Sales managers often dedicate a tremendous amount of time to tracking sales performance data and motivating their team. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with keeping score and providing encouragement. But these activities may not be as valuable as sales managers think they are.
For example, there are many ways to automatically provide sales representatives with personalized data so they can manage their own sales performance. And if you’ve hired the right people and provided the right incentive compensation, you may not need to add a lot of external motivation.
On the other hand, many sales managers do not pay enough attention to coaching. Yet, coaching represents the single best investment of time and effort that a sales manager can make to help a sales team grow, develop, and achieve their goals.
Feedback is Not Coaching
For many sales managers, coaching is just a way to provide what they consider to be “constructive feedback.” It is essentially a plus/delta exercise, providing positive feedback on successful results (“plus”) and identifying areas for improvement (“delta”).
Feedback is surely an important tool. But it has its limits.
Psychologically, the “delta” of feedback (identifying where things can be improved) is often perceived as criticism. As a result, people are not always receptive to it.
More fundamentally, any kind of feedback is about something that has already happened. Trying to coach by providing feedback is like trying to drive by looking in your rear-view mirror. It certainly provides information about the past, but what’s done is done. Coaching, on the other hand, should be about the future: Where do I go from here?
So, while feedback may be one component of a coaching conversation, it is not the same as coaching.
What Is Coaching?
Coaching is not just about providing information after the fact. It is the process of improving results – and developing people – by changing thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.
- Coaching is about “improving results and developing people” because it’s a critical business activity. We don’t provide coaching just to make people feel good. We coach to help them develop their skills and capabilities and to enable them to improve their bottom-line impact.
- Coaching is about “changing behaviors” because if we want to get different results, we need to do something differently. We all know that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
- Coaching is about “changing thoughts and beliefs” because sometimes in order to change behaviors we need get to the thoughts and beliefs that are behind those behaviors.
Unfortunately, most sales coaching focuses exclusively on the first third of that definition – results. Too often, what passes for sales performance coaching consists only of identifying results that need changing and then encouraging sales representatives to “focus on” those results in order to improve them. Sometimes the manager may add performance milestones as a way of assessing progress, but the underlying approach is still the same: the sales representative is expected to “focus on” a key result in order to achieve it.
This kind of “focus on” coaching is like a basketball coach telling his or her team to “score more points.”
Real coaching is not just talking about results; it’s about how to achieve them. And that means that in order to be effective, coaching has to target the behaviors that will produce those desired results.
Root-Cause Analysis Is the Key To Success
In order to help sales representatives improve their results, you have to identify the specific behaviors that are responsible for their performance gaps or opportunities.
The critical question you need to ask and answer, then, is: Why is there a gap? In other words, what is the “root cause” of the problem or opportunity?
Root cause analysis is the process you use to understand the behaviors behind the numbers. It is about being curious, continuing to dig deeper and deeper, and asking “why?” until you uncover the reason for a particular problem or challenge.
In my experience, the ability to conduct an effective root cause analysis is often what separates the best coaches from their less successful colleagues. That’s because the root cause you identify determines the coaching action you need to take to help the representative improve.
In the typical sales organization, root cause analysis involves three different activities: analyzing data; observing behaviors on the job; and talking with employees.
1. Analyze data
Start with your KPIs to determine where your sales agents are not achieving results. But don’t limit your analysis to the KPIs alone. You may be able to use other upporting metrics to help to identify performance gaps or lost opportunities.
The diagnostic metrics that are most valuable will depend on the specifics of your business. But here are some examples of the kind of metrics that are often useful as a starting point:
- Total Revenue
- Total Orders
- Revenue per Order or Opportunity
- Revenue by Product or Package
- Revenue by Call or Customer Type
- Revenue by Account or Territory
- Number of Sales Attempts
By analyzing trends, and looking at the supporting and related metrics that roll up to your KPIs, you may be able to identify sales reps who are having problems with particular accounts or products, who are not cross-selling when the opportunity arises, or who are not managing their time and territory effectively.
2. Observe Behaviors on the Job
Analyzing data can help point you in the right direction. But to understand underlying behaviors you need to see more than just numbers. You need to see how your sales representatives actually perform in the field.
If you have a sales team, go onsite with them and watch how they conduct their calls. If you have a retail team, observe them on the floor. Observe them side by side and remotely, and you will learn how they perform when they know you’re there and when they don’t.
3. Talk with Your Employee
Finally, since coaching is ultimately about the individual, talk with the employee. Get their input about where they’re struggling and why, and what you can do that will be most helpful for them.
This is a time when the skills of collaborative coaching can really pay off. Ask open questions and listen with curiosity to what your representatives are telling you. As Steven Covey advised, understand before you try to be understood.
Coach Effectively Before, During, and After
Once you’ve identified the root cause of a challenge or opportunity, you understand what the sales representative needs to do differently to be more successful. And you can target your coaching actions appropriately to help the representative develop and apply the new skills and behaviors that will have the biggest impact.
Keep in mind that every sales person is different, and you never want to take a “one size fits all” approach. Be sure to tailor your coaching to the specific needs and preferences of the sales person.
And don’t forget that it’s difficult for anyone to change their behavior. So coaching should not be just a one-time event. To ensure improved performance, you need to provide coaching on an ongoing basis.
The most successful sales managers take a before, during, and after approach that combines feedback after the fact with feedforward to set the representative up for success.
Before an agent makes a sales attempt, focus on their preparation. For example, consider how they:
- Manage their time or territory
- Analyze the competition
- Plan for each account
- Develop proposals and determine pricing
- Rehearse presentations or scripts
- Master specific produce knowledge and sales skills
During the sales process, you can:
- Observe your sales reps in real time
- Ask a question to redirect the conversation
- Participate from a team selling perspective
After a given sales attempt, you can support the sales rep in their follow-up:
- Conduct an after-action review (plus/delta)
- Plan the next steps for the specific customer interaction
- Follow up with the customer for feedback
- Help the agent address customer questions and concerns
- Help the sales rep negotiate the final sale
If you provide effective guidance and development beforehand you’ll be able to provide more positive feedback afterwards.
Close The Loop
So, you’ve identified performance gaps, determined their root cause, and coached the employee to help change their behavior. Now it’s important to follow up and track the results. Did the employee actually apply what they learned? If so, have they achieved a corresponding improvement in their results?
The employee’s results are the best indication of your effectiveness as a sales coach. So you should continue to monitor closely in order to guide your own coaching approach. Ask and answer these critical questions:
- If your representative was able to improve, what was most helpful? How can you continue to build on success to help them do even better?
- If your representative was not able to improve, why not? What can you do differently to help them learn and apply the skills they need?
Continue to analyze metrics to identify opportunities and guide your coaching priorities. Focus on behaviors to achieve the necessary improvements in performance. And then review metrics to identify where your coaching efforts have been successful and where you need to make adjustments in order to achieve your goals and help your team succeed.
Listen to the full webinar, Driving Sales Performance through Coaching