Whenever I ask sales managers to describe their approach to coaching their highest producers, they almost uniformly have the same answer: hands-off! They tell me: “I may get involved when a big deal is nearing to close, but otherwise if a peak producer is doing well, why would I want to mess with a good thing?”
And that, I tell them, is why their top salespeople don’t get better!
There’s no such thing as perfection in our profession any more than there is in any other profession. So I challenge sales managers this way: “Suppose,” I ask them, “you could get your top producers to do 10% or even 20% better? What kind of impact would that have on your results?” That often opens their minds to rethinking their hands-off approach.
I know the advice to coach high performers goes against the grain. Top producers often got into selling so they could have a lot of independence in how they work. They don’t usually seek help, especially if good results provide validation that they are doing things right. Their sales managers—always former top sales performers themselves—tacitly agree with that interpretation.
The underlying assumption here is that top performers are as good as they can get. But one thing we know about success is that it can blind us to opportunities to get even better. If a rep’s results look good, better than the rest of the team, they’re not going to start looking for mistakes they’re making.
I learned this lesson the hard way early on in my career. I’d been a top producer for several years, then one day realized that I just wasn’t getting the high-level appointments that I’d gotten in the past. So I went to my manager and asked him what I could differently. To his credit, he took the time to listen in on several of my calls and give me feedback. Turned out that I’d stopped doing things that used to come automatically to me, stopped paying attention to the details of my approach. Mistakes had crept in.
This experience taught me that even the best can get better. I needed to always look for ways to improve, even if I was already getting good results. That’s a mindset that I took with me when I became a sales manager—I tried to pay as much attention to coaching my top performers as I did everyone else on my team. If I ignored what my top performers were doing, I’d never know if they were making mistakes.
If you want to help your top performers get even better, here are some tips on how to get started:
Pay attention to the whole sales cycle
Getting involved in a big deal that is nearing a close may be important, but you can have a bigger impact if you pay attention to what a rep is doing throughout the sales cycle. When my sales had slacked off, the mistake I was making occurred in the first or second phone call with prospects. Had my manager only intervened when I was near the close of a deal, I never would have fixed that problem.
Be a role model for seeking and accepting feedback
I recently saw a comment on a management blog from a top performer who wrote that he’d be leery of accepting advice from managers who thought they were always right. He would be more likely to seek out and accept advice from a manager if that manager had asked him for input on how to improve. So don’t try to wrap yourself in an aura of perfection. If you are willing to learn how to get better, so will your top performers.
Wrap your advice in the cloak of their strengths
Every salesperson comes with strengths and weaknesses—just like some basketball players are great at layups but lousy at shooting 3-pointers. Acknowledge the sales rep’s strengths up front. This will help make sure they don’t start ignoring what they already do well (like I had done in my career). Then talk about how improving their weaknesses could help them take better advantage of those strengths.
When top performers have the attitude of always striving to get better – an attitude that you can influence as their sales coach – their success example will provide inspiration for the entire sales team.