During a recent speaking engagement, someone from the audience asked a simple but important question. She said: “You know, we constantly tell our sales managers that we want them to coach their reps, but I’m not sure that the managers know what that means. In your opinion, exactly what is ‘coaching?’”

Her question was quite insightful. There is no textbook definition for coaching, and there’s certainly no consensus as to what the term means. One way to find a workable definition is to examine the way organizations train their sales managers to coach. Although our work has provided exposure to many different coaching programs, they all have two remarkably similar themes. First, every one of the programs we’ve seen that has the term “coaching” in the title has a method for closing a gap between the current and desired state of a seller’s performance. The second theme is the focus on a question-driven interpersonal dialog. In essence, these programs prepare managers to close performance gaps and have good interpersonal conversations. Sound good? Well, one of our clients thought so too—until they discovered that all of this fantastic training was not resulting in actual coaching.

It seems counterintuitive that managers who have been well-trained (even those that receive multiple coaching training programs) are not coaching. To better understand this curious phenomenon, it is useful to examine the types of conversations managers have most frequently with their salespeople. When we follow sales managers around—which we do with frightening regularity—we find that at least 95 percent of their conversations are about the pursuit of individual sales. This probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise: since they are “sales managers” managing “salespeople” whose job is to “bring in more sales.” So why are these discussions of individual sales not resulting in “coaching” conversations? Why doesn’t the training that sales managers receive translate into everyday conversations between managers and their reps?

Let’s tie the content of “coaching” training to the everyday conversations that are actually taking place. When a seller is pursuing an individual sale, that seller is looking for guidance and expertise from the sales manager to help win the sale. What the seller is not doing is initiating a conversation with the manager about closing a performance gap. These performance conversations are typically initiated by company policy, and conducted at predetermined intervals that are tied to a formal performance appraisal process. The most frequent interval we’ve encountered for performance appraisal conversations is once per quarter. The other driver of performance conversations is underperformance. When an individual seller is not achieving quota, many companies require a structured performance improvement plan. These plans are typically very prescriptive and don’t leave a lot of room for sales manager interpretation.

Contrast these “performance” conversations with the more common conversations that take place regarding individual sales. Individual sales typically require some examination of customer needs, competitive landscape, viable solutions, pricing strategies, and many other tactical details necessary to pursue and win a sale. If you harken back to our prior description of the content of most coaching training, discussing individual sales is nowhere to be found. Now we’ve isolated at least one main problem: The content of the coaching training was only relevant to less than 5 percent of the real conversations managers are having with their individual sales reps.

Those of you who are in the learning community and are intimately familiar with the training provided to your sales managers may be balking at this limited description of sales management training and feel that you offer other, more relevant types of coaching training as well. Like many of our clients, you may also offer coaching training to your sales managers that ties to a particular sales methodology. “We have SPIN Selling, Counselor Selling, Strategic Selling… and we provided our sales managers with an extra day of training to equip them to coach to SPIN, Counselor Selling, Strategic Selling, and so on.” Or: “We’ve taken the extra step to equip our managers to succeed at coaching,” our clients tell us. And alas, when we follow their sales managers around and watch what they do, and when we survey their sales reps and ask what their managers do, we find an abject absence of coaching. You might ask the question, “If this coaching training is directly related to the pursuit of individual sales, and individual sales represent 95 percent of the conversations managers are having with their sellers, why is coaching not happening?”

Our experience is that most sales managers have been trained on how to have good, constructive coaching interactions with their reps. And they know how. What they have not been taught is when, why, and where to have those coaching conversations. 

Take call planning, for example. The majority of sales managers we’ve worked with are more than capable of coaching a seller to make better sales calls. They can help their reps set objectives for the call, consider the buyer’s needs, anticipate objections, and so on.

What many managers don’t know is why to have a call-planning session. Should reps be planning all of their prospecting calls? Or perhaps only calls on important customers, because they can’t afford to make a mistake with these? Or maybe only calls by inexperienced reps, because they need the extra rigor? Or maybe all of their calls, just because they can?

Managers also struggle with when they should engage in call coaching. Two sales calls per week? Whenever a sales rep asks? Never?

And what about where to have those call-coaching interactions. In the car on the way to the prospect? In the office? On the phone? During a group conference call?

You can see where this is going. More often than not, sales managers have the skill to coach their rep. They just don’t have the rules of engagement for when, why, and where the coaching should be taking place. And in the absence of clear guidance, the moment rarely comes that they think, “Yes! This is an instance when I should be coaching this rep! And here is why it’s needed. And here’s where I’ll do it.” It just never happens.

So sales management training needs to focus a little less on the skill of the sales manager and more about the sales manager’s rules of engagement. They probably know how to make a sales call, how to pursue an opportunity, how to grow an account, and how to manage a territory, because these are the things they did successfully themselves when they were reps. What they probably don’t know is how to be a manager. No one trains them on that. So if you want your sales managers coaching, in addition to “how” to have a good coaching conversation, you also might consider equipping them with guidance on when, why, and where these conversations should take place. We have found that when these tactical details are codified, significantly more coaching takes place!


Come to Michelle's Presentation at ASTD 2013, "Why Sales Coaching Fails... And What to Do About It."

The ASTD 2013 International Conference & Exposition is the premier event for training and development professionals. This year's event will take place in Dallas, Texas, U.S.A. from May 19-22, 2013. Learn more about ASTD 2013's keynote speakerseducational sessions, andexposition at www.astdconference.org.