Preparing Sales Managers to be Effective Coaches

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If sales managers don’t know how to coach effectively they may choose not to do it – that’s human nature. The problem is that too often, frontline managers are promoted into the role and expected to coach without actually being taught what good coaching looks like. This means it’s critical to make sure sales managers have the skills to coach their teams effectively. Impactful coaching focuses on the needs of reps to help them better serve the needs of customers.

“Just like any team sport, often the players become the coaches and sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t work out,” said Cori Hartje, director of global sales enablement at Mitel. “Coaches have a different make-up and responsibility than being the salesperson on the field.”

CSO Insights found that implementing a structured coaching process can help more salespeople achieve quota by up to 10%. A formal, dynamic coaching program can empower the entire revenue organization to meet or even exceed its objectives.

Here are four ways sales enablement can help sales managers become impactful coaches to move the needle on reps’ behavior and performance.

Set the Standard with Clear Communication

A sales manager who is more concerned with fighting fires than laying out a strategic roadmap for their sales team may be in trouble. If a manager’s team lacks clear purpose or direction, they may end up going around in circles. Sales managers need to be able to articulate what they want their team to focus on in the next three, six, or 12 months and help them achieve it.

Coaches should constantly lay out and maintain standards of performance rep-by-rep, instead of using the job description as a blanket standard. Enablement can work with coaches to set, communicate, and maintain the standards of performance for reps using the following steps:

  • Make Reps Accountable: Establish a standard of performance for reps; standards must be specific, measurable, and realistic. Set up non-negotiables and set expectations for what excellence looks like. Come up with consequences if standards are not met, and then sell standards to the team and peers to transfer the belief that when the standards are met, the team will achieve its goals.
  • Set Expectations Early and Often: Remind the team of expected behaviors and why it’s important daily. Assertive communication sets clear expectations and attainable goals, removing ambiguity and increasing accountability.

Enablement can help managers provide their teams with clarity on expectations by establishing check-ins, where managers and enablement can gather to discuss coaching strategy. These small huddles allow coaches to stay aligned to overarching revenue strategy, make small tweaks and adjustments on a regular basis, and increase ability to hold reps accountable to goals.

“Just setting some expectations and making sure that we’re all on the same page from an enablement side, as well as the management side [is important],” said Anna Cockell, enablement consultant at Anna Cockell Consulting. “We do that through weekly meetings with the sales managers, in addition to just general check-ins for specific initiatives…making sure that everybody knows what they need to be reinforcing with their teams and what they should be coaching towards.”

Encourage Proactive Leadership and Prioritization

To coach effectively, sales managers need to set clear goals for their team that dovetail into the broader organizational sales strategy. This can then be continuously reiterated through their coaching sessions.

Research has found that only 15% of sales managers believe that their companies help provide the right amount of coaching. Prioritization is key to helping sales managers find more time to coach. The priority of a sales manager should be to help their salespeople reach their targets. Some strategies enablement can implement to help sales managers prioritize and proactively coach include:

  • Free Up Time for Coaching: For sales coaching to truly be effective, put the learning where it belongs – deliver it in the field. Take an objective look at the regular meetings sales managers attend and see if there are any that could be removed. For those that are important or add value, consider whether they can be more efficient. For example, can reps shadow the managers during these meetings?
  • Schedule Coaching Sessions: Plan coaching sessions and customer visits by booking them into sales managers’ calendar. By having the time scheduled, sales managers can demonstrate how important coaching is and commit to having in-depth discussions.
  • Provide Powerful Questions: To create momentum for change, effective coaches use the power of questioning. Open questioning creates an environment where the sales rep thinks through areas of focus and change, offering proactive methods to achieve targets.

“[Sales managers] struggle a lot of times between asking questions during a coaching process and telling the answer,” said Hartje. “Don’t assume that you know the answer, because the person doesn’t learn when you just tell them the answer. They’ll listen to that. What you get when you ask them the question of self-discovery is that they can internalize what they should be doing.”

