide a very focused and realistic twist on coaching by getting these folks together.  Safety Tip: Make sure you isolate and identify the peer coaching’s focus and speak candidly with the top 10% rep/coach about what to support and what to watch out for.  You don’t want reps to form new habits that don’t serve them well.
  • Identify and reinforce common improvement opportunities you see in the middle 80%. In team interactions, educate and re-educate on the fundamental skills you feel have the highest impact.  Highlight field observations in a positive manner.  They will ask good questions and bounce experiences off one another in a productive manner.
  • Publically celebrate victories from folks in the group.  Recognition in email and team meetings makes it clear what you want to see in your team and bolsters continued great performance.

Don’t forget, however, that your top 10% require attention as well.  Be warned, they are good; and as a coach, you need to be insightful and substantial. “Great job. Keep it up.” is not what this group wants to hear from their coach.

You have to be able to spot something they missed and add to their game.  And guess what?  They appreciate it – especially when you deliver this feedback positively with an attitude of helping them take their game to the next level. Beware – when this top 10% group goes “un-coached” they feel left out and ignored.  So… guess who calls them?  Your competition.

When they leave, they may not tell you why, but the reality is that they felt disconnected.  It wasn’t about the money.  They wanted some attention, and your competition gave it to them.

Managing The Sales Report

Where do we get sales intelligence these days?  Is it just the sales report?  We all have to watch the numbers.  While we don’t anticipate that organizations will play the game with no numbers or sales goals any time soon, we must remember that a sales report is just one of the diagnostic tools you should deploy.  It’s just a ranker.

Remember, your best salespeople may encounter troubled markets or troubled accounts; territories might not align equitably; and an apples-to-apples comparison works when you’re comparing two apples (most sales territories look more like a full produce section).  Numbers are not a leading indicator of true skills.  Careful observation and diligence is the only way to understand and diagnose sales rep performance.

The sales report is a moving target.  Reps can look like superheroes one month and like sleeping dogs the next month.  That’s why you need to bring new standards into play.

Most organizations understand the possible ups and downs of managing the numbers.  Here are some tips that will help you spot trends and avoid common mistakes:

  • Be careful of the whale sale.  It may make a rep look great when they find a large deal, but that doesn’t mean they know how they did it.  Be sure to observe the rep in action so development continues.
  • Recognize the “grinder” who can only hit singles.  They often show up as very active on sales reports, but you have to figure out why they can only hit the small sale.
  • Reward the regular and consistent performers.  These are the folks who never seem to have a bad month or quarter.  Give them the recognition they deserve.
  • Personally speak to reps who score “goose eggs.”  Leaders need to hear what happened and what they plan to do to make it better.  Quite frankly, if the “goose egg” surprised you as the leader, you may have been sleep at the wheel.  You should have seen it coming!
  • Keep your coaching cadence and schedule in place unless you see a real reason to divert based on the sales report.  The sales report offers data points that can be part of your regular cadence and field coaching.  Try not to over-react to minor changes.

In an upcoming blog, we’ll look at the fundamentals of field coaching and establishing a coaching cadence.  This is critical if you are going to invest the time in getting out in the field.  Like growing trees, it requires art, science, and time!

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David Szen

Written by David Szen

David Szen is a master facilitator and leadership development expert. As a Principal Consultant at Symmetrics Group, David has designed and delivered custom sales and leadership content for countless clients. He is most comfortable in front of groups or in keynote settings where his high-energy delivery style connects with people and brings content to life. David’s specialties include sales training design, leadership development, coaching performance management, workshop facilitation and strategic account planning. He is currently co-authoring a book on Generational Selling.

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