How Sales Managers Are Trained to Coach (And Why It Isn’t Working)

Sales Management Uncategorized

How Sales Managers Are Trained to Coach (And Why It Isn’t Working) 

You’ve heard the mantra – sales managers need to do more coaching! When we interview sales managers – and we interview a lot of them – they all agree. Coaching is important, it is necessary, and it should be happening. And it isn’t. At least not to the degree that everyone agrees it should. 

Companies around the globe are taking sales coaching very seriously. Many are investing large portions of their training budget to equip sales managers to effectively coach. In the past five years we’ve seen a significant shift in training investment away from front-line sellers. In a panel interview conducted by Bob Kelly, Chairman of the Sales Management Association, Neil Rackham made the bold statement that if he had ten dollars to spend on sales training, he would spend nine of it on sales managers and one on salespeople. Companies are reallocating much of their training budgets to the all-important front-line sales manager. Much of that investment is in training programs designed to equip sales managers to be more effective coaches. Despite the shifting mindset and associated training spend, companies are not seeing a relative shift in actual sales coaching. Why the lack of real coaching? If companies are investing and managers agree about the importance of sales coaching, why isn’t it happening? 

The most obvious culprit is the incredible mismatch between the real job of the sales manager and the coaching training they receive. A day in the life of a sales managers is very chaotic. Pressures abound – from practically every direction. At the end of every day most sales managers have a series of emails and voice mails that remain unanswered. The administrative burden they are under is large and increasing. Time is their enemy, not their friend. Coaching? Unlikely. Over time, sales managers become habituated to chaos. The react and they react fast to all of the things coming their way. This reactive approach flies in the face of the coaching training they receive. You see – they are trained on how to coach in optimal circumstances, where time is not an issue. They are trained on how to coach new reps differently than tenured reps adjusting to the seller’s ‘situation.’ They are trained on how to close performance gaps and develop action plans to ‘grow’ the rep. They are trained to identify ‘social styles’ and adapt their discussions accordingly. They might was well be trained on how to meditate in the middle of a firestorm. All good coaching content, just not relevant to the environment in which they live and work.  

So what is the reality of the sales manager’s day? What kind of coaching is realistic and how do companies train that reality? First, let’s examine the priority of the sales manager’s world. Hitting the sales numbers is king! If coaching training is not meaningfully connected to helping sellers sell more stuff, it will continue to be ignored. If coaching training requires more time than a sales manager has to allocate, it will be ignored. So how does a well-meaning company train sales managers to coach in a way that leads to more and better sales coaching? The coaching training must equip the sales manager to identify the type of coaching sellers need in order to meet quota and operationalize that type of coaching into their day-to-day job. Anything less will continue to be ignored. So what does that kind of training look like? 

Training must equip managers to answer the question “what should my sellers be doing?” The first order of business is to set the right direction for seller effort. Sellers’ can’t “meet their number.” Meeting their number is the result of many other things they do. They can make sales calls, develop proposals, provide quotes, etc. If their choice of sales activities isn’t well-aligned with their targets coaching will not have the desired impact. Next, training must equip managers to align their coaching conversations with the most important seller activities. The training must equip managers to answer the question “how can I ensure my sellers are executing their activities well?” If sellers must obtain more new accounts, then the coaching should target account prioritization and prospecting. If sellers must grow existing accounts, then coaching should target up-selling and cross-selling within existing accounts. Selling is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Neither is coaching. Managers must be trained to “select” the right type of coaching based on the core job of the sellers they manage, and then “execute” that coaching with the right frequency.  More is not always better when it comes to coaching. One hour of highly effective coaching per month will often yield better results than two or three hours of ad-hoc directives given in 10 minute increments. Focus matters.  

In summary, coaching training will only take root if it: 

  1. Reflects the realities of the sales manager’s real job and doesn’t require a significant investment of time in order to be effective 
  1. Helps managers prioritize seller effort toward those activities most closely aligned with making quota 
  1. Helps managers focus coaching efforts on seller activities that matter most 

When companies provide coaching training that meets the above criteria, that training will result in more sales coaching.