Please note: this article first appeared in Harvard Business Review, here.
Summary: Coaching sales reps is about clarifying relevant behaviors and whether the issue is motivation or ability. Some reps may work hard, but lack certain capabilities while others demonstrate capability but seemingly lack motivation or effort. Good coaching helps to clarify the issues, and lets both manager and rep then concentrate on behaviors that can be improved. The author offers advice on coaching through three common situations across a typical sales cycle (prospecting, from contact to trial, and closing the sale) and encourages managers to set reps up for success by providing efficient access to peers via new technologies and development tools.
Most sales managers overestimate the time they think they spend coaching their employees. Even when they do make time, their conversations are typically limited to discussing results and pending deals. But that’s not good coaching. Since performance issues differ by rep and sales task, a one-size-fits-all approach or a focus only on a lagging indicator like outcomes can be counter-productive. And overly general feedback and unfocused judgments about performance increase resistance rather than openness to change.
Coaching is about clarifying relevant behaviors and whether the issue is motivation or ability. Some reps may work hard, but lack certain capabilities. Can coaching enhance those skills? Others demonstrate capability but seemingly lack motivation or effort. Are their abilities better utilized in a different role, or can an incentive increase smart effort in their current role?
Good coaching helps to clarify the issues and lets both manager and rep then concentrate on behaviors that can be improved.
Consider three common situations across a typical sales cycle.
In most organizations, there is a high correlation between the number of calls a rep makes and sales results — persistence matters.
Consider the rep with contacts significantly fewer than others. A common cause is spending too much time on unqualified opportunities. Coaching here can focus on better customer selection criteria.
Other behaviors that dilute prospecting are time management issues, especially in call-intensive inside sales models. Coaching should then focus on setting a cadence of calls and metrics that can be monitored weekly or monthly.
Finally, many reps are reluctant to make cold calls or, in inside sales models, they abandon contact attempts prematurely — e.g., after 3 or 4 attempts when it typically takes 6 or more calls to reach prospects who have indicated potential interest by going to the web site and providing the requested information. Here, coaching needs to make clear the realities of customer contact in the market and confront a tough judgment: Is this rep a good fit for this sales model?
From Contact to Trial
Now consider a rep with many contacts but low conversion rate from contact and demo to interest and trial. Here, the issue is not effort; rather, the rep may not be building trust and credibility on the initial contact and during the demo. Coaching might involve having this rep observe others with high conversion rates.
It’s also possible that the rep isn’t be conducting discovery calls in sufficient depth. In this case, the manager can coach the rep on questioning techniques with prospects.
In turn, contact and discovery-call deficiencies might result in poor selection criteria and a downward spiral in sales performance. This rep may be doing too many demos with poorly qualified prospects and, as a result, the time spent there leaves less time for in-depth discovery calls, and so on.
Issues in customer conversion are typically intertwined, and coaching is about breaking this Gordian knot with behaviorally-appropriate advice for that individual.
Closing the Sale
A third rep has a common problem: His behaviors and numbers are exemplary at each stage except the crucial one — closing the sale. Poor close rates often involve a failure to develop the right sense of purchase urgency. Coaching for this rep should focus on articulating the total value proposition and how various product features translate into customer ROI.
Often, the root causes of closing issues can be found earlier in the selling cycle. This rep might not have gotten beyond surface needs in discovery calls and therefore in the proposals sent to prospects. Coaching can help the rep conduct appropriate follow-up with prospects.
A third cause, on the other hand, is that the rep might be doing all the right things but with the wrong person — someone who lacks a budget and purchase authority. Coaching should focus on how to get the right people at prospects to attend demos and provide input for proposals.
A Culture of Coaching
Beyond individual coaching, managers can take a more hands-off approach and set reps up for success by providing efficient access to peers via new technologies and development tools. Reps get better by watching how the best of their peers perform key tasks — they pick up lessons about how to pitch, answer objections, and other aspects of selling that product at that price in that market. The impact of peer learning is consistently reflected in sales research. Almost 3 out of 5 (56%) reps say they go to peers and their network to improve their skills — a percentage much higher than any other source.
At SAP, new reps record and share videos of themselves delivering product pitches, view videos of pitches by experienced high-performing reps, and get video feedback from those reps about how to handle specific situations. Once in the field, this gives reps preparing to meet a prospect easy access to other reps’ advice and behavioral examples. Similarly, firms like Allego, DocSend, Showpad, and others provide technology that facilitates video learning, chatbot examples, and the ability to broaden and scale just-in-time coaching. These technologies help combat the “forgetting curve” — a perennial, and growing, challenge as buying journeys become a more complex mix of on and offline interactions.
In a world that never stops changing, companies typically stress reorganizations, cultural change, and superior “leadership” capabilities. But whatever else you do, focus on where value is created or destroyed — in the marketplace with customers — and then upgrade your sales coaching and performance management practices to reflect key value-creating tasks and behaviors.
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