Dispatching Three Common Myths about Sales Coaching

Successful sales people – and sales management – know coaching is worthwhile, it can make a difference, and it should be a priority.  The pros agree sales coaching is a critical piece of the puzzle in developing a world-class sales team.

But, there is less agreement on how best to go about it.  Many great companies start sales coaching initiatives with commitment and vigor. Far fewer exit the other end of the tunnel having succeeded.  Why?  One reason that usually comes early in the discussion is time – or the lack of it.  A lack of well-defined incentives for sales coaching usually makes the list, too.

Although it is often difficult for individual managers to alter some of the institutional issues that frequently get in the way of successful sales coaching, some common hobgoblins of sales coaching can be exposed and dispatched.  So, let’s take a short journey into the land of sales coaching myths.

Myth 1 – Sales coaching is about teaching sales people skills to improve their performance.

This may sound right initially, but it turns out that effective coaching is not so much about teaching people, as it is about helping them learn. This is not a play on words; these two statements say very different things.  The traditional sales coaching model says, “I’m the manager – I’ll diagnose what’s wrong and suggest what you should do to improve your performance.  Your job is to practice – my job is to give you feedback.”  This model is about teaching people how to fix a performance problem.  It often doesn’t work because its objective is to teach something to someone, rather than help someone learn something.

Newer coaching models, however, say, “You’re the one responsible for the learning.  As your sales manager, I’m responsible for helping you become more aware of your strengths and weaknesses and helping you expand your alternatives for improving your performance.”  These models are based on the notion that performance change is more likely to be achieved when the sales person being coached takes the responsibility for change.  The sales manager’s job is to facilitate, provide direction, and hold individuals accountable vs. telling them what they should or should not do.  This alternative model helps explain why top coaches ask more than tell – and listen more than talk.

Myth 2 – Most people can accurately assess their own strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately, this is not true.  Most people struggle when attempting to construct an accurate self-assessment of their abilities and have difficulty pinpointing the true nature of their strengths and weaknesses.  In fact, most people seek out evidence that confirms their positive opinions about themselves and often ignore contrary evidence.  This often results in people holding onto a positive self-assessment even after their coach has provided them feedback that contradicts that assessment.  It is very difficult to travel the performance improvement road unless everyone agrees on where the journey begins.

Recognizing the myth – so a shared vision of capabilities can be developed – is one of the opportunities for improving the sales coaching process.  Some ideas are: First, the coach can change the standard against which team members self-judge. For example, shifting to a best practice standard vs. “what everyone else is doing” will help neutralize explanations for performance weaknesses.  Second, the coach can be specific when describing behaviors such as “selling value” or “developing customer relationships.”  Third, the coach can respond to unlikely explanations for certain behaviors or lack of performance by pointing out how others facing the same challenge are able to achieve the desired results.  Fourth, the coach can help people depersonalize negative information to make it easier to confront and handle.

Myth 3 – Results must be reinforced for performance to change.

This is more a half-myth than a full-blown myth.  More accurately, for performance to change, progress – not just results – must be rewarded.  Somewhere along the path to achieving real change, most people need some help when trying out new behaviors and instituting new practices. The performance change journey can be frustrating, tedious, and sometimes, even a little scary.  After all, it’s not easy to try new things, particularly when a sales person is trying them out in front of customers.  Everyone needs recognition and acknowledgement of their efforts along the way to results. Top-performing coaches understand this, and they not only help their sales people get off to a good start in their change process, they continue to stand by to help them deal with the risks of fear of failure.

Some best practices for supporting change are:

  1. Create a Safe Environment.  A critical moment in one’s biggest account is not the best time to experiment!  Coaches should help their sales people select safe situations in which to practice new ideas and, on tough occasions, help provide an “escape route.”  For example, a sales manager might go along on the call to provide a safety net in case something doesn’t go as anticipated.
  2. Walk Before You Run.  “Baptism by fire” is not really a best practice for managing performance change.  Top sales coaches help their people develop realistic assessments of their existing skill levels and then help them plan a series of escalating steps toward the final performance goal.  At the same time, they also up the ante by raising the bar as the learning process continues.
  3. Re-institute the Pat on the Back.  Confident people are more likely to bridge the fear of failure chasm.  Sales managers can help by making it clear that it’s okay to “fall off the horse” – everybody does who tries new things.  The sales coach can and should help build confidence during the coaching experience by pointing to past successes of the individual and providing positive reinforcement for achieving interim milestones.

In closing, let’s take a quick look back at one of those institutional issues mentioned earlier – time. The one thing sales managers do not have now, or never will have, is a lot of spare time.  So, if sales coaching is to happen, this time issue must be wrestled to the ground.  Though there is no magic solution to the time problem in any large company, there are a few helpful ideas to keep in mind.

One reason some sales managers never have enough time for coaching is because they take on too much of the responsibility of coaching.  If managers view their role as catalysts rather than doers of all things, they will engage others who are willing and able to help.  Top sales coaches believe coaching is an ongoing process vs. an event.  Sometimes they take the lead, sometimes they leverage others who can help, and they always help those being coached learn how to learn for themselves.