What Kind of Training do Sales Managers Really Need?

This post originally appeared here in the Training Industry blog.

I’m frequently asked, “What exactly is coaching?” and, “Why should I care if I’m a sales manager?”  Unfortunately, there is no consensus on a definition. But it behooves us to work our way towards one. If you’re a sales manager, particularly a new one, you definitely should care because effective sales management is bigger than just “coaching.”

In my years in the field, I’ve seen many organization’s management coaching programs. They generally have two main objectives. First, they aim to close the gap between a seller’s actual and desired performance. Second, they help sales managers concentrate on dialog, in other words, on good interpersonal conversations. There are so many training programs that promise to deliver skilled coaches! The reality is that few do.

To understand where the problem lies, we start by examining the kinds of discussions managers most frequently have with reps. Our experience reveals that at least 95 percent are about individual sales, which leaves 5 percent for other types of coaching interactions. There is a definite distinction between these two types of coaching conversations – which I’ll discuss next.

95 Percent of Coaching Conversations: Pursuit of Individual Sales

When chasing a sale, that seller is looking for guidance and expertise from the sales manager to help win it. Individual sales typically require examination of tactical details and matters such as customer needs, viable solutions, pricing strategies, and so on. A discussion of individual sales does not equate to the typical definition of coaching, however, it is the most prevalent conversation that occurs between manager and seller.

5 Percent of Coaching Conversations: Performance Coaching

As mentioned, the principal purpose of coaching is to improve performance. Unfortunately for most companies, these types of coaching discussions occur only if driven by mandated performance conversations. These are usually required due to company policy; they are conducted at predetermined intervals, and are then tied to a formal performance appraisal process. The other driver of performance conversations is obviously underperformance. An underperforming seller will frequently be supported by a structured performance improvement plan.

Our experience is that most sales managers have been trained on how to have good, constructive coaching interactions with their reps, the second goal of coaching. What they have not been taught is when, why, and where.

The Problem

To reiterate, we have two problems.  First, managers are confusing the two types of coaching conversations. They don’t necessarily view individual “sales” conversations with reps as coaching conversations because they “feel” too much like “selling.” Some may even reject their company’s coaching training because they think it only applies to 5 percent of their discussions. Second, sales managers need more guidance on when, why and where to have these “sales” coaching conversations.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example, call planning. The majority of sales managers we’ve worked with are more than capable of coaching a seller to make better sales calls. They can help their reps set objectives for the call, consider the buyer’s needs, anticipate objections, and so on. What many managers don’t know is why to have a call-planning session. Should reps be planning all of their prospecting calls? Or perhaps only calls on important customers, because they can’t afford to make a mistake with these? Some also struggle with when they should engage in call coaching. Two sales calls per week? Whenever a sales rep asks? Never?

As for where…in the car on the way to the prospect? In the office? On the phone? During a group conference call?

As you can see, this is less an issue of the sales managers’ ability to coach and more about equipping them with the rules of engagement for when, why and where the coaching should occur. The “aha!” moments are rare in the absence of clear guidance: “Yes! This is an instance when I should be coaching this rep, here is why it’s needed, here’s where I’ll do it.” It just never happens.

The Solution

What sales managers require is sales management skills to augment their existing sales skills. They may know how to sell, but most don’t know how to manage. There is plenty of training on “how” to coach, but because there is insufficient training on when, why, and where these conversations should take place, coaching often falls short of its goals. When these tactical details are codified in sales management training, significantly more coaching takes place. And the results show up on the bottom line!