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Creating the Skill and the Will to Unlock Sales Manager Coaching Power

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Sales managers are the force multipliers of productivity and key players for supporting change in your frontline sales force. Research from the Corporate Executive Board indicates that when training is complemented by in-field coaching and reinforcement, productivity is quadrupled from 22% to 88%.

However, many sales managers are promoted based on their ability to sell, and the characteristics that contribute to a sales manager’s success as an individual contributor run counter to their role as a developer of others. Some sales managers lack coaching know-how and skill, while others don’t make time to coach.

So, how do you create both the skill and the will to unlock the power of coaching in your organization? From our perspective, it comes down to three factors:

  • Following a common sales management process
  • Developing strong sales coaching skills
  • Holding managers accountable for coaching

Following Common Sales Management Process

Many companies do not have a clue of how sales managers use their time and what they really need to do. Sales managers get very frustrated when everyone is throwing coaching training at them as a “magic bullet,” but they don’t coach because they can never find the time. A sales management process is a summary of the activities you need your sales managers to do, along with timing, frequency and expected outcomes that you can verify. It helps break this “chicken and egg” cycle of not coaching and having poor time management.

But, a sales management process is more than setting aside time for coaching — it gives your sales manager guidance for what they should be doing each day, week, month, quarter and year.

A sales management process should also clearly identify performance measures, best practices, quality criteria and verifiable outcomes. The process should not be overly rigid and should give you sales managers the latitude to use judgement and have flexibility with the sales reps and situations they face. We also find that some sales managers simply don’t know what questions to ask their sales reps beyond “how are you doing?” We help our clients create high-impact questions for key activities in their sales management process to get more and better information from their sales reps and inspect more consistently across their teams. This helps sales managers more precisely pinpoint where their sales reps need help, which ultimately saves time and improves coaching performance.

Developing Strong Sales Coaching Skills

Many organizations train their sales managers in coaching skills, but too often, we see this more as a training event rather than a commitment to a continuous improvement process. So, it is essential to have the right level of commitment and mindset before you even get started. Any learning will be accelerated by a great learning experience, mastering knowledge and accountability.

Organizational support is essential to kicking off a great learning experience, and the experience is bolstered by a well-designed program delivered by exceptional facilitators. To really understand how you want your sales reps to sell, your sales managers should go through the same training as your sales reps. Then, sales managers should go through a sales coaching program that is tailored to your sales management process and customized to reinforce the way you want your people to sell. Learning to coach to a process is much easier and real than learning a skill and not knowing when and how to use it. Time in the classroom is an opportunity for your sales managers to practice new skills in an engaging and supportive environment. Emphasize real-life scenarios and applications with lots of activity. Insist on a facilitator who has real-life experience managing sales teams — scars and all — and can relate to the challenges your people face each and every day.

The classroom is really the starting point of coaching skill development. The renowned psychologist Ebbinghaus estimated that 87% of learning is forgotten within 30 days. You need to address this reality head on and start the reinforcement process immediately to push your managers to master the knowledge they just gained. Managers need to know your sales management process, your coaching framework and your high-impact questions. This can be supported by job aids, but you want sales coaching to become second nature. The time to drive knowledge mastery is immediately after your sales managers go through coaching skills and sales management process training. Without mastery, sales managers will not benefit from the opportunities to coach in the moment when inspecting. Without high-impact questions, sales managers won't have consistent coaching criteria that is aligned to your sales process. Even with great coaching skill, they may end up missing an important aspect of the sales process to inspect and support.

We help our clients drive knowledge mastery through a process of spaced repetition, testing and gamification powered by our QuickCheck™ application. QuickCheck™ utilizes a learning algorithm developed and used at Harvard Medical School to help ER nurses and residents recall and apply best practices under high-stress situations. QuickCheck™ has proven to be a very popular and useful tool to remember what was learned in class. The process takes less than five minutes twice a week for about eight weeks. Your sales managers will receive an e-mail with a scenario on their mobile device or laptop, and they select the best response. It harnesses your sales managers’ competitive drive by using a “game” approach, with real-time tracking of results on leaderboards.

Holding Sales Managers Accountable for Coaching Well

Holding sales managers accountable for coaching well implies that you are holding them accountable for coaching in the first place and that you are motivating them to continuously improve their coaching skills. As with developing strong coaching skills, holding sales managers accountable for coaching is much easier if you follow a sales management process. If you set clear expectations and inspect, then there is a much better chance of sales managers following through on their coaching commitments.

One way to verify if they are coaching is to survey your sales reps. Ask your sales reps how much coaching they’ve received over a set period of time, the nature of the coaching interaction, and the effectiveness of the sales manager. Then, ask your sales manager the same questions. If there’s overwhelming evidence that coaching isn’t happening, isn’t effective or there’s a major difference in perception between the sales rep and the manager, this is a red flag to examine further.

It is also very helpful for your sales managers to meet on a periodic basis to share success stories, challenges and solutions. These are very busy people, but an hour a month can go a long way to building a coaching culture.

The bottom line is that your sales managers can play a pivotal role in your sales effectiveness initiatives. Consider your sales managers’ ability to reinforce the changes you expect in sales reps, and give them a path to succeed.

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