Coaching Sales Reps Like Legendary Sports Coaches

This post originally appeared here in the Closers Coffee blog.

As you know, there are many parallels between sales and sports. In both sales and sports, everyone is the member of a team, each member has a different role, and the entire team’s success depends on individuals giving their best. And, as with sports teams, great sales teams need great coaches to bring out the best effort from their individual performers.

Strategies are only as good as the people assigned to execute them. That’s where the art of coaching sales reps occurs — getting a team to perform at its best. Let’s look at Seattle Seahawks coach, Pete Carrol, and what he does differently from other football coaches. There are some excellent lessons for sales coaches.

The Sports Lesson

The Seattle Seahawks were just coming off the 2014 Super Bowl victory, and the team was hoping for similar results in 2015. On the practice field at their Renton, Washington training facility, the team looked good during warm-ups and individual drills led by the different position coaches.

About an hour into the practice, the team divided into offensive and defensive units to scrimmage in a simulated game situation.  But with a twist. After each play, coaches held short meetings with each unit.  The offensive line coach gathered his five linemen around him to review what happened on the play.  The wide receivers coach gathered his players to conduct a similar meeting on another part of the field.  Each coach took 3 or 4 minutes to meet with his players.

What was happening during these football “business” meetings?

Coaches reviewed the play, asking players what they did wrong and what they did right.  Where a player made a mistake, the coaches asked, “what should you have done there?” or “what is the right way to run that play?”  No yelling or screaming, no generic “get it right” demands, just simple, methodical dialogue about the good and the bad of the play. Then a few questions about what “good” looks like, followed by another play and another brief meeting.

Post-practice, reporters interviewed Pete Carroll who explained the slow pace of the practice and the unusual meetings. “We’d rather get 10 plays exactly right than run 25 plays half way.”  He explained that his coaches have been taught to coach differently. “We want our players to own the process of getting better and buying into what it is we want them to do. It doesn’t matter if we have good ideas: the players have to understand them and know how to utilize what we are teaching them on the field.  We believe the best way to do this is through questions which help them understand where they went wrong and then we ask the players to self-diagnose how to get better on each and every play.”

The Sales Lessons

Like great sports coaches, great sales coaches help their teams see what went right and what went wrong in meetings with customers. But the key point is these particular coaches spent more time asking questions than telling their salespeople what to do. Time and time again, we see good sales coaches hold meetings not unlike the ones on the practice field at the Seahawks camp.  They gather their teams after an important sales meeting, and they spend time asking questions around these themes:

  • What does good looks like?
  • Do you know what you’re doing compared to “good”?
  • Do you know what you should do to improve, and do you know how to execute the right behaviors next time?

Ask Questions, Don’t Instruct

Asking questions encourages the salesperson to uncover information and insights for themselves.  For example, asking general questions will help reps develop an understanding of where they are relative to the competition or to other sales reps in the company. More probing questions about obstacles and opportunities will help a manager see where a rep is struggling and uncover opportunities to help improve performance. At the Seahawks camp, one of the coaches asked a wide receiver, “How many balls do you think you dropped last year because you were out of position on that particular play?”  Similarly, a manager might ask “How many orders do you think you lost last quarter because of this challenge you face in your sales conversations?”

Questions get the rep to see things differently. One of the Seahawks coaches felt a player was not giving his full effort on a certain play.  Instead of berating the player, the coach asked, “Tell me what your lack of effort does to the rest of the team on that particular play?”  The coach was trying to get the player to see how his behavior impacted others.  Sales coaches can do the same thing.

We’ve seen managers tell reps what to do countless times, then the reps dutifully try to execute without real buy-in or understanding. Real coaching helps the rep develop their own ideas for improvement so that over time, they can diagnose and create plans for themselves. As Pete Carrol has demonstrated, changing the way you talk to your players will yield incredible results in the performance of your team.