Being an effective sales coach is a lot like being a river raft guide. As you take your team down the whitewater rapids of a typical sales year, you’re constantly reading the river. That is, you’re paying attention to the flow of your reps’ development, for, like a river, it bends and twists and turns all over the place. Then you adjust, adapting to these bends and twists and turns with the most effective response. This is what it means to be an effective sales coach: read and respond, read and respond, read and respond.
Assessing development involves understanding the mix of two dynamics within your salespeople, external ability, or competence, and internal attitude, or commitment related to a particular sales activity. These can be low and high, low and low, high and low, and high and high. In response, you apply a leadership style that’s a perfect match to each development level: high in direction and low in support, high in direction and high in support, low in direction and high in support, or low in direction and low in support.
Here’s how this process looks in the real world of working with your salespeople.
Imagine having a new sales hire whom you are trying to teach on how to use your company’s sales CRM system. You don’t give them their user name and password and let them play around with the software and get back to you in a few weeks. That would be ridiculous!
Coaching that’s true to Leadership Style 1 thanks this rep for their enthusiasm in learning the CRM system, then very clearly and very concretely walks the rep through it step by step. It shows this person how to enter data into the system in the very best way, and how to pull reports from the data as well. It asks the new hire to shadow a more seasoned rep who’s a whiz at it and touches base with them at the end of each day to see how he or she coming along. You might even have a sales CRM certification course they can take, successfully completing the course the first few weeks on the job.
As I’m sure you know, however, adoption rates by sales reps of CRM systems are abysmally low, so it’s entirely possible for you to do all the things I just mentioned and have this rep still not master the software. In fact, not just possible but probable. One day they blurt out after another failed attempt to pull a report from the system, “How can I make any sales when all I do is spend my time in front of a stupid computer? I could just smash this thing to pieces!”
What’s your best response here? To listen, empathize, and, counterintuitively, let them vent even more. Then lean in and continue training and equipping. No one gets anything the first time through, and most everyone goes through a detour of disillusionment in the learning process. This is also the time to explain why it’s so important to get customer data into the system and make the connection between accurate information and robust sales. Collect success stories on this topic and tell them one by one.
Now imagine a sales rep who used to put all his data into the CRM system perfectly like clockwork, but over the last few months hasn’t even logged into the app. You ask him in your one-on-one what’s going on, and he tells you that he doesn’t find the software that helpful anymore and has basically given up on it. Your temptation here is to use a variation of Leadership Style 1 to deal with this problem by telling him emphatically, “Just do it!”
This will backfire, however, because when a person knows how to do something but is not to doing it, they don’t need more enforcement (direction) but more engagement (support). Interactions with him should involve questions that help him hear his own voice and find his own way. Here’s a list of questions I’ve used to address this challenge:
- Remember the prospect list you pulled at the beginning of the first quarter? If I recall, over 50% of them ended up doing business with us. How did having the right data help you there?
- Have you ever forgot anything in your life? How can completely capturing customer information act as an extension of your brain?
- When you used the CRM system on a regular basis, was there a particular time of the day or day of the week that you did it? Did you block out that time or just do it whenever you felt like it? How were you successful at doing it once? How can we duplicate that success?
- I know you want to be a sales manager one day. How might not doing this task affect your brand in the company and impact future leadership plans?
Notice how all these questions put the ball back into this salesperson’s court. The “Just do it!” demand, as tempting as it may be, is extremely ineffective in Development Level 3 and should be used as a last resort (if at all). The best response is to draw a person like this out, asking questions and eliciting their answers until they self-correct and own the task for themselves.
The final sales coaching temptation comes from ignoring the rep who perfectly uses the CRM system every week without fail. As I said earlier, human nature being what it is, when you do that, this person is likely to slide from order to disorder, becoming the Style 3 example I just referred to. The key here is having her every month tell you the wonderful things she’s doing with the CRM system. Another Leadership Style 4 activity is using her for your success stories, both publicly and privately. Then deputizing her as the CRM expert on the team, becoming the go to person, instead of you, for all teaching and training on it. This will keep her from getting bored with the task and drifting.
Using your sales CRM system is just one of a variety of sales activities you ask your sales reps to do in a given week. In the scenarios above, we looked at four different reps at four different developments levels. But development doesn’t always present this way. You could have one rep at four different development levels related to the sales activities you’re asking them to do all at the same time, needing four different coaching responses as you interact with them.
For example, you may have a rep new to the task of writing clear, concise, and compelling prospecting email and be at Development Level 1 in that task. The same rep could be super frustrated with your company’s sales CRM system and are ready to smash their laptop to pieces. That’s Development Level 2, as described above. Yet when it comes to this rep’s closing deals, he’s quite capable, but lacks confidence, because he once lost a huge deal in closing and is still a little unsure of himself. In this activity he’s at Development Level 3. Then, when it comes to presenting an executive overview in a first appointment, he’s amazing. You use the recordings of his calls as an example to everyone else on your team and hold him up as your executive overview expert. This, of course, is Development Level 4.
See how the same salesperson can be at different development levels all at the same time, depending on the specific activity that needs to completed? All assessment of sales development is task specific. Let me say that again, all assessment of sales development is task specific. Development Levels 1, 2, 3, and 4 are not generic categories into which we sort individual salespeople. They’re dynamic descriptions, all four of which could be true for the same exact salesperson at the same exact time.
The key to effective sales coaching, then, is knowing the specific sales activity you want completed and identifying each salesperson’s competence and commitment related to that activity; then adapting your leadership style to the needs of each development level, using a perfect blend of direction and support to help them grow.
Return to the list you’ve been developing during these podcast sessions: your sales reps, their sales activities, individual development related to each activity, and matching leadership style strategies. How are you doing? Mastering everything on that list is the secret to effective coaching and a successful career in sales leadership.
In our final podcast session we’re going to look at how to respond when a sales rep goes backward in their growth, or when they disagree with you about their development level.
Keep Reading: Session 4 – Two Sales Coaching Challenges