Five Key Principles for Knowing When to Coach, by Matt McDarby, Founder & President of United Sales Resources LLC
Like a rising tide that lifts all boats, an effective sales manager can intentionally lift the performance of an entire sales team by focusing on a few fundamentals of great sales management. Conversely, a sales manager who is not so effective can have the effect of dulling the capabilities of a team or worse… effectively lowering all boats to the harbor floor and rendering them valueless.
So what is it that separates effective sales managers from ineffective ones? If we’re to set aside the really bad managers out there… because they’re so bad we can’t even put our fingers on where the badness begins and ends… and focus instead on those who are just ineffective, then the task of answering this question becomes a bit easier.
By studying the research of people like Neil Rackham, Richard Ruff, Ken Blanchard and others who have used research to develop models for effective sales leadership, it is possible to isolate key areas of difference between average and excellent sales management performance. In this three-post series, we are focusing in on three of those key areas of difference. Matt Goff’s first post centered squarely on the idea that great managers know who to coach. In other words, they invest their time on the largest portion of people who give them and their company a positive return on their management time.
In this post, I will focus on when to coach, which is a second area in which excellent sales managers separate themselves from their average counterparts.
The “When to Coach Principles”
Let’s face it… the fact that a sales manager would even consider the question, “When should I coach (versus doing something else) to bring about the business outcomes that I am paid to achieve?” suggests that he or she is probably a very good manager.
If simply considering the question of when to coach means that one is likely an above-average manager, then having answers to that question must surely mean that one is in the upper strata of today’s professional sales management ranks. Wouldn’t it be valuable to know what some of those answers might be? (Yes! – Ed)
The “When to Coach” Principles follow:
- There is a time to sell and a time to coach. It is not possible to do both at the same time effectively.
- Who we are coaching affects when we coach. We need to invest more or less time coaching individual salespeople because of who they are, their learning style, their workload, and a range of other factors . One size does not fit all.
- Different types of coaching require different amounts of time and preparation. Choose them wisely and don’t short-change the types of coaching that require a significant investment of time.
- Coach early and coach often. Our window for influencing the actions of salespeople closes earlier in the selling cycle than we might realize.
- We should coach when the risk of not coaching is too great. When future outcomes are at stake, the risk of missing an opportunity to coach is massive.
Let’s break these down a little bit.
Selling v Coaching
Knowing that there is a time to sell and a time to coach is one of those easy to understand but difficult to execute principles. Once a sales manager has been trained and has experienced what it is like to quietly observe someone else’s performance with an eye toward giving that person targeted feedback, then that sales manager understands just how difficult it would be to try to sell at the same time.
For those who haven’t experienced this, we can use the analogy of a golf pro standing in the same driving range stall as his student, swinging his own club and striking balls straight down the middle at the same time that he gives the student advice on his or her swing. The student naturally questions the advice that the teacher doles out because the student knows the teacher wasn’t paying close enough attention. The student may give tacit acceptance to the teacher’s advice, but the likelihood of the student’s behavior (i.e. his swing) and performance changing are slim to none. The same occurs with managers who attempt to offer feedback or give coaching when they’ve been in the thick of the meeting as a participant and not as a quiet observer. If one’s mission is to coach and improve someone else’s performance, then they must not be part of the performance themselves.
Who Affects When
Regarding the principle that who we are coaching affects when we coach, I must refer back to the first post in this series by Matt. “…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.” Fair enough. It stands to reason then that an important part of the answer to the question of when to coach is, “Coach whenever your high potential core performers, also known as under-achievers, need coaching.”
When do opportunities to coach under-achievers tend to come up? In addition to the skill and/or strategy coaching sessions that a manager must deliver, an opportunity to coach that may be particularly appropriate for the under-achiever is the “you’re not delivering what I think you can” conversation. This conversation may occur in the context of a formal review, in the context of a periodic territory or business review, or it might just come on a Tuesday when the sales manager becomes upset at the lack of production by a high-potential salesperson. The bottom line is that there are specific opportunities for coaching that are appropriate for under-achievers and perhaps not for anyone else. (How to coach these people is a topic for another day.)
A Different Approach is Required
If it is true that different types of coaching require different levels of planning and time on the part of a manager, then we must consider when different types of coaching can be fit into the manager’s operating rhythm. In this sense, when to coach becomes a practical consideration versus a philosophical one. Neil Rackham and Dick Ruff categorized sales coaching into two broad categories, skills coaching and strategy coaching, in their book, Managing Major Sales (Harper Business, 1991).
Among other reasons, they did so to explain the role of coaching in simple versus complex sales. In short, they were illustrating that in major, complex sales, the role of a coach tends to include strategy coaching and skills coaching whereas the role of a coach in simple sales was almost exclusively in the area of skills coaching. So, it seems that a manager in a complex selling environment (e.g. commercial property and casualty insurance sales to Fortune 500 companies) has to consider an additional investment of his or her time into sales strategy coaching than would a manager in a much simpler sales environment (e.g. individual term life insurance sales). If one operates in a simple sales environment, then the question of when to coach is answered, “Whenever my people need to apply some skill to achieve the outcome that we want. I need to coach then.”
Early & Often
For those of us in a more complex selling environment, the decision regarding when to spend time on strategy coaching and skills coaching is a function of the next principle, coach early and coach often. There are moments in a sales process when the actions of the salesperson matter more than other times. Those moments tend to be in the earlier stages of the buying process, when customer’s needs and decision-making criteria are still malleable. So what then does that mean to the coach and the role that she or he must play to influence salespeople’s behavior?
It means that a coach also has limited opportunity to influence sales outcomes, and that opportunity is limited to some of the earliest moments of the sales process. Great sales managers will not only provide strategy coaching in the earliest stages of new customer opportunities, but they tend to revisit the status and health of sales opportunities all the way until they reach the point of diminishing return on coaching. It is not enough to simply coach once, set it (the strategy), and forget it. Hence, the “coach often” part of this particular principle.
Risk / Reward
Finally, when in doubt, a manager should choose to coach when the risk of not coaching is too great. Some examples of when this risk may be at its greatest include the following:
- When a strategic error or tactical mistake, if replicated, will have a negative effect on future outcomes.
- When a change in strategy is required to bring about a positive outcome, and the salesperson may not be seeing the need to change.
- When a key customer opportunity hinges on the capability of an average-skilled salesperson.
Based on these principles that Matt McDarby has described, it is obviously important for sales managers to tailor their ‘when’ approach to the situation. The five areas discussed are an excellent starting point and tactics that can be used to the sales manager’s advantage.
What other tactics have you used to address the all important ‘when to coach’ question?? We would love to hear from you…
My thanks to Matt for this excellent post. Matt is the Founder & President of USR LLC (United Sales Resources) a professional sales firm that helps small to medium-sized businesses grow by pursuing and capturing their most important business opportunities. Matt was previously VP Enterprise Sales for Huthwaite Inc, a professional sales training & coaching firm, where amongst other things he managed a team of global account managers and authored the ‘Why Cross Selling Fails’ white paper. Prior to Huthwaite, Matt formed MarketSoft Resources which later became Infinity Consulting.
Part Three in Two Weeks!