Sales Coaching: To Bear Fruit, Get Back to the Basics

If you’re like most sales professionals, 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 to where it requires a brand new perspective every cycle?

We think not. In fact, we’ve come to see successful sales coaching as more incremental than all encompassing. 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 pay close attention to 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?

Part one of this POV tackles the basics of sales coaching – the traits of great coaches, coaching to the bell curve, and managing sales reports. In parts two and three we’ll explore:

  • Field coaching fundamentals and cadence; and
  • Behavior based coaching and HBDI (Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument)

The Traits Of Great 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.

How do we elevate leaders with the intention of elevating sales performance and sales results?  Let’s start here:  If you ask sales pros one simple question, you can gain some powerful data to explore the mystery of coaching:

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

Fair, inspired me to achieve, communicated openly and honestly, told me where I stood, let me do what I needed to do, was always there when I needed him/her, could still sell when he/she had to, demanded excellence, was fun to work with/for, listened to me and was very flexible.

We have asked that question hundreds of times and we always get the same answers, regardless of the industry or the level of the sales reps or leaders experience.

Over the years, we’ve also had the opportunity to ask hundreds of sales pros another simple question:

“What are some of the traits you don’t like about certain leaders/coaches?” Again, we hear the same answer:

He/she micro-managed me, but wasn’t there when I needed help!

Which of these camps do you fall into? 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

First, whom should we coach?  Where should we spend our time? Here is what we usually see in the field.  99% of all organizations that employ sales reps see three distinct groups:

  • 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 becomes the sales super-hero.

The bottom 10% moves 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% needs 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 some “peer coaching” from the top 10% 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.
  • Hold some conference calls with a few key middle 80% representatives. Teach some fundamental skills you feel they need to know.  Highlight field observations in a positive manner and then educate a bit on critical skills.  They will ask good questions and they can bounce experiences off one another since they are mostly at the same place on the development curve.
  • Publically celebrate victories from folks in the group.  E-mail, v-mail, and meetings should emphasize individuals from this group getting better and driving numbers.  If possible, consider letting a top 10% rep give them an award or recognition.

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. “You did great! Keep it up!” is not what this group wants to hear from the 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 is a data point that can be part of your regular cadence and field coaching.  Try not to over-react to minor changes.

In the next POV, 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!

Download This Point of View Whitepaper in PDF Form: Symmetrics Group Point of View – Sales Coaching – Back to Basics

Share this
Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Share on FacebookPrint this page

2 thoughts on “Sales Coaching: To Bear Fruit, Get Back to the Basics

  1. Pingback: Field Coaching Fundamentals - Symmetrics GroupSymmetrics Group

  2. Pingback: Personalized Sales Coaching - Symmetrics GroupSymmetrics Group

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *