Session 1 – Read the River: Assessing Development

Listen to this podcast (and the others in the series) here

It doesn’t matter how well-traveled in sales you are, or how inexperienced, all of us need someone outside of ourselves giving input from that perspective. The best athletes have coaches, as well as the best actors and the best CEOs. And that’s what successful sales managers do, they know how to coach their salespeople to be the very best. Do you?

Coaching has been all the rage the last few years. Google coaching and you’ll get thousands of responses and hundreds of coaching models to follow. Ignore them all. Not because they’re bad, but because they’re unnecessarily complex and will not help you develop your salespeople.

Coaching salespeople, while not easy, has a simple two part process to it (not an intricate ten step model). These two parts are best captured in the sport of whitewater rafting.

For years I guided rafts down the whitewater rapids of the Deschutes River here in Oregon. It was a demanding and exhilarating experience, holding the lives of eight screaming souls in your hands. Truly, some of the best weekends I’ve ever spent in my life have been on that river.

The key to success as a river raft guide is being able to hit a rapid at its perfect center. If you do, the force of the rushing water will shoot you down the middle of the rapid, fast but safe. Miss the center, and you and your crew will be flipped out of the raft into a torrent of foam. Not fun (and sometimes quite dangerous).

So you’re always reading the river, staying in tune with what the water’s doing, to hit the perfect center of each rapid.

Hitting the perfect center, however, is not easy to do for this reason: rivers aren’t straight. Rivers bend and twist and turn all over the place. As do their rapids. So while you’re reading the river, you also have to adjust your raft, pulling it to the left, pulling it to the right, or bringing it to a dead stop to keep from being dumped into the water.

This is an apt metaphor for the two part process of effectively coaching salespeople. First, read the river. Pay close attention to the flow of your reps’ development, for, like a river, it bends and twists and turns all over the place. Then adjust, adapting to these bends and twists and turns with the most effective response. This is what it means to coach and coach well: read and respond, read and respond, read and respond.

Reading the river and responding accordingly perfectly parallels the principles of Situational Leadership, concepts pioneered by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the business school classic, Management of Organizational Behavior. I’ve adapted their principles here to the sales management context, and, in specific, to the skill of sales coaching.

Situational Sales Leaders first assess the development level of a rep before one word leaves their mouth, their coaching response being determined by the read of the river. Having assessed development, Situational Sales Leaders then select the response that best matches the needs at hand. When this process is repeated over and over again, reps grow and sales soar because their manager is providing the coaching they need, when and how they need it.

How do you read the river? That is, how do you assess the development level of your reps? There are two dynamics in determining development: competence and commitment.

Competence is the proven, observable ability of a salesperson to complete a specific sales activity. Commitment is that salesperson’s enthusiasm, motivation, or confidence related to that activity. One is external, the other is internal. One has to do with actions, and the other with attitude. A rep may be high or low in each dynamic, low in competence and high in commitment, low in competence and low in commitment, high in competence and low in commitment, and high in competence and high in commitment. These combinations form four distinct development levels.

When a salesperson is new to a particular sales activity, they often come to the task with a high degree of enthusiasm and motivation, eager to get going. The problem is, they don’t know what they don’t know and can make a mess of things, more than they could possibly imagine. This is Development Level One: Low Competence, High Commitment.

After a salesperson has been doing a particular sales activity for awhile, but hasn’t mastered it yet, they can slide into a state of frustration and discouragement. They can’t do the task very well and don’t think they ever will, feeling overwhelmed and confused. Occasionally, however, they’ll have flashes of competence. But these moments, like my golf game, are rare. This is Development Level Two: Low Competence, Low Commitment.

If, however, a salesperson perseveres, they break through the competence barrier and begin to master a particular sales activity. The problem is, they’re still not sure of themselves because mastery is so new to them. They have competence, but very little confidence in their competence. As a result, they’re capable but cautious, productive but tentative. This is Development Level Three: High Competence, Low (or variable) Commitment.

Finally, when a salesperson has mastered a particular sales activity and has all the enthusiasm and motivation in the world to do it, they’re consistently competent and supremely confident. They’re inspired and inspire others, able to be given a high degree of independence in the task. The problem at this development level is this: without an ongoing challenge, this person can get bored and make stupid mistakes (or go work for another company). This is Development Level Four: High Competence, High Commitment.

How well do you read the river of your sales reps’ development? If you’re like most sales managers, you’re eager to jump in and coach your reps to quota and club. But it’s impossible to do that if you don’t know the kind of coaching they need. And the kind of coaching they need is based on their individual development, the mix of competence and commitment that’s present within them related to a particular sales activity.

Before listening to the next podcast session, think through each of your reps. What are the core activities you’re asking them to do in the execution of your sales process? What is their development related to each of these activities?

Write this down, because we’re going to use that list in the next session as we discover the very best response for each development level.

Keep Reading: Session 2 – Respond to the River: Matching Style