  • Prepare for the What Ifs: Coaches prepare for the worst and hope for the best, rather than only preparing for the best. Practitioners can help coaches create a plan for potential crises their teams might encounter in order to give managers an edge and allow them to think logically in providing guidance.

Focus on Evaluation and Feedback

To amplify their strengths and implement behavioral change, sales reps need a coaching system focused on continuous improvement, rather than a static one-time event. Growth-oriented, constructive feedback is necessary in order to help reps understand their gap areas, work productively to overcome them, and follow through in applying knowledge and skills in the field. Therefore, it’s critical for frontline managers to not only dedicate time to providing frequent feedback, but also to balance the delivery of positive and constructive feedback.

Establishing and maintaining a feedback system doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does require attention. Sales enablement can collaborate with managers to use the following strategies when supplying feedback:

  • Create a comprehensive sales call evaluation form that covers the key selling competencies a particular rep needs to be successful. Focus on developing no more than three competencies. Include a place to score their performance in each area with a numeric value. Assigning a number helps ensure clarity and allows reps to track their improvement over time.
  • During meeting debriefs or skill assessments, reps can guide the process and self-evaluate before managers provide feedback. Being able to assess what they did well and what they can improve upon leads to greater self-awareness and self-confidence in reps—which is especially beneficial as sales managers may not be in the field with the rep frequently.
  • Encourage coaches to praise positive events, but hold off giving negative feedback until a pattern exists. Reps naturally have a negative perception about evaluations because their performance is the focal point. To alleviate reps’ anxiety and defensiveness, provide positive feedback highlighting what they are doing well. Issuing positive feedback drives the transparency and candor necessary to help reps realize that constructive feedback is intended to help them grow–and thus, make them more receptive to it.
  • Urge sales managers to be specific with both the praise and the areas where there’s room for improvement. Avoid padding critiques. The more coaches can deliver clear recommendations for improvement in a direct fashion, the more reps will be able to understand and make adjustments. Even comments like “Great job on handling objections on that call” can be too generic.

“The simplest thing is just having open dialogue with each of the reps and a culture that supports that feedback,” said Stacey Justice, vice president of sales enablement at productivity at HashiCorp. “I also think that it is based on goals and the follow-up. There’s an element of providing feedback, which is part of coaching, but I also think there’s an element of circling back and understanding and looking at what progress that person is making. Good coaching shows progress. It shows development.”

Improve Trust and Rep Retention

According to CSO Insights, 20% of salespeople turnover each year – that’s a significant investment walking out the door. They also found that sales managers only spend about 20% of their time actually helping sales reps sell. Reps that feel supported are more likely to feel motivated and willing to stay. Coaching gives salespeople valuable feedback that can help them improve how they sell and lead them to meet their goals.

The human connection between a manager and a rep gives coaching its power. Without mutual respect and trust, learning won’t take place. To build trust, it’s important that sales managers are mindful, patient, and truly listen. Sales managers need to show salespeople how important their development is by giving them their full attention and allowing them to work through an issue.
Enablement can work with sales managers to leverage the following strategies:

  • Encourage Self-Direction: Describe before prescribing and involve reps in the decision on how to teach them and change their behavior. They will be far more likely to buy into the coaching process if their perspective is taken into account.
  • Use Negative Situations to Get Permission: Instead of perceiving oppositional team members as a disaster, encourage managers to avoid attacking weaknesses and focus on continuously establishing themselves as a partner in reps’ successes by using the information reps provide as a springboard.
  • Maintain Consistent Processes: Sales managers may develop their own processes and approach to coaching, which can be problematic, especially in large organizations. Sales managers within an organization need to speak the same language, leverage the same information, and embed consistency among their teams. This enables reps to be accurately prepared to ensure undeviating customer interactions.

Coaching can be a game-changer for a sales organization. But in order for it to be effective, sales managers need to be up to the task. To help sales managers become effective coaches, it’s crucial that they set standards, prioritize their coaching, focus on evaluation and feedback, and build trust with reps.

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