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Coaching for Sales Teams: Less Superman, More Clark Kent

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You know the picture … mild-mannered sales manager has one-on-one meeting with ordinary sales citizen, they discuss an issue, and WHAM, the sales manager makes a beeline to the phone booth (yes, they still exist) and out comes Superman or Wonder Woman, complete with red cape.

Faster than a speeding sales cycle, more powerful than a strong quarter, and able to leap tall pipelines in a single bound. In their rush to rescue Metropolis, however, they may not realize that this method of coaching for sales teams is the kryptonite to their team’s performance.

Here are some observations from my experience as a sales leader and from coaching sales teams and leaders:

  • Salespeople come to us with a wide range of skills and talent. They know at least one thing far better than we do: themselves.
  • Sales managers often come to the position based on their success as salespeople. They take pride in how they used to help clients. Now, in a management role, they want to help their team by bringing their experience and insights.
  • How managers “help” salespeople often creates unintended consequences:

- Being the superhero problem solver is not scalable and leads to burnout.

- Solving the problem, while expedient, makes your team dependent (rather than independent), stunts their results and professional growth, and slows down the sales process.

- Asking rather than telling takes patience and restraint — not natural strengths for most sales leaders.

Effective sales managers realize that coaching for sales teams requires processes and skills that may be a departure from those they used in a selling role. While we work through this in great detail during Richardson Sales Performance Coachingworkshops, here are some key reminders.

The Three Most Powerful Words in Coaching For Sales Teams

The words “what,” “why,” and “how” — in that order — are far more powerful tools in coaching sales teams than are speed, strength, and leaping ability. Let’s look at how each prompts an important question in an effective sales coaching dialogue:

  • What: What happened on that sales call?  What’s happening with this opportunity?  What’s going on with this client? The “what” question leads, or forces in some cases, self-reflection by the salesperson. For the coach, it provides a data point on the salesperson’s level of awareness.
  • Why: Why did that meeting end abruptly?  Why is this opportunity advancing so quickly?  Why has the client gone radio silent?  The “why” question guides the salesperson to identify the trigger that is causing the current state. As above, asking rather than telling provokes self-discovery and makes the salesperson accountable for discovery.
  • How: How would you change that next time?  How could you replicate this with other opportunities?  How can you change the client’s lack of response?  The “how” question puts the salesperson in the driver’s seat with regard to his or her own development. And working with the ideas they generate increases ownership and commitment to follow through. The sales manager monitors and watches how the plan plays out and is able to move on to other things.

Two New Qualities to Harness in Coaching For Sales Teams

Patience and restraint are not qualities we seek in our sales leaders; in fact, we want the opposite. A sense of urgency and willingness to jump in quickly can be invaluable when, for example, setting strategy for a struggling business unit and when providing leadership to a team going through industry or organizational change. When coaching sales teams, however, we need to be able to find and draw on these qualities: patience, to allow for the self-discovery of issues, causes, and solutions, and restraint, to hold ourselves back from putting on the superhero cape and solving the problem, missing the opportunity to build the salesperson’s independence and investment in change.

Even the least super of superheroes among us have been able to find within them and tap these qualities using eight simple tips:

  1. Set a clear objective for each sales coaching session, focusing on outcomes that will gain the change you need to accomplish your goals.
  2. Prepare for sales coaching sessions, especially those “what,” “why,” and “how” questions that will guide the salesperson through a self-discovery process.
  3. Provide a safe environment, encouraging honesty and reflection without judging or looking for “right” answers.
  4. Listen more, talk less. One of the executives I coach writes two simple words on his notepad as a sales coaching reminder: “Shut up!”
  5. Be more curious about each salesperson on your team, and have the courage to ask “why?” in response to their comment.
  6. Acknowledge that moving a salesperson out of a comfortable performance pattern will be, by definition, uncomfortable. Expect him or her to struggle. Use silence when needed, and provide support, when appropriate.
  7. See how sales coaching benefits your team, including greater empowerment, independence, excitement, and vision to get to a higher performance level.
  8. See what you gain by coaching your sales team, including increased skill level and performance from your team and more time for you to focus on higher-value activities.
Coaching for sales teams is one of the key performance drivers you control as a manager. Leveraging it requires a process and some qualities you may not have needed to succeed in the past. So, the next time you hear the cry for help from somewhere in Metropolis, hold off putting on the red cape and remind yourself that the ordinary citizen may just be smart enough to save him or herself — and, in the process, free up Superman or Wonder Woman to tackle more important issues facing the great city.

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