3 Tips For Effective Virtual Coaching
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Coaching through virtual methods is not a new concept. Since the advent of video conferencing tools, many sales organizations have utilized technology to conduct virtual coaching sessions with reps across the globe.
However, virtual coaching has never been more prevalent than it is today, as many organizations have transitioned to primarily remote working practices. In the United States, for example, almost twice as many employees are now working remotely as those working on-premises. Whereas virtual coaching used to be just one method of delivery, it is now the sole way coaching is conducted for many organizations.
As a result, such organizations have needed to redesign their coaching programs to deliver effective coaching through virtual means, which is no small feat. This is further exacerbated by the fact that prior to the massive shift to remote work, 42% of organizations either had unstructured coaching or none at all.
Whether practitioners need to redesign their coaching programs to cater to a virtual environment, or are building a virtual coaching program from scratch, here are three best practices to incorporate into an effective virtual coaching strategy.
Establish a Consistent Structure
For coaching to result in behavior change, the behavior needs to be consistently reinforced in conversations. While many of those conversations could take place informally in-person, such as traveling to and from a sales meeting, it is not as easy to create those organic opportunities in a virtual setting. When daily interactions might be less common, it is important to facilitate regular opportunities for coaching conversations to occur.
“Those interactions that you’d have day to day with reps are gone because they can’t come to your desk or you can’t see them in the lift or you can’t catch them at the water fountain,” said Aaron Evans, director of sales enablement at GlobalData Plc. “You need a lot more structure with your coaching.”
Sales enablement can help nurture this by providing clear expectations around how to conduct coaching sessions as well as when certain types of coaching are most beneficial. For example, consider some of the below steps to structure a virtual coaching program:
- Schedule regular 15-minute sessions. Coaching does not need to be time-intensive, but rather should be allocated relative to the rep’s specific needs. Begin with an expectation that sales managers set aside one short session with each member of their direct team per week, and build from there if necessary for the level of change that needs to occur.
- Utilize non-directive questioning. Coaching is effective when reps learn why something happened and how to do it differently rather than simply what the manager observed. Non-directive questioning helps achieve this with questions that cause reflection and problem-solving. For example, ask questions such as:
- How do you think that conversation went?
- What could you have done better?
- How would you approach that aspect differently?
“When somebody tells us something, it doesn’t really sink in very well,” said Dave Brock, founder and chief executive officer at Partners in Excellence. “When we figure it out ourselves, we own it, we internalize it and we’re more likely to do that the next time around.”
- Follow up to debrief. At the end of each coaching conversation, goals and next steps should be established mutually. Ensure those next steps are documented so that managers can follow up on those expectations to track ongoing progress.
- Integrate coaching into every one-on-one opportunity managers have with reps. Coaching is not a one-time activity. For the impact of coaching to be maintained over time, coaching techniques should be leveraged in every possible opportunity, whether that be a quick debrief after a sales call or a discussion during a pipeline review.
“The reason a lot of coaching doesn’t get done is we prioritize the day-to-day business, and then any leftover time we have, we do for coaching,” said Dave Brock, founder and chief executive officer at Partners in Excellence. “But guess what? We have no leftover time. That’s why you have to integrate coaching into everything you do.”
One of the benefits of coaching in a virtual environment is that there are a plethora of tools and digital platforms that can be leveraged in unique ways to enhance the impact of coaching. Consider some of the below ways that technology can be used to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of coaching:
- Conversational intelligence: These types of tools help analyze calls for insights into the elements that influenced the outcome of calls. With these insights, managers can better pinpoint certain behaviors or skills that need improvement, and utilize examples to coach to those elements.
“Historically, if you listen to a call with a rep, as an example, you could be sitting there for an hour on a call trying to find the bit you’re looking forward to really targeting,” said Evans. “Whereas with [call recording intelligence], it becomes laser-focused on that particular thing you’re coaching on. You can find it within a couple of seconds and have an outcome at the back of it, which is really powerful.”
- Project management tools: To hold reps accountable to the behaviors being coached, managers can leverage digital platforms to log and track progress on specific goals or action items. Consider leveraging a shared location where both the rep and manager can access and update the information as needed. A CRM system can also be useful in tracking activities and next steps.
“If we’ve sat down and agreed on some next steps and some next activities, and I pull up a report and say, ‘[the rep] hasn’t done any of those,’ that sets up a coaching opportunity for me to say, ‘what’s standing in the way of your ability to meet your commitments,’” said Brock.
- Video conferencing: In addition to analyzing conversations, it is also important to assess an individual’s body language and skills connecting with others on camera. Since a large portion of selling is now done over video, reps need to become comfortable not only with using the technology, but also building relationships through a computer screen. During coaching sessions, leverage video tools to role-play selling scenarios and practice things such as looking into the camera or reading body language of the other party. Similarly, analyze past conversations for those visual cues.
“One of the great features of the video conference scene is simply recording our conversations,” said Josie Marshburn, chief executive officer at Sales Enablement Benchmark. “I think most prospects and customers are pretty open to the request when you make it early on in the conversation of, ‘Hey, do you mind if I record this call?’…It’s a wonderful way to really start developing a coaching program.”
Regularly tracking metrics related to rep performance is critically important in a remote work environment where managers and reps can often feel disconnected. When sales managers are not sitting in the same room with reps on a sales call, or accompanying them to customer meetings, it can be more difficult to gauge their progress. At the same time, this feeling of isolation can also make reps and managers feel less connected to strategic business initiatives, which can make it more difficult to feel responsible for business goals as it relates.
By looking at the metrics consistently, managers can diagnose issues before they become problematic. Also, reinforcing those metrics and expectations around goals in coaching conversations can help create a sense of urgency and accountability.
Consider the following best practices to hold reps accountable to realistic goals for performance:
- Collaborate with sales managers to set goals. Work with the managers of the teams that sales enablement supports to determine the specific metrics and KPIs that reps should be held accountable to. Mutually agree on the behaviors or steps needed to move the needle on those metrics so that sales managers can reinforce those behaviors through coaching and accurately assess progress.
“Get the leaders to understand, how are we measuring the success of this organization,” said Evan Carlton, senior manager of enterprise account development at LeanData, Inc. “What specific metrics and KPIs are we going to measure to know that we’re moving the needle? Then, get buy-in and agreement on what steps you as the enablement professional can take to move the needle in those metrics.”
- Differentiate between causes and symptoms. In assessing metrics, it can be easy to spot macro-level issues such as not hitting revenue targets and inaccurately attribute certain behaviors as the cause for those issues.
“What I see a lot of times is that an organization will see that symptom, which is we’re not hitting revenue, which isn’t necessarily the issue,” said Carlton. “It’s just a symptom of the issue, which is that we don’t have a consistently performing top-of-funnel sales development process that works and gives us enough at-bats to hit our revenue targets.”
When it comes to coaching, it is especially important to look critically at the factors that can influence an outcome to diagnose the right symptoms to treat and set the right expectations for outcomes.
When done effectively, coaching can ignite a rep’s sense of purpose and empower them to exceed expectations. Coaching is a highly important aspect of a sales manager’s job for this very reason.
In a virtual setting, coaching also can be an effective tool to keep reps engaged in what can often feel like a disconnected environment. With intentional effort from the sales manager and support from sales enablement to regularly coach, leverage tools in creative ways, and track progress, organizations can nurture a strong coaching culture in a virtual world.