Understanding the Difference Between Training, Coaching and Feedback

Shutterstock | JLco Julia Amaral

Coaching is often a misused and misunderstood word in the sales profession. According to research, managers frequently say they coach far more than their sellers report being coached. Do managers stretch the truth in their survey responses to appear as if they are coaching more? Do their reps try to “ding” their managers by reporting less coaching? While I can’t say that misreporting doesn’t happen, in my experience, it’s not the root cause behind the coaching perception gap.

In the heat of the moment, managers often provide rapid-fire advice to their sellers about territories, accounts, and opportunities, but spend far less time purposefully developing their sellers’ skill levels. And when “coaching” is done, it’s often opportunistic, based on something the sales manager just happened to observe (hit or miss, based on luck).

Yet, we know from research that organizations that provide more developmental skills coaching perform better, and those who provide adaptive or dynamic coaching (coaching based on the individual needs of their sales reps), get the best results.

Let’s define the terms field training, sales coaching, and feedback. This is a critical distinction that is often missed and needs clarifying.

What is Field Training?

Training is a teaching method to impart how to do something to meet expectations and get the best possible result. You train when an employee does not know what, why, or how to do something effectively (and as appropriate, perhaps when and where). Training is directive since the employee needs to learn how to do something, and when done properly this method lays a solid foundation for coaching. “Field training” is the training that is delivered by a manager versus training that is provided by the organization (although the content may be aligned).

“The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”

- Socrates

What are the Types of Sales Coaching?

There are multiple types of coaching and multiple topics and behaviors that can be coached. Most coaching methods fall into one of two buckets: strategic or tactical.

Strategic coaching is about a thought process or approach to a task, such as:

  • Territory planning
  • Account planning
  • Call planning
  • Sales process execution
  • Pipeline management
  • Opportunity strategy

Tactical coaching is about how to perform a task, such as:

  • Prospecting
  • Personalizing messaging
  • Resolving concerns
  • Skills to lead an effective virtual meeting (not the planning)
  • Overall sales methodology

Coaching can be further segmented into three categories, such as opportunistic coaching, developmental coaching, and skills coaching.

  • Opportunistic coaching is a response to something observed in-the-moment. While this coaching is helpful, the benefits vary based on what the manager happens to observe.
  • Developmental coaching is planned to address a performance shortfall or improve already-acceptable performance. This type of coaching is orchestrated and a direct response to diagnosis and root cause analysis.
  • Skills coaching focuses on how and how well the sales reps perform tasks, especially their buyer-facing selling tasks. Skills coaching can be done across all types of coaching, wherever reps need to perform a task well.

For the rest of this article, we will focus on the powerful and purposeful developmental skills coaching, which, in our experience, is done far too infrequently compared to the other types and can yield significant results and ROI for the time and effort spent.

Developmental Coaching

When your sales reps know what to do, why they’re doing something, and how to do the task they may need coaching to do things better. Developmental skills coaching is a formal process where sales managers engage their sellers and partner with them to improve their skills and sales performance.

Coaching is based on diagnostics and root cause analysis to solve performance challenges or enable opportunities to improve. The rep owns their development, and the manager is their guide. Managers and reps diagnose performance, and plan solutions together. The rep executes their plans, and they review results together. As a guide, managers often ask questions, listen, facilitate, and engage their reps.

Sales coaching framework for developmental skills coaching
Click to image enlarged.

This chart is from our Sales Coaching Excellence course and represents a framework for developmental skills coaching that can help you create a regular cadence of coaching and continuous improvement.

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Providing Feedback

Feedback is your opinion, perspective, and/or advice. You provide feedback when a rep needs direct advice and guidance. Feedback can be delivered during skill practice sessions while training, but during practice in coaching sessions, as well. Feedback is often corrective or evaluative and focuses on fixing previous or current behavior. It’s usually directive (telling versus asking). When using feedback while coaching (versus training), it’s respectful to ask your employee if you may offer your perspective.

Feedback is often delivered during skill practice sessions while training, but may be offered during practice in coaching sessions, as well.

Feedback helps employees understand what prevents them from reaching their current goals or what specifically to do differently. As suggested at the beginning of this article, many managers believe they are coaching when they are simply offering feedback or telling their sales rep what to do differently.

When to Apply Field Training, Sales Coaching, and Feedback

The following charts (the Solution Type chart is adapted from the work of Ferdinand Fournies), are helpful in determining which solution is appropriate, when to use it, and where the solution content can come from.

Click image to view enlarged.
  • Train when your sales rep doesn’t fully understand what, why, and how to do something (and possibly when and where, if those apply).
  • Coach when they know what, why and how, and need to do it better.
  • Provide feedback to help your rep understand why they are or aren’t doing something effectively, and to hone and shape their skills to achieve better performance.

As a bonus, if you review the chart on the left, you will learn where not to apply training, coaching, or feedback, because they simply won’t address the root cause. NOTE: Counseling is not addressed here but think of it as “coaching for mindset or expectations” versus skills. 

There is so much more to effective coaching, as suggested in the framework above, including models for conducting the training and coaching sessions (not shown), but I hope this brings some clarity to the difference between field training, sales coaching, and feedback, and when to use each.

To learn more about effective coaching and training for sales managers, download our Sales Coaching Excellence eBook.

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