Creating a Culture for Sales Coaching
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Effective Sales Coaching Hits the Bottom Line!
Research shows that salespeople receiving great sales coaching reach on average 102% of goal, in contrast to salespeople reporting poor coaching who achieve only 83% of goal. All of the training in the world cannot “fix” the larger issue at stake for most organizations— that there is simply little to no reinforcement of that training through effective, ongoing sales coaching. And what is sales coaching after all? In most companies today, it is a dirty word because of several myths that have grown over time.
Myth 1: You only get coached when you have done something wrong.
Technically, this is not really a myth because that is exactly what happens in most organizations today. It takes on myth status because managers have ultimately believed this to be true, while nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, coaching opportunities exist when things go wrong—but they also exist when things go right. In fact, the more coaching you do when things go right, the more “right” things will happen. Nothing breeds success like success. Even if things did not turn out exactly the right way, the fact that an employee or a sales agent tried something new or attempted to make a change should not go unrecognized.
Myth 2: Sales Coaching takes too much time.
Most managers spend hours on one sales coaching session, trying to get the employee to change 6 or 7 seven things and bombarding the agent or employee with tons of information. Truly developmental coaching, which focuses on one (maybe two) key things to change, can be done highly effectively in as little as 20 minutes or less. Praise alone can be done in a minute or two. Given the fact that most people can only change one thing at a time AND they have limited attention spans, one has to wonder what managers hope to accomplish with their current sales coaching marathons.
Myth 3: People don’t like being coached.
Well, that is true if done in its current format. However, try to find one professional athlete that is not paying someone big bucks to be their personal coach? Athletes have figured out the power and benefits of having someone give them constant feedback and do not balk at investing the time and money for it. And what about all of the “Life Coaches” that are making careers out of helping people plan their lives? There is a gigantic need for this, only not in corporate America it seems. If we are to believe this myth, we have to assume that no one in an organization appreciates or wants good, honest feedback that will help them improve their performance. In reality, we know just the opposite to be true. What is coaching then? In its purest sense, it is the opportunity to share feedback with someone on their performance—what is working, what’s not—and to put together a plan of action for taking that performance to a higher level. And as we all know, corporate goals don’t go down every year which simply requires us to try to produce higher results this year with last year’s skills. Einstein was on to something—doing the same old thing the same old way but expecting different results just does not work.
So, why coach in an environment that does not do it, much less understand it? Because it makes good business sense. Because skill development just does not simply happen. Because stellar organizations have realized that investing in their people is the best investment of all. And we are not just talking monetary compensation here—we are talking about true developmental investment in people. There are basically three key reasons to coach: To accelerate learning, to effect behavioral change, and to improve results. Out of these three, which do most managers focus on? The last one, of course, because it addresses the metrics that most businesses thrive on. Big mistake. Numbers do not change themselves and by focusing on the metrics, typical coaching conversations sound like this: “You need to get your numbers up so I advise you to start focusing on that.” Find me one salesperson who does not know what the numbers are. That is not the issue—the issue is “what is preventing that salesperson from making the numbers?” So while improving results is important, it will not happen until the first two reasons are addressed. If you can accelerate a person’s learning curve, get them up to speed quicker and learning more efficiently, that is step one. If you can get them trying on new hats, experimenting with new ways of doing things, you can start to change their behavior. Be careful though, you want to change their behavior permanently, not just while you are watching them. If everything else around you is changing, your behaviors will too. And if your learning has been accelerated, and your behavior has changed, it is only natural that results will be improved upon. It rarely happens in reverse.
How Do You Create a Sales Coaching Culture?
