Build a Culture of Sales Coaching

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Summary: Do your sales managers have the skills and processes to effectively coach their teams? Creating a culture of sales coaching requires a formal framework while carefully managing the dynamics of the sales manager and sales rep relationship.

Do your sales managers have the skills and processes to effectively coach their teams? Sales coaching is hardly a new concept, but it is one that companies have typically not mastered organizationally. In fact, many of the companies I talk to share that they tend to promote successful salespeople into front-line sales management roles without giving them much additional training to support the new skills they’ll need to leverage.

In fact, many companies invest heavily in tools and training for their sellers but hardly as much in their sales managers. As my colleague Mike Kunkle has, I would argue that this ought to be flipped. Mike often says that if he had a dollar to spend on a sales team to improve its performance, he’d spend $0.75 on the managers.

Coaching is the most critical skill that differentiates great sales managers, and it can make the most impact in your organization. But don’t take my word for it. According to Harvard Business Review, “no other productivity investment comes close to coaching for improving reps’ performance.”

Am I preaching to the choir yet? We all know that coaching is important, and many companies talk about it internally on a regular basis. So why is this still a nearly universal gap across every industry? Because simply talking about coaching or telling managers to do it without the right processes and culture, doesn’t necessarily make it happen.

Coaching’s Perception Gap

When Scott Edinger at the Harvard Business Review surveyed managers at a Fortune 500 company about the quality of the coaching they provide, they rated themselves in the 79th percentile. The reps who report to those managers had an opinion, too; they ranked those same managers in the 38th percentile. Anyone who has been around sales teams long enough knows this exact phenomenon, even if they haven’t put numbers to it. Managers believe they’re providing great coaching, and reps don’t see it that same way.

Coaching isn’t merely reacting to how a sales rep executed a particular customer or prospect conversation with feedback; rather, coaching should be a formal process where managers address performance and behavior issues with best-fit solutions that address the issues’ root causes. When managers are simply firing off feedback, they may believe they are coaching while their reps are seeing reactions and opinions.

The Need for a Formal Coaching Framework

To counter the shortcomings of reactive feedback-as-coaching, managers need a coaching framework to follow, providing both strategies and processes to effectively coach. The proper coaching framework should have several key components:

  • Methods for managers to identify areas for improvement, ideally aligned with areas identified by the rep
  • Determine the root causes of the performance issues identified
  • Address identified issues with best-fit solutions: training, coaching, or feedback
  • Support the rep with a personalized, tailored approach based on all of the above

Implementing the right framework properly and consistently with your sales managers creates a unified language and process that is the first step to establishing coaching as a culture. Without this alignment, directing managers to coach will, at best, lead to inconsistent practices, and more often result in minimal coaching going on, and being done poorly.

Changing Old Habits

When working with companies to implement a formal coaching framework, we discover the most common concern is inserting different coaching practices into longstanding and established manager-seller relationships.

Imagine being a sales rep with a company for fifteen years, working for a manager for the past five. You’ve likely found each other’s “spots” and established a working cadence with clear expectations for engagement on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Then imagine the manager comes to you and tells you they’re going to start coaching you more intentionally and formally. “Wait, did I do something wrong?” you might ask. These can be sensitive situations you’ll need to approach carefully and authentically.

Coaching the Coaches​

Another key element of establishing a coaching culture is holding sales managers to actually do it and supporting them to ensure they do it well. You probably need methods for recognizing manager shortcomings in this area and processes to address these shortcomings appropriately, right? Is there a vehicle for doing that? Yes, it’s called… coaching.

A best practice for ensuring coaching becomes a culture among your sales managers is using the same frameworks and processes they’re expected to use to actually coach them. Likely this entails second-level sales leaders (Directors, VPs or whoever manages the sales managers). Not only does this provide a support arm for the managers, but it communicates alignment and clear expectations. Nobody is being asked to do something by their manager that the manager isn’t doing themselves in this case.

Setting the Stage for a Coaching Relationship

When managers have been trained on your chosen coaching framework and begin to implement it, it’s critical that these conversations are approached carefully, for the reasons discussed above.

Based on the dynamics of a particular manager-seller relationship, the nature of this conversation may vary, but in general, it requires authenticity, transparency, and even vulnerability. To that last point, it can be helpful for managers to admit to their reps that they haven’t done well enough in coaching and supporting them. Doing so can dispel any rep concerns about being “in trouble.”

No matter how the manager raises the topic to the rep, laying out clear expectations of the process is necessary. Managers need to let reps know why they are being more intentional about coaching, what the process looks like, and what is required from the rep to be successful. Rep buy-in is critical.

Coaching as Culture

Anyone who has been around sales organizations for long enough knows that coaching is important. But simply instructing managers to coach leaves them out to dry and forces them into a fairly sensitive process without clear processes or confidence.

Establish a true coaching process rooted in a complete framework that gives managers the activities to do as well as the methodology for doing so. Then be sure there is top-down support by coaching the coaches using the same process.

This may take more work than simply saying “go coach your reps,” but the results will speak for themselves. A culture of coaching sets your team up to continuously improve skills and execution while also being a vehicle you can use to drive the adoption of new initiatives and changes across the team.

Sales Coaching Excellence

Build a culture of better sales coaching.

Sales Coaching Excellence is a training program that provides a solid framework to transform sales managers into sales coaches. Fast-track your sales talent development through coaching.

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