The Coaching Controversy Part I: Rock Stars or Steady Eddies?


Should Sales Managers try and coach all of their sales reps?

Despite the temptation to continue on with the subject of dominant personality traits and sales performance, which continues to divide the masses via business social media such as Linked In (here for example), I wanted to focus the next three posts on the area of Coaching. Specifically, the decisions sales managers have to make when addressing the coaching needs of their sales organization.

The theme of this blog as you know is ‘Sales Performance Improvement’ – which in my opinion indeed starts with getting the right sales talent into the organization in the first place, perhaps using an assessment intervention to evaluate dominant personality traits. However, even if you have this down pat – it could all be for nothing if the relevant coaching pieces of the puzzle are not in place. As we will see, even the star performers who rarely need coaching and are well rewarded are likely to abandon ship in the face of poor coaching practices.

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Common Language

For the purpose of these articles, I want to ensure we have a common understanding of coaching so I am going to use the definition as described by Dixon & Adamson in the Challenger Sale (because its popular and topical read, and quite frankly, I like it):

An ongoing and dynamic series of job-embedded interactions between a sales manager and direct report, designed to diagnose, correct and reinforce behaviours specific to that individual”

The authors go on to emphasize that coaching is ongoing, tailored and behavioural (i.e. for the latter, application of skill and knowledge rather than obtaining skill and knowledge).

There isn’t a sales organization that I have worked with or worked for that has not paid some degree of lip service to sales coaching. And why not – there is plenty of evidence that links coaching with skill and performance improvement as a trawl of the internet will uncover (or look at Steve Richards recent article regarding ‘Neuroscience and Sales Coaching’ as an example from this platform). Clearly, done well in business, sports, performing arts and yes, even ironing – coaching works. But too often the process and implementation of coaching is left too much to chance. The best sales organizations don’t let this happen however. Amongst other things, they ensure their sales managers can answer three important questions;

  1. Who to coach?
  2. When to coach and
  3. What to coach.

The latter two will be picked up for the next two articles.

Who to Coach?

The ratio of direct reports to sales managers often is less than ideal. Therefore a common complaint from sales managers is ‘I don’t have time to coach everyone given all the monthly reporting and admin I have to do’. Especially when the coaching is ongoing and tailored to the individual. One answer to this gripe could be ‘great – we don’t want you to spend time coaching all your team because you are right, those monthly reports are due Friday’. A better one would be helping the time taxed sales manager to decide who to spend his or her time with – even if it’s only in the ‘a little goes a long way’ category (monthly reports are important after all). So, focus on the poor performers who just don’t get it? Focus on the reps with average sales pipelines? What about our ‘rock stars’ – will they respond to some coaching attention?

A Good Starting Point

The research conducted by the Sales Executive Council, recited in the chapter ‘The Manager and the Challenger Selling Model’ (from the Sales Challenger), demonstrates the huge impact that effective coaching can have on a sales organization. As part of this research, they conclude that spending time coaching low performers has little impact on sales improvement. In a similar vein, coaching your rock stars also yields minimal return as they are already performing at a high level. I find this a little contrary to what I had led to be believed prior – based on the theory that high performers have the cognitive bandwith to take on more challenging opportunities (and more opportunities period), therefore you can get more performance from them. Perhaps this however doesn’t fit our coaching definition because it is not behavioural  – it is just giving them more stuff to do and more opportunities to make sales. Fair enough. They also indicate that ‘bad’ coaching drives down morale and creates a toxic environment – key drivers in driving unwanted turnover. Affirmative.

The crux of the research demonstrates the power of focusing coaching efforts on ‘core performers’ – or what a former colleague of mine use to call ‘Steady Eddies’ – the average sales reps, who are neither high or low performers. They claim that ‘the median performers on your sales force could see a performance boost of as much as 19 percent given a significant improvement in the coaching they receive’. Focus on spending time on Steady Eddies is the key message for sales managers – there is more return on time invested rather than wasting time on rock stars and if you are a low performer, that’s too bad as we are running a business not kindergarten.

A Better End Point

Where as I fundamentally agree with this position, I feel you need to go a bit further and break down the ‘Steady Eddies’ for further insight into where to spend your time. For example, I believe you have to consider two related areas  – ‘performance’ and ‘potential’. Using a graph with the axis labelled performance and potential helps here – and have the sales manager ‘plot’ the Eddies (see below).

Evaluating 'Potential' aswell as plotting 'Performance'

What they will find is that there are some solid performers (average to above average performance but low potential)– those who don’t have the potential to produce much more than they all ready are, and the ‘under achievers’ (average performers who have higher upside) who DO have the potential to produce more. How you tag these ‘high potential’ reps is a subject for another day – however this is often done via a combination of data points – performance management, assessment data, previous performance etc. I have not met a sales manager yet who can’t at least have a stab at scatter-gramming their sales force (or just the ‘core performers / steady eddies’) in terms of performance / potential. Once done, circle the higher potential individuals and start your coaching focus here. We’ll get into the ‘When’ and ‘What’ over the next two articles. But least we know where to start.

It sounds simple – but you’d be surprised how such an elementary approach to prioritizing a sales managers coaching time can be hugely effective in getting some instant results in terms of increased productivity and pipeline movement. So to recap, coaching should start on the sales reps that have the highest potential of the core performing group / steady eddies, rather than those who already have higher sales performance of the core performing group.

This approach also can act as saving grace for some sales managers worried about their time and remind them with the message ‘don’t let perfect be in the enemy of the good’. Tell them, start here and that it IS a good start and a good way to spend your coaching time.

Join me for parts II (with my third guest writer) and III over the next month. And of course, comments and feedback welcome.

2 responses to “The Coaching Controversy Part I: Rock Stars or Steady Eddies?

  1. I think it is really important to distinguish between COACHING and COUSELLING, this Blog may help:

    http://brianmaciver.blogspot.com.es/2010/09/coaching-difficult-people-or-non.html

    It is also difficult to COACH TOP PERFORMERS, here is my view:

    http://brianmaciver.blogspot.com.es/2010/09/how-do-you-make-great-sales-people.html

    and finally What do you do with Poor Performers?

    http://brianmaciver.blogspot.com.es/2010/09/how-long-do-we-as-sales-managers-accept.html

  2. Heavy topic with significant implications for each decision. I appreciate all the links throughout the post to help with context and background

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