The Hard Truths About Sales Coaching

by Chris Horn

Ask a frontline sales manager to list his or her most important tasks and with near-certainty ‘being a great coach’ will feature prominently. In itself, this point is hardly illuminating; hundreds of studies have shown coaching increases performance, lifts motivation and engagement, lowers flight risk and ultimately leads to greater revenue and profit.

While the importance of coaching is well understood, developing and maintaining the performance of frontline salespeople remains elusive for most sales organisations - across our database only two-out-of-five salespeople hit target between 2013-2015. Given coaching is such an important way to create and nurture talent, yet performance remains so unreliable, a key question for sales organisations is clearly - what is really going on with sales coaching?

Are Sales Managers Coaching?

In the hundreds of companies we have benchmarked, managers certainly say they are; nine-out-of-ten sales managers state that they coach everyone in their team at least once a month. The average estimate is 2.1 hours per person per week.

At face value such a result should be encouraging, however the high confidence of managers does not align with the frontline’s much-lower perception of sales coaching, nor does it sit well with the generally low, volatile performance of salespeople.

Digging deeper into the data reveals some startling facts:

A Simple, Yet Not-So-Simple Opportunity

The key takeaway for sales leaders is to not assume your sales managers are coaching. The data suggests many managers are either not coaching, or have devolved to a ‘low priority, when-possible’ mindset. It therefore comes as no surprise that satisfaction with 1:1 coaching is low; only 40% of reps report that the coaching they receive is ‘highly effective’ with 25% saying it is ‘ineffective’.

How then can a sales organisation address the situation? We believe there are five key steps to increasing coaching provision:

  • Increase expectations and accountability of managers to coach. Mentoring, coaching and supporting frontline salespeople should be the core domain of sales managers. Managers must be made accountable (and rewarded) for providing high-quality coaching, otherwise they will gravitate to other tasks.
  • Formalise coaching within the organisation’s operating rhythm. Make coaching obligatory and require managers to put aside time in their schedules to coach, effectively setting in stone when they are meant to be coaching. Combining the expectation of more coaching with regular, mandatory time invested will transform the attitude and behaviour into a high-performance habit - managers will quickly get into the rhythm of coaching consistently.
  • Don’t stop with formalised coaching. Elevating coaching and building it into the day-to-day rhythm of a team is the start, but not the end of increasing coaching provision. Managers must be encouraged to take advantage of every opportunity to coach, particularly if people ask for more support. This type of opportunistic coaching needs to occur all the time - after sales calls, during informal catch-ups, via emails post an interaction with a client - whenever the opportunity arises. The expectation from the organisation to its sales managers has to be - “never miss a coaching opportunity”.
  • Coach everyone, not just people who are easy to coach. There is a prevailing argument that managers should be choosy about who they coach - only focusing on high performers or the mid-runner core - with the aim of optimising return-on-effort. This argument sounds compelling, but is often not a pragmatic solution. Firstly, it’s predicated on knowing who a high-performer is in advance. It’s very easy to say I will focus on Person A because she’s a ‘winner’, however often this insight will only be available after the fact. Significant value in undeveloped talent is put at risk by not coaching others who may very well succeed if coached more. Our benchmarking of the behaviours of successful salespeople have long proven that the skills and behaviours of high performers can be built - much of what they do can be replicated if the person is developed and supported by high-quality coaching. Furthermore, given managers typically have a team which is fixed for a period of time, giving up on team members and cutting and changing team composition frequently is too costly and disruptive. The more practical approach is to invest time and coach everyone.
  • Reconnect your sales managers with selling. Many sales managers were strong salespeople who were promoted for their success on the frontline. With that said, we find that when reps are asked to rate if their manager ‘knows how to sell’, the responses to this question are positive, but certainly not as resounding as you might expect. While at first this seems surprising it is representative of a key problem we see in many sales organisations; sales managers bear the brunt of organisational ‘squeeze’ and are buried in administration, meetings and complexity, resulting in reps not having regular exposure to the selling behaviours of their managers. A key opportunity is to scale back the admin and non-selling aspects of the sales manager role and get them back involved directly with the frontline. They will demonstrate effective selling behaviours, quickly spot improvement opportunities and their opportunities to coach will greatly increase.

In conclusion, sales organisations should not see increasing coaching as an insurmountable hurdle. Often, simple and logical changes to how coaching is valued and administered will have a profound impact on its provision to the frontline. The second step in improving coaching will be to go from lifting provision, to coaching well – an entirely different, much-harder, but more rewarding outcome.

For greater detail on how to achieve this, be sure to check out our whitepaper Unlocking Sales Manager Coaching Impact.

Or understand how Blackdot’s solutions help your sales organisation achieve an immediate uplift in frontline sales capability and performance