Sales coaching – who to and not to coach


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Most VPs of Sales tend to agree that coaching is an important piece of the puzzle for developing a world-class sales team. And, if you want to get coaching right, most would agree there are three foundational questions every front-line sales manager must answer – what to coach, how to coach, and who to coach.

Over the years, the “how to coach” question is the one that has probably received the most attention. Many books and articles have been penned providing models, best practices, and dos and don’ts about how to coach.

In this blog, we thought more dialog about “who to coach” would be useful. When conducting coaching programs for clients, we always address the “who to coach” question. For purposes of discussion the client’s sales team is divided into three performance groups based on a normal distribution – low performers (16% of the team), average performers (68%), and high performers (16%).

As an introduction to the topic, the following question is asked – “Which of the three groups should be your top priority for coaching?” Most of the time a majority of the class suggests starting with the middle group of average performers. The reasons vary from – “the bottom and top groups are harder to coach, to you get more bang for the buck with the middle group to specific comments such as some in the lower group may be in the wrong field.”

Recently we reviewed a great article by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson in the Harvard Business Review that put a sharper edge on how the question should be framed. They framed the question – “Should all sales reps be coached?” We thought their work adds significantly to the “who to coach” question.

They agree with the idea that sales coaching makes sense. As matter of fact they note, “No other productivity investment comes close to improving sales reps’ performance as coaching.” However, their answer to the question: should all sales reps be coached is – no.

In research involving thousand of sales reps they found the following:

  • “Coaching — even world-class coaching — has a marginal impact on either the weakest or the strongest performers in the sales organization. You’d think that coaching the lowest performers would pay off because they have nowhere to go but up. Actually, that’s often not true, particularly for the bottom 10%. These reps are less likely to be underperformers who can improve, and more likely to be a bad fit for the role altogether.”
  • “Likewise, star-performing reps show virtually no performance improvement due to coaching.” While there are some important retention benefits from coaching high performers, it does not make performance stars more stellar

Heretofore our suggestion has been to start with the middle group and then move to the low and high performers. The work by Dixon and Adamson suggests the “moving on” part may well be a waste of time.

As Dixon and Adamson suggest at the end of their article the right answer is – “a hard pill to swallow.” Even if coaching low and high performers has a poor return, the answer still does not seem quite right.

But, what is clear is who to coach is a question of equal importance to what and how to coach. Particularly in sales coaching where the time most sales managers have for coaching is extremely limited, all questions about the use of time must be seriously addressed. In answering the question about low and high performers, it is important to consider whether other interventions may be more appropriate and beneficial for both the individual and the company than coaching.

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©2012 Sales Horizons, LLC

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Richard Ruff
For more than 30 years Richard Ruff has worked with the Fortune 1000 to craft sales training programs that make a difference. Working with market leaders Dick has learned that today's great sales force significantly differs from yesterday. So, Sales Momentum offers firms effective sales training programs affordably priced. Dick is the co-author of Parlez-Vous Business, to help sales people have smart business conversations with customers, and the Sales Training Connection.


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