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Earlier this year the Sales Management Association conducted research on sales coaching. One of the more interesting findings they identified was regarding what topics are likely to get discussed during a sales coaching conversation.
Of the 12 different topics listed, “identifying skill deficiencies” was ranked way down at #11 on the list! It fell well behind topics liked “advancing a sales opportunity” and “crafting proposals” and even below the 10th-ranked item, “instruction on administrative processes.” So sales managers spend more time making sure their people know how to fill out an expense reimbursement form than improving their sales skills!
This research proves to me that many sales managers think they’re having coaching conversations with salespeople – but they’re not. They equate helping a rep “advance a sales opportunity” and “craft a proposal” with “identifying skill deficiencies.” Bunk! Both of these tasks typically happen late in the sales cycle. The size of a deal is largely determined early in an opportunity, when a rep is working to define customer needs and requirements and identify additional decision makers. So the skill deficiencies that will have the biggest impact on a rep’s success are needed long before they are crafting a proposal.
If we sales managers are not focused on proactively identifying skill deficiencies in our people then how can we be coaching our people effectively? Conversations about late-sales-cycle topics, such as sales opportunities and proposals, may be helpful, but they can’t do what coaching is really supposed to do—transport salespeople from where they are to where they want to be… so they can increase their sales.
Sales coaching ought to be a daily commitment that sales managers make to developing salespeople into peak performers. Here are five things that highly effective sales coaches do:
1. Help salespeople to discover their own answers.
You’ve no doubt heard the catch phrase, “Telling is not selling.” Well, coaching is not telling either. An effective sales coach helps a rep recognize their current knowledge and skill level in a specific area and identify the gaps they need to fill and what needs to improve.
2. Deliver coaching in a timely manner.
“Timely” coaching means as close as possible to the actual action (or lack of action). That means a sales manager has to be in a position to observe their salespeople selling. Otherwise, everything the manager learns will be too late and likely second hand.
3. Get buy-in on why a skill or strategy is so important.
When you deliver coaching in a more timely manner, the consequences of a salesperson’s mistakes have often not yet become apparent the sales rep. It’s important for the coach to make those connections clear. Ask questions such as, “I noticed that you didn’t ask about the prospect’s decision criteria, but you went ahead and scheduled your demonstration for next week. How do you plan to organize your presentation to meet their needs?”
4. Let the salesperson finish talking!
Let’s face it, we sales managers are direct and to the point. But sometimes we can be too direct. The salesperson hasn’t even completed their comment or observation and we cut them off, summarize in our own words to reach a conclusion quickly.
You’ve got to “inspect what you expect.” Follow-up breeds accountability in your team. It sends the message to your people that you want them to actually implement the results of your coaching conversation, and make the changes that the two of you have agreed on. A sales manager who has a coaching conversation and then does not follow-up sends a message to the salesperson that the coaching conversation really wasn’t all that important to the manager.
Perhaps it’s just a pipe dream of mine but I hope that “identifying skill deficiencies” will be near the top of the list of priorities in terms of how you spend your time with your salespeople. That’s the way to truly help your team improve over the long haul and not just solve short-term problems.