As regular readers of this blog know, we firmly believe that sales managers must master the critical skill of sales coaching in order to maximize the sales performance of their teams (see here, here, and here). The role of a sales coach cannot be over-estimated for any high performing team. One common obstacle that many sales managers encounter when they try to coach their teams is getting “buy-in” – i.e., convincing a salesperson to try a new approach or change a behavior. While it is easy to blame the salesperson in these situations, sometimes it is the sales managers approach to sales coaching that is the root cause of the problem. All too often these managers engage in “telling” as opposed to collaborative sales coaching.
If a salesperson is performing a skill incorrectly, what’s wrong with telling a salesperson what to do? Skills require time, effort and motivation to develop or change. So while telling a salesperson what to do or say may seem expedient in the short-run, it rarely is effective in the long-run. That’s because the salesperson is most likely to listen and change their behaviors if they feel they have been part of the process as opposed to being told what to do. So one of the essential qualities of effective sales coaching is collaboration between the sales manager and the salesperson where both co-create and implement a plan to improve skills – the opposite of telling.
In order to avoid telling and create collaborative sales coaching environment, we recommend that a sales manager enter into each sales coaching conversation with a mindset based on the 3 A’s: (1) Ask Before Advocating, (2) Actively Listen, and (3) Assume Best Intentions.
#1 Ask Before Advocating
You have just observed one of your salespeople on a sales call where you saw them make a number of mistakes. You are now ready to sit down with the salesperson and debrief the call. Even if it is obvious to you what the salesperson did wrong on the call, it is critical that you start the debrief process by asking questions. The purpose behind asking questions first is to promote self-discovery by the salesperson, since self-discovery is the most persuasive motivator of behavior change. Even if you eventually have to advocate your position (e.g., “You need to ask more ‘need’ questions to uncover customer needs), such advocacy will be more effective if you start with questions because the process is more collaborative. A salesperson is much more likely to change a behavior if they discover the gap themselves.
Good sales coaching questions to ask include:
- What else did the customer say?
- What surprised you about the customer’s reaction?
- What did you notice when you started asking the customer more questions?
- So what...?
- So what did you notice?
- So what went well?
- So what could have been better?
- Now what...?
- Now what steps would yout take?
- Now what would you do differently?
- Now what questions do you have?
#2 Actively Listen
The only thing worse than not asking questions is asking questions but not listening to the answers. Listening is a great way to help build a collaborative relationship with a salesperson during the sales coaching process. Unfortunately, many sales managers are poor listeners – they feel like they need to do all of the talking. Most successful sales coaches excel at “active listening” which means they are suspending their own thoughts when the salesperson is speaking and focusing 100% on listening to the salesperson.
It is not enough to listen to a salesperson. The salesperson must also feel that you are listening to them. Great listeners do this by using such techniques as asking questions, paraphrasing, summarizing and emphasizing.
#3 Assume Best Intentions
Sales coaching should never be viewed as remedial or a punishment for poor performance. Great sales coaches assume that their salespeople want to improve their skill and get better and this helps create a positive environment where the salesperson is motivated to engage in behavior change.