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Making Sales Coaching Visible, Practical, and Accountable

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According to Aberdeen Research, coached teams achieve 15% higher lead conversion rates and 14% shorter sales cycles than teams that are not coached (Aberdeen, 2014) … but we don’t really need research to justify coaching — it’s intuitive to anyone in sales.

With almost universal acknowledgment and such obvious benefits, one would think that sales coaching would be a science by now. Unfortunately for our sellers, it is not. The typical sales organization struggles mightily to build a consistent and effective sales coaching program. When coaching fails, we tend to throw front line sales managers under the bus, but in our experience, the problem is broader and so is the solution. There are three typical reasons for failed sales coaching programs:

  1. Lack of visibility at the top
  2. Lack of practical processes and tools in the middle
  3. Lack of accountability on the front lines.
The key to building a successful coaching program is to address all three levels simultaneously.

Signs of a Poor Sales Coaching Program

The tell-tale sign of a poor coaching program is a sales leader who has no idea when, where, or even if coaching is taking place in his/her organization. Visibility is essential to execution, not only because it fosters accountability, but because execution needs direction, and direction is only possible when leaders have insight into the behaviors of their teams. Ultimately, good coaching programs require sales leaders who not only understand the KPIs they are trying to move, but also have visibility into the behaviors that move them.

When performance falters, front line sales managers make the easiest targets — after all, it’s their responsibility to develop their teams and ensure that sellers deliver on revenue expectations. When it comes to coaching, however, most sales managers are set up to fail because we typically give them neither the know-how nor the tools to succeed. Front line managers probably have the toughest jobs in the company; we expect them to carry quota, pitch deals, and manage accounts. Then we pile on forecasting, compensation, territory management, and endless reporting. It’s no wonder coaching falls by the wayside. Since we can’t create more hours in a day, we need to help our sales managers make the most of the time they have by giving them practical tools and techniques for coaching.

Even with perfect information for leaders and practical methods for managers, there is no guarantee that sellers will respond. To actually change selling behaviors, coaching programs need to engage and challenge sellers in ways that require commitment and encourage participation. Sellers need to be crystal clear on what behaviors need to change and what good selling behaviors look like. Most importantly, however, they need to see and believe that coaching is about development and not about criticism. This means coaching needs to be objective and feedback needs to provide clear, actionable direction.

How to Develop an Effective Sales Coaching Process

It is just not possible to develop skills and change sales behaviors without engaging all levels of the sales organization. To make that happen, we need transparency into where coaching takes place, how behaviors are changing across the organization, and to what extent business outcomes are being impacted. We need to rescue our sales managers by arming them with practical coaching methods that remove subjectivity and inspire sellers to improve.

(1) Use Technology to Make Your Sales Performance and Sales Coaching Process Visible at all Levels of the Organization

Any sales performance management solution that needs to provide visibility and measurement across an extended organization is likely to involve technology; sales coaching is no exception. Coaching is an endless process with a very specific cadence of activities and outcomes, and because it touches every seller and every manager, we need a practical way to organize ourselves and keep track of it all. There are several good technology solutions on the market that can get the job done (see Richardson Sales Performance’s Coaching Cloud). The key is to find technology that places behavior change at the center and works outward from there. Our inputs need to include the specific behaviors we are trying to change and how those behaviors look when done well. Defining is not enough — we need ways to baseline and measure behaviors so that we can quantify the impact of coaching and correlate behavior change to changes in our KPIs. Technology gives us the mechanisms to bridge activities to outcomes so that sales leaders and managers know where coaching is taking place, whose behaviors are changing (and whose are not), and how behavior changes metrics are correlating to activity, pipeline, and revenue KPIs.

(2) Establish Practical and Continuous Coaching Methods

As we mentioned earlier, coaching never stops. It’s a continuous process that involves field observation, structured feedback, and commitment to change from sellers. It’s essential that these processes reflect the practical reality in which our sales managers live. Efficient observation practices target very specific behaviors and remove subjectivity. Nothing kills motivation or time faster than a disputable observation. For this reason, we should avoid using scales when assessing behaviors and stick to binary outcomes — either the behavior was demonstrated or it was not. Discrete observations make the process much more practical for coaches, allowing them to focus on execution and not taxing them with proficiency levels and forcing them to justify their score. It is equally important that the feedback process is efficient and, once again, technology can help. Analytics through a coaching platform can provide direction back to managers, detailing which behaviors are improving and which behaviors require more of their attention. They also help managers separate systemic problems from individual deficiencies. For instance, if every seller on the team is struggling to position our solutions, we may need to look at our product training to understand why the team is having trouble aligning benefits with needs. Sharing individual measures with sellers during feedback is another best practice activity. Sellers value credible data over opinion during feedback, and they are much more receptive to coaching if we can show them, very specifically, what they are doing well and where they need to focus.

(3) Capture and Track Commitments

In the end, a seller’s behavior will change because he/she is personally committed to improvement. Just as our coaching practices should reflect our commitment to our sellers through fair and constructive feedback, our methodology should also support our expectations of our sellers. During every coaching interaction, we should expect our sellers to make a commitment to change for the coming weeks. Those commitments should be documented in the coaching platform and should be compared against our observations to ensure that progress is being made. When behavior measures do not support improvement, we should be quick to refocus sellers’ attention on their commitments and increase our observation cadence. Sellers need to understand that a commitment to change is not a statement, it’s an action they need to rehearse before every sales interaction.

The bad news is that coaching is difficult and needs a comprehensive approach. The good news is that it’s worth the effort. The key is to take time on the front end to put the pieces in place at all levels of the sales organization. Technology is essential because it helps managers track the many activities required for effective coaching, and it provides the analytics needed for visibility and focus. When we combine good coaching methodology with a strong organizational commitment to change, sales improvement will follow.

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