Field Coaching Fundamentals

Universally, sales representatives disdain sales managers who show up physically, but remain absent in spirit. We’ve all seen it: managers spending their ride-along time checking their email, or, after sitting in on a sales call, telling the rep, “Nice work” without offering any meaningful feedback.

In part one of this series, we compared sales management to tending an orchard. Think about a tree farmer spending time in the field: Does he or she inspect the grove, test the soil, measure the sunlight, and take other steps to keep the orchard healthy and growing? Or is it all about putting in a little face-time, finding a shady spot, and checking voicemail?

Being There

As with forestry, so it is with sales management. Just being in the field isn’t enough; you’ve got to take care of a few fundamentals. Based on our work with some of the world’s most successful sales organizations, we believe there are seven basics for sales managers in the field:

1. Be present. Get off the phone and listen to your team. Put away your iPad, stop texting, and observe your reps in action.  We know, this sounds like common sense.  Yet, every day we hear about sales mangers that either haven’t seen their reps in the field for a long time or haven’t paid enough attention. The result:  they’re making coaching assumptions based on little or no information.

So get out there and observe the sales process, from cold calling to early-phase prospects, from presenting solutions/services/products to closing a sale.  There’s no other way to spot performance trends and get the total picture. Remember: if you’re fighting fires while you are out in the field (not to mention checking your email every few minutes), you’re neither observing nor coaching. You’re just there. And that’s not enough.

2. Set clear expectations: Many sales organizations have done a good job in identifying core sales competencies.  The challenge we see is that the competencies look great on a poster, on a plaque, or as talking points in an employee orientation. But all too often that’s as far as they get.  A good list of competencies based on a sales process can get fairly long and may include skills such as observing, prospecting, listening, questioning, probing/second layer questioning, handling sales resistance, building rapport, identifying the decision makers and decision process, scoping the opportunity, follow-up, and closing.  By concentrating on sales competencies you get a different view of the skill set a rep brings to the table.  This is where real coaching begins.

3. Observe a typical day: In order to get a true picture of a rep’s performance, you need to be sure to observe a typical day instead of the “dog and pony” show that gets planned when the sales leader’s in town.  If possible, make sure you catch sales reps off-guard once in a while. You’ll gain valuable insights into how well they prepared, whether the territory is being covered correctly, and what – if anything – is driving new business results.

4. See the right customers for coaching: Your coaching time is valuable; use it wisely! In general, it’s best not to devote this time to the best customers or to problem customers.  After all, your rep’s basically just bringing a piece of cake to the former, and is putting out fires with the latter. Instead, concentrate on typical customers – not too friendly and not too difficult – who will present opportunities for sales coaching-to-the-competencies described in fundamental #2.

5. Ensure your field days are planned: A good coach should be in the office no more than a day and a half per week.  The rest of the time should be spent in the field with the team.  Plan client/prospect visits ahead of time and look hard at the frequency of ride-alongs with your reps.  Planning helps you avoid days when you drive around looking for someone to talk to.  Yes, observing a few cold calls is important, but entire days spent knocking on doors is of low value.  Also, the old “once-per-quarter” ride-along might not be enough.  Depending on the size of your team and the geography involved, we suggest higher frequency.

6. Know your role: When you’re riding along for a sales call, make sure you agree on your roles before you get out of the car.  This helps things go better while selling – and helps the leader avoid the big mistake of taking over the sales call. But what if it’s going really poorly?  Same thing: don’t take over. It won’t help the rep and it’s always a mistake!

7. Use your windshield time wisely: If you do a lot of riding along, put the time to good use. Learn more about your rep and the customers you’re seeing.  Plan this time, and plan your questions.  Asking the right questions can help you to gain better insight into the rep’s understanding of his or her role, goals, and customers.

Common Language

Research has shown that a common coaching language not only helps the leadership team, but it creates the clarity that reps need to build stronger selling skills.

Before we look at a very simple and effective model, let’s get this critical point clear.  People have a mix of abilities.  Each and every one of us is good at some things, great at others, and of course, still learning some things as well.  That’s why it’s not particularly useful to coach based on tenure, sales volume, or industry experience.  This is where your well-crafted sales process and sales competencies come into play.  Those tools become the means for analyzing your team.

Sales reps fall into four phases of development:

  1. Learning – This is a pretty clear phase.  Your sales rep is learning a new skill or task.  He or she is usually eager, ready for the task, and aware that they’re learning.  This doesn’t apply only to “new” reps. Tenured folks could also be learning something that the coach identified as a need.
  2. Developing – This is a bit harder to spot.  Your sales rep may have realized that something is a bit more than they bargained for.  Your clue is frustration from the rep.  Once again, this is for new reps as well as tenured ones who you have been coaching for improved performance.
  3. Performing – This is a good phase, and easy to spot. You’ll see flashes of brilliance, but not a consistently solid performance. These sales reps seem to slip back once in a while.
  4. Mastery – This is a pleasure to see.  These are the reps that “get it” and perform the skill or task at very high levels consistently.  This is likely about 10% of your sales team.
Sales Coaching Model

Figure 1. Sales Coaching Model

Once you are clear about how to diagnose the development level of your reps, the only lever that sales leaders have to pull is time.  Simply put: How much time do you spend with individual performers? When answered properly, it can drive real performance improvement on your team.  Here’s a model that has proven to work for many sales leaders:

  • Learning – The leader is Teaching, which requires the most time
  • Developing – The leader is Coaching, which requires significant time
  • Performing – The leader is Monitoring, which requires less time
  • Mastery – The leader is Supporting, which requires the least time. This is all about elevating the game of the superstar, just like a pro golfer’s swing coach

Don’t just tell, but show

Keep in mind, there’s a difference between teaching and coaching, just like there’s a difference between telling a roomful of people how to perform a task and actually showing an individual how to do it. As we all know, when you show an individual how to do something, you can take into account his or her past experiences, personal style, and way of thinking.

Figure 2. Sales Leadership Leverage

Figure 2. Sales Leadership Leverage

Not unlike trees in a grove, each sales rep on a team requires a different level of nurturing. This practical coaching model will help organizations focus on proper diagnosis and effective time management for coaching.  The key is side-by-side coaching while the reps are engaged with the right clients and prospects.  Car time, phone time, and meeting time can be productive, but effective sales coaching requires the leader to see the reps in action frequently.  By using this model, leaders can tailor their approach to the learning level of each sales rep and achieve the flexibility required for success.

Download This Point of View Whitepaper in PDF Form: Symmetrics Group Point of View – Field Coaching Fundamentals – Final

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