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6 Barriers to Successful Sales Coaching

barriers to sales coaching


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If the path to sales success runs through the team and coaching is so critical, then why is it so hard to build a sustained coaching culture?

In our work with thousands of front-line sales managers, we have heard every reason — not enough time, too many competing priorities, lack of trust in the team, etc.  And yet, when you peel those reasons away, the problem persists.

To truly build a sustained and high-performance coaching culture, one must first understand the true barriers that prevent success.

1. Sales Managers Often Can’t See the Forrest for the Trees

Leading a sales team is about balancing the long- and short-terms priorities to set the team up for sustained success.  A sales manager needs a team of sellers who are accountable, engaged, and independent; and yet, building that kind of team means taking a strategic approach to high performance.

Most sales managers are primarily focused on numbers and often fall back to tactics and behaviours that might save the month but will prevent long-term, sustained growth.  Focusing on learning and accelerating change through coaching will drive success, but it requires focus and discipline, which get tested and compromised under intense pressure.

Many managers think they are effectively coaching when in fact, they are not — they are directing, telling, and often doing the work themselves.  Approaches to “coaching” fall on a continuum from directive coaching, where the coach serves as an expert, telling the team member what the problem is and what to do to fix it, to developmental sales coaching, where the coach serves as a resource and asks questions to help the team member self-discover and decide on the best action.

The problem with telling and fixing is:

  • It doesn’t create buy-in for the solution.
  • It takes ownership and accountability away from the team member and places it on the manager.
  • It assumes that the manager knows what is best, which may or may not be the case.
  • It doesn’t give the manager insight into the team member’s thinking, which is needed to appropriately offer guidance and insight.
  • It can make the team member feel disrespected, which erodes trust.
  • It can put the team member on the defencive.
  • It doesn’t help the team member to learn how to better problem solve for himself.
  • It creates dependence on the manager rather than accelerating learning around how to independently prevent or fix issues in the future.
  • It helps to solve an immediate problem, but doesn’t build the team member’s competence to become more independent in the long-run.
The manager gets stuck in a vicious cycle of doing the problem solving and fixing for the team member in order to achieve the numbers, rather than focusing on accelerating learning and affecting behaviour change.  Without a change in team member behaviour, there typically is little to no lift in results for the whole team.

2. The Propensity to “Tell”

Sales managers are used to telling, and the propensity to tell is very strong because:

  1. Having the right answer makes them feel like the hero, and naturally, being a hero feels good.
  2. It can seem quicker and easier to tell someone what to do rather than to collaboratively assess and help someone self-discover.
To be motivated to change their behaviour, many managers must recognise that telling does not change behaviour or help people become more self-reliant.

Another important reason sales managers “tell” is the false belief that they must have all the answers.  This occurrence is especially true for new managers or managers who are managing sellers who were peers.  They rely on being the “fixer” to build credibility and strengthen their relationships with their teams.  In truth, not only do managers not have to have the answers, the best ones rarely do!  The best managers see it as their job to elicit and collaborate on answers.  Their confidence is rooted in their approach versus someone who tells because of self-doubt.

Finally, even the best sales managers can fall victim to sellers on their teams who consciously or unconsciously encourage “telling.”  In some cases, they are pressure testing a new manager, and in other cases, they are very adeptly transferring ownership of the issue to the manager rather than taking ownership and accountability for it themselves.  Team members who lack confidence often crave the reassurance provided by the manager doing the fixing, which enables their being more dependant versus self-reliant.

3. Natural Defenciveness

Most people don’t look forward to receiving negative feedback, and many people feel awkward giving it.  Part of the challenge is the lack of skill in providing effective feedback and a lack of positive experiences in receiving feedback.  Few of us can say that we have had exceptional coaches whose feedback we received openly.

The other part of the challenge can be found in brain science.  Because our brains see criticism as a threat to our safety and survival, receiving feedback has both a physical and mental effect on us.  Our heart begins pounding faster, and our throat becomes dry.  Emotionally, we may begin to feel nervous, fearful, and defencive.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress that we feel when faced with information that conflicts with what we believe.  Receiving “constructive” criticism can trigger cognitive dissonance.  The natural reaction is to relieve the stress by defending our point of view or blaming the person giving feedback.

Negativity bias explains why unpleasant remarks and experiences stick with us much more than nice ones.  Our brains process bad information more thoroughly than positive information.  Over time, we build up a propensity to think the worst, which can put us on the defencive.

It’s no wonder we struggle to give and receive feedback.  But feedback is an integral part of growth and the learning process.  We all have blind spots and can benefit from an outside perspective to make adjustments and remove obstacles.

4. Don’t Know What Great Coaching Looks Like

It is tough to do something when you have never seen it done well.  It’s even harder to do something well when we don’t understand it or when we have a false understanding of what good looks like. Given that we have the natural propensity to tell and make short-term decisions based on revenue pressures, it’s no wonder that there aren’t a lot of truly great coaches running around.  And because most managers have never seen coaching done well — many believe that they are actually practicing effective coaching — to them, fixing issues, answering questions, and giving advice is coaching.

5. Lack of Precision

There is no doubt that giving a piece of constructive feedback is challenging.  Like any good diagnosis and prescription, the more specificity, the better.  Yet, many managers are too vague or generic in their feedback.  Perhaps they don’t want to damage the relationship, or they fear the reaction, or maybe they are just looking to wrap up quickly.  Have you ever given, or received, feedback that sounds like this:  “Next time, you need to be more prepared.”?  That feedback lacks the clarity and specificity of exactly what the receiver should do differently the next time.  Missing the opportunity to give precise feedback is like dropping the ball right before the goal.

6. The Struggle for Authenticity

Many managers say they struggle to feel authentic when entering into coaching conversations.  It is indeed hard to balance being a coach and ally while holding someone accountable for change and growth.  Yet, it is actually authenticity and trust that preserve a relationship when there is conflict.  In the long term, when we see our manager as someone who is direct, honest, fair, balanced, and specific, while maintaining a collaborative tone, we begin to trust.  And when we trust, we become more open and more willing to not only try new things but also become more independent.

A Different Approach

Making the transition to more effective coaching typically involves changing the conversation.  It’s not about having more conversations.  It’s about changing the dynamics of the conversation from telling and directing to collaborative problem solving, where you help team members self-assess and self-discover ways to leverage strengths and improve performance.

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