First of all, recognize that this does not happen overnight. It takes time to build a culture, especially is the existing culture is viewed negatively or if various attempts have been made at building the culture but have never been followed through on. It is much easier if no culture exists at all. Having said that, it can be done, and the foundation can be laid in as little as 30 days. Consider the following criteria:
a) Coaching has to start at the top. If senior management is not coaching middle management, why should middle management coach lower management, etc? Is there a company sales vision? Is there a coaching vision (or a vision on people development) within the organization? Without these things, the road to building a coaching culture just got significantly steeper. There must be a “Do As I Do” environment or failure is bound to happen.
b) How much time is the company committed to doing coaching? Most managers will tell you that they spend less than 10% of their time developing people, when the numbers should be closer to 80%. We are not talking about dealing with problem people or those disciplinary action situations. We are talking development here, not performance evaluation. Know the difference and commit the right amounts of time to it.
c) You don’t have to spend equal amounts of time with each agent or employee. Your top performers do not need a ton of coaching, but dedicating 10% of your coaching time to these people not only gives the recognition they deserve, it also allows you to continuously challenge them to get to higher and higher levels. These people, with a little coaching from management, can get to their next levels quickly and easily. Invest in them—just be sure you do not reward good work with more work! Your low performers may or may not be coachable. If there are severe performance issues, get to Human Resources immediately and start figuring out what needs to be done. The danger in timing is that most managers try to “save the unsaveable” while they should be spending time on their middle performers. Middle performers need the most developmental coaching because there is the greatest room for growth here. Left to their own devices, their productivity and performance can slip and you want to ensure that they are on the path to exceeding performance. Up to 80% of your overall coaching efforts should be spent here.
d) Be hard on the issue, not the person. Let this be your coaching mantra, for when it comes to giving feedback, it the “how” feedback is given that often overrules “what” feedback is actually being passed on. If the agent or employee is not open to the feedback or gets defensive about the feedback, no learning will occur and current behaviors will be reinforced, not changed. Consider the fact that the agent or employee is not a bad person because he/she is not asking enough questions of customers— he/she simply needs to build skill in asking more and better questions to help gain a deeper understanding of a customer’s true needs. Saying “You need to get better at asking questions because if you ask more questions you’ll be a better salesperson” comes across as confrontational and demeaning. Instead, be hard on the issue by saying “Asking better questions is one way to gather in-depth information on your customers. Let’s figure out where your questioning efforts are working for you and what is getting in the way.” This mantra is simple in theory, but extremely challenging in execution. It takes lots of practice, so start practicing NOW.
e) Schedule time to coach. Carve out portions of each day where nothing else gets done but coaching. Make it sacred time and do not allow unimportant distractions to get in the way. You can start small, maybe 30 minutes a day, every day for the first week or two. Then an hour a day for the next two weeks, and so on. Managers who start to see progress and improvement find additional pockets of time to keep doing this because it makes a difference. Before you know it, you will be dedicating more and more time to coaching and less and less time to putting out everyone else’s fires. They can know handle that for themselves.
f) Let the agent or employee do the talking and the thinking. The biggest mistake that managers make is that they do all of the talking during a coaching session and not enough asking or listening. The fact is, the coach understands what is going on and has ideas on how to fix it. The problem is that it is not the Coach’s issue, but the agent or employees. Therefore, they need to understand what is going on and how to fix it for him/herself. By asking more and better questions, the manager is guaranteed a deeper understanding of what and how they think. By having them come up with ways to fix the situation, they own the problem and the resolution, not the manager. While it is quick and efficient for the manager to do all of the work, the only person whose behavior actually changes is the managers, not the agent or employee’s. It is time to reverse behaviors here—just know it will take lots of practice and lots of patience on the part of the manager.
g) Teach people to self-coach. In a true coaching culture, you not only coach downward, but upward and sideways as well. In fact, getting people to self-coach is the ultimate reward here. It will empower people to work on their own development and save the manager coaching time down the road—a win for everybody. Three simple questions will do the trick: What did I do well? What could I do differently? and Where can I go to learn more? By teaching your agents and employees to ask themselves these three questions after particularly good situations or particularly bad situations, they will be carving out key reflection time for themselves. They will also start to formulate or build on their own action plans for their professional development.
What is the Bottom Line?
Creating the right culture, especially one on one coaching, does not happen by chance. It starts with a vision and a deep commitment to developing people. It also needs a framework to ensure consistency of effort, plus a core set of skills that allows managers to role model what needs to be done at all levels. Finally, it requires a genuine concern for helping people succeed and for recognizing progress, no matter how small. People are starving for good, honest feedback—it is management’s job to find the most effective way to deliver it.
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