This article was first published in the latest edition (issue 8.1 - January 2022) of the International Journal of Sales Transformation. To learn more about this excellent publication, follow the link at the bottom of this article.
Successful sales managers must master a range of important skills. They need to make sure that they recruit the right people and help them to realise their potential, encourage their teams to follow and contribute to the organisation’s learned best practices, ensure that opportunities are well-qualified, that pipelines are well managed and that forecasts are consistently accurate. I’m sure you can think of more.
But perhaps the overriding skill - if sales managers are to get the very best out of every member of their sales organisation - is their ability to coach, and their willingness to commit the amount of time required in the coaching process. I addressed some of these concepts in an earlier article “Establishing the Foundations of a Coaching Culture” in issue 7.3 of the journal, and I now want to expand on some of the themes introduced there.
In particular, I want to focus on three areas:
- Devoting the appropriate amount of time to coaching
- Acquiring the skills necessary to be an effective coach
- Developing the mindset needed to be an effective coach
What coaching is and isn’t
Perhaps it’s best if I start by defining what I mean by coaching. Coaching is not about telling salespeople what to do or (even worse, from a long-term performance perspective) taking over the salesperson’s responsibilities - for example, stepping in and “closing” an opportunity instead of enabling the salesperson to win the opportunity for themselves.
These sort of interventions, whilst they might have a short-term positive impact on performance, do nothing to develop the long-term revenue-generating potential of the salesperson whose responsibilities have just been over-ridden. They are also exactly the sort of distraction that prevents sales managers from investing the time they need to in high-quality coaching.
Coaching, from my perspective, is primarily about helping the salesperson to think clearly about the situations they are likely to encounter in their role, transferring practical experience to them, and equipping, enabling and encouraging them to take decisive and effective action. It’s also about helping salespeople to learn from their own lived experiences and those of their colleagues.
It’s my conclusion - and maybe yours as well - that the value of coaching is particularly high in complex B2B sales environments where the salesperson has to master a significant number of variables.
Coaching is not training. Effective sales training is an important and necessary investment for any ambitious sales organisation, but if the principles taught are not followed through in practice, the time and money spent will have been wasted. Managers have a critical role in enabling their salespeople to apply the principles they have been taught in practical, real-life situations on an ongoing basis.
Training without coaching is a wasted investment. But I’d also suggest that coaching in the absence of the reinforcing frameworks that well-designed sales training programmes offer is also likely to be ineffective.
Finding enough time to coach
Research by the Objective Management Group and others has demonstrated the clear positive correlation between the amount of time sales managers invest in coaching and the results they are able to achieve through and with their salespeople.
The most successful managers are - on average - investing between a quarter and a third of their time in coaching their salespeople. Unfortunately, the reported average time spent on coaching across the sales management community as a whole is significantly less than this, and in too many situations falls down into single digits. Some never coach at all.
Sometimes managers need to coach on-demand - often in response to a particular time-critical issue or opportunity. But the most effective managers also insist on regular cadences and set aside and schedule specific regular times for coaching.
You might think that allocating between a quarter and a third of your time to coaching is too much, given the conflicting demands on a sales manager’s time. But if - as I believe - coaching represents your highest impact opportunity to improve your team’s performance, you may want to take a considered look at all those other demands on your time.
How much do those other activities contribute to achieving your revenue goals, and how many of those tasks and meetings could be simplified or eliminated in order to free up the necessary time. As a sales manager, you’ll probably want your boss’s support in eliminating value-sapping activities in order to free you up to concentrate on what really matters.
Acquiring coaching skills
Experience clearly helps. But far too many companies - including those that are actually investing wisely in a programme of training for their salespeople - fail to train and equip their managers in the key disciplines of effective sales management. This is a particular problem for newly appointed sales managers.
If you’re a sales manager - particularly if you’re a newly appointed manager or an experienced manager that recognises that they have room for improvement in this area - you should first explore whether your organisation currently runs courses that teach sales coaching skills.
If not, and if you cannot persuade your company to start running these courses internally, you should explore the growing number of “coaching for managers” courses being offered by enlightened sales training companies. If you can persuade your company to pay, all the better, but even if you can’t, you should consider it one of most effective investments you could make in developing your skills as a sales manager.
Having the right mindset
I’ve explained that I believe sales coaching is primarily about helping each of your salespeople to think clearly about the situations they are likely to encounter in their role, transferring practical experience to them, and equipping, enabling and encouraging them to take decisive and effective action.
This is as much about mindset as it is about skillset. As well as believing in the power of coaching, you also need to see it as an exercise in getting your salespeople to think more effectively, to identify and weigh up their available options, and their confidence to act upon their conclusions.
And this, in return requires that you help them to evaluate situations with ruthless self-honesty, that they recognise and eliminate untested assumptions and that they take steps to fill in the inevitable gaps in their knowledge.
It means allowing them to learn not from you but also from their peers and from their sometimes-hard-won experiences. Above all, in my view, it involves inculcating a respect for critical thinking and for dealing with situations as they really are rather than as they hope they should be.
Despite the temptation to step in and “save the day”, you must avoid being prescriptive. If you want them to learn, you need to lead your salespeople towards the solution rather than giving them the solution as you see it. If they appear to be going astray, you need to nudge them back on to the right path rather than setting them on a rigid predetermined track.
Learning from them
My final observation is that coaching should not been seen as a one-way transfer of knowledge and experience. If you maintain an open mind, you are also likely to learn from the experience. You should encourage your salespeople to tap into the wisdom of their peers as well as seeking guidance from you.
And who knows - your salespeople may well end up causing you to think differently. Everybody benefits from coaching, including the coach themselves.