Opportunity Coaching: Making the Most of Your Pipeline Data

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Opportunity coaching can have an outsized impact on your sales objectives. For one of our clients, improving their opportunity coaching meant a 54% improvement in revenue won, and a 71% improvement in the number of deals won, even 18 months after our training.

So far in our series on how to get the most out of your pipelines, we’ve discussed forecasting and pipeline health reviews. But after you’ve acquired this data, what do you do? In this article, we will discuss the most impactful strategy sales managers should be using regarding sales pipelines: opportunity coaching. Opportunity coaching is the most common type of coaching sales managers provide and rightfully so. It’s the one that has the biggest effect on sales numbers. However, just because it’s done often doesn’t mean it’s done right.

Opportunity coaching involves examining each stage of the buyer’s journey and coaching to activities that will help move the buyer to the next stage. Why is opportunity coaching so critical? Because the types of opportunity coaching that need to be provided changes as the buyer navigates the different stages of their buying journey. Add to that the ever-growing complexity of products and services being sold, and you can begin to understand why getting this type of coaching right is so vital to salesperson success.

The initial goal of opportunity coaching is to determine whether an opportunity is winnable. Salespeople usually have a more optimistic view of their prospects and will often pursue deals they have little likelihood of closing. Managers who spend time coaching at this early stage of the process can help eliminate unwinnable deals so salespeople can focus on more viable ones. This type of coaching can help avoid bloated pipelines that may look great on paper but are really overstuffed with deals that will never make it to the end.

So, let’s start there and examine how managers can better help their salespeople determine if a deal is worth pursuing.

Qualifying Deals

Today, buyers have more power than ever before and come to the sales table more prepared than ever. With so much information available about products and competitors, they rely much less on salespeople to get themselves educated. Research by Gartner and others indicates that most buyers are at least 60 percent of the way through the buying process before they speak to a salesperson.

Because of this disconnect, salespeople may have very little information about how the buyer has been working through the process. And while many salespeople may view these opportunities favorably because they are already dealing with an interested buyer, in reality they are harder to win because the salesperson has little ability to shape these late-stage deals.

On the flipside, some buyers that come to the table much too early in the process can waste valuable time better spent elsewhere. These buyers may not have budgets, may not be at the right level to make decisions in their organization, or may have no time frame for their decision. At this stage, coaching is incredibly valuable because they can work with salespeople to assess which of these types of deals are viable and worth pursuing

After deals have been qualified, the next goal of opportunity coaching is to help salespeople pursue and ultimately win those deals. To do this, managers can improve their coaching by orienting the coaching to particular stages along the buyer’s journey.

Early-Stage Coaching

The beginning stages of a buyer’s journey are where opportunity coaching will have the greatest impact on salesperson performance. Most sales managers orient their coaching towards late-stage opportunities. Coaching late-stage is still important but by this point deals are mostly shaped and the effect of coaching is not as significant. Early-stage coaching leads to higher win rates and overall deal size.

Early-stage coaching is where managers can help salespeople shape deals by influencing buyers’ needs and buying criteria. Many buyers at the early stage of their journey still need help establishing their criteria and evaluating what is important to them. Coaching at this stage ensures that salespeople truly understand things like a potential return on investment for the client, the competitive landscape they are up against, and that they have a strategy for acquiring this information from the buyer. As you can imagine, having a hand in helping a buyer establish their buying criteria gives you a leg up as the buyer proceeds to the next stage: assessing solutions.

At the assessing solutions stage, buyers are digging down on the details of proposed solutions they’re evaluating. In this stage, coaches must help salespeople present their solution in the best possible light in contrast to their competitors. Coaches should play the devil’s advocate and challenge their salespeople to assess how a customer views their solution, as well as competitors’ solutions to ensure effective differentiation.

So, as you can see, we are progressing through the buyer’s journey, but are still in a place where coaching can shape buyer expectations. At this stage they are still reassessing and reevaluating what’s most important as they weigh solutions against each other, so coaching is vital to ensure salespeople successfully influence buyer perspectives.

Late-Stage Coaching

Late-stage coaching is about getting salespeople over the final hurdle. At this stage of the buyer’s journey, buyers are most interested in minimizing risks. As we said earlier, deals at this stage are mostly done. Many buyers have selected the provider they’ll be going with and are now interested in finding ways to avoid risk or loss with their decision. In many ways, buyer mindset at this stage turns from one of hope and optimism to one of caution and insecurity.

To assuage buyers’ fears, salespeople need to be adept at getting buyers to lay those concerns out clearly and developing strong implementation plans that provide contingencies for the buyer. Coaches should work with salespeople to anticipate common fears, provide adequate proof sources, and reinforce solution fit. Many coaches erroneously conflate negotiating terms with alleviating buyer concerns. Good coaches realize that concessions are a last resort and should only be reserved for when all perceived risks have been uncovered and addressed.

At this stage of the process buyers often go silent and reduce the frequency of their communications. Coaching can help salespeople anticipate this common occurrence and plan for it accordingly with highly structured messaging, rather than the frequent panicked outreach that salespeople so often deliver when this happens.

Getting the Rhythm Right

Sales managers need to get the frequency and duration of their coaching conversations right, not just for their sales teams but for themselves. Discretionary time is at a premium these days, so managers need to be very intentional about how they spend it. Our studies show that while all sales managers are likely to have opportunity coaching conversations, the highest-performing managers make it a point to formally schedule them.

We’ve also found that high-performing managers have these conversations only once a month, for one hour at a time, per salesperson. You read that right. As with many of our findings about high performers in the sales world, less is more. They plan for more structured, more formal conversations that go deeper into more specific topics, but they do this less frequently than their average and low-performing counterparts. In addition, we’ve found that the maximum number of opportunities that can be coached to with fidelity in these conversations is two to three.

This highly formalized rhythm reflects the goal of using the minimum level of rigor to get the job done. If optimal results can be achieved by monthly opportunity coaching sessions, why schedule more of them? This minimum level of rigor ensures that coaching effort is realistic, achievable, and fits within the manager’s real world.

Our Offerings

The Pipeline Coaching Code™ equips sales managers and leaders with a powerful framework for assessing the health of the pipeline, considering size, contents, and progress. It then equips managers to make deliberate decisions about how to ensure the health of the pipeline and the viability of deals within the pipeline. Managers will reorient effort toward the early stages of deals to improve deal viability and velocity.

The Sales Management Code™ equips sales managers with a simple, yet powerful framework for aligning seller and manager efforts to desired business results, coaching in ways that drive maximum impact, and assessing leading indicators of progress to determine if sellers are on the right path to quota.

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