Session 2 – Respond to the River: Matching Style

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

In our first podcast session on sales coaching using Situational Sales Leadership, we discussed a metaphor from the world of whitewater rafting. A successful river raft guide, like a successful sales coach, is constantly reading the river as it bends and twists and turns before them. Then the guide adapts their response accordingly, turning left, turning right, or heading dead center down a rapid.

Reading the river as a sales coach means paying close attention to the flow of your reps’ development, for, like a river, it bends and twists and turns all over the place. This is the first step in applying Situational Sales Leadership to coaching your reps: assessing their development. 

Development assessment involves determining the mix of competence and commitment, external ability and internal attitude, they possess related to a particular sales activity. When you’ve done that, the next step is applying the matching leadership style.

Like development, leadership style has two dynamics that determine each: direction and support. Direction involves teaching, training, planning, correcting, and providing accountability. Support involves asking, listening, reflecting, encouraging, and providing autonomy. Various combinations of high direction and low support, high direction and high support, low direction and high support, and low direction and low support, match the needs of each development level.

With a salesperson who is at Development Level 1 at a particular sales activity, low competence and high commitment, the matching leadership style is high direction and low support. As you coach this sales rep, affirm their enthusiasm and define success very clearly. Teach and show them how to do this task by providing specific plans and giving concrete examples. This is Leadership Style 1.

With a salesperson who is at Development Level 2 at a particular sales activity, low competence and low commitment, you have no margin for error. They don’t know how to complete the particular sales activity and they really don’t want to either. So you must respond with high direction and high support. You do this by understanding their frustrations and letting them vent their emotions. Analyze their failures in a safe, nonjudgemental environment, and help them learn from each, filling in training gaps. This is the time to explain why a certain task needs to be done in a certain way, and while you’re doing that, take the time to provide perspective when those flashes of competence occur. They’re actually making progress, even though it doesn’t feel like it. This is Leadership Style 2.

Leadership Style 3 takes a very different tack. A salesperson at Development Level 3 related to a particular sales activity does not have confidence in their own competence, so less is more in coaching them. Using low direction and high support, ask lots of questions and listen, reflecting back what you hear them saying. Your objective here is to help this rep hear their own voice, find their own way, and become self-sufficient. A perfect coaching response to most of their challenges is, “How did you solve a problem like that the last time you faced it?” or, more briefly, “What would you do?” This is called appreciative inquiry, classic Style 3 coaching, and will help your reps analyze their successes, and, again, hear their own voice.

Leadership Style 4 is the perfect match for Development Level 4. The capable, confident salesperson in a particular task needs a coach that treats them more like a partner and a peer than a subordinate, with low direction and low support. Let them talk about their favorite subject (themselves, of course), celebrate their successes, and recognize them publicly. Provide autonomy around this particular sales activity, using their expertise in it to help you teach others, and push for a little bit more to keep them from getting bored.

Please note that all styles provide accountability for the completion of a task. That is, they always inspect what they expect. Each style, however, provides it differently at differing time intervals.

Leadership Style 1, when a rep is new to a particular task, checks-in frequently, at least once a day, to see how things are going. When a person is first acquiring a skill, they need near instant feedback to learn it quickly. These check-in’s don’t need to be, and most definitely should not be, long, drawn-out meetings. Just 5-10 minutes here and 5-10 minutes there will do the trick.

When a salesperson is muddling through Development Level 2, they’re still learning a particular task, but they also have frustrations related to it. I don’t think you need as frequent check-in’s in this stage as with Leadership Style 1, but there still needs to be consistent follow-through. I check-in using every other day meetings, 15-30 minutes long that allow for the venting of emotion to blow off some steam and focused equipping to build sales competence.

Leadership Style 3 and Leadership Style 4 also provide accountability, but with a lighter touch. Time frequencies that work in these development levels vary between once a week to once a month, but make sure you still check-in. The tendency in sales management is to let the squeaky wheel get the grease, ignoring your top performers. Nature being what it is, proceeding from order to disorder, soon your top performers won’t be your top performers any more.

Check-in’s, though, look very different in Leadership Style 3 and Leadership Style 4 than in Leadership Styles 1 and 2. In fact, they don’t feel like check-in’s at all, but they still provide accountability. The key in these styles is getting the rep to talk about everything that’s going on in their business and encouraging their talking by saying, “Tell me more … Tell me more.” When you do this well, everything you need to know as a sales manager will be told you without the rep even realizing that he or she has done so. Brilliant!

How well do you match your coaching to the development level your salespeople? If you’re like most sales managers, you’re using the same leadership style for all your reps. What that means is that you’re implementing the most effective coaching response only 25% of the time, being ineffective 75% of the time. This won’t get you to quota or club any time soon!

Before listening to the next podcast session, return to the list you made at the end of the last session. Based on the core activities you’re asking your sales reps to do in the execution of your sales process and their development levels related to each, what should be your matching leadership styles?

Note how you’ll need to provide a different leadership style for each person. But not just that! You’ll need to apply a different leadership style for the same person, if that person’s development differs in any way in the set of sales activities you’re asking them to complete. Mastering these differences is the secret to effective sales coaching, reading the river and responding accordingly.

In the next session we’re going to look at these principles in a variety of very real sales management situations.

Keep Reading: Session 3 – Real World Sales Coaching Scenarios