The Sales Manager’s Field Guide to Coaching Defensive Sales Rep

You know that providing sales coaching to your team comes with the territory when you’re a sales manager. But what about those sales reps who resist or avoid being coached? You need to understand why they are acting this way, how to coach them out of it, and when it’s time to part ways.

sales coaching guide for defensive reps

14 min. read

Ever wish you had a field guide to sales coaching? Like a trusty birding guide, something that would identify sales rep motivations, preferences, strengths, weaknesses, and migration patterns.

(Maybe not that last one. But sales does have a high employee turnover rate….)

It can be tricky, though; even with an illustrated guide, birds still get misidentified. Bird-watchers say they spotted a rusty blackbird but it was actually a grackle. How embarrassing!

There’s a lot more than just embarrassment on the line when you’re a sales manager in charge of providing coaching for your team. Even though your sales reps might be birds of a feather, they might not all flock together when it comes to coaching.

You must assess the coaching needs of each of your sales reps, identify areas for improvement, and carve out time in your busy schedule, and theirs, to work through them. And then, even after all this effort, sometimes a salesperson comes along who completely resists coaching.

So, welcome to your field guide to coaching-resistant sales reps! We’re identifying some of the most common types of defensive salespeople.

Find out what they tend to do and say, so you can quickly recognize when you encounter them in the wilds of your sales department. Then, get tips on how you can steer wayward sales reps back into the coaching fold and how to know it’s time for them to leave your sales nest.

The Know-It-All

Defining characteristics: Defensive, possibly emotional (anger, resentment, narcissism), can be senior reps who are set in their ways or hotshot junior reps who think they’ve got it all figured out with no help needed.

Bird calls: “This is how I’ve always done it.” “I know what I’m doing.” “I think my results speak for themselves.”

Tips for how to coach Know-It-Alls:

Don’t go hands-off

Letting a Know-It-All sales rep run amok can backfire on you, even if they’re hitting and surpassing targets. That top performing “maverick” who doesn’t follow the process and still sees good results can spoil the vibe of your sales team.

Leaving them be is only going to exacerbate the issue. It tells the rest of your team that following the sales playbook is optional when definitely it’s not.

Start with some positives

If you go straight into the bad points, that might get a sales rep’s back up. It might appear to them as though all their accomplishments and positive results don’t matter.

Though coaching is about improvement, don’t gloss over the salesperson’s wins, either. You want to strike a balance with constructive criticism, not the kind of straight-up takedown that could make even the most open-to-coaching team member feel defensive.

Pick your battles

Know-It-All sales reps may be set in their ways. When deciding when to give feedback, consider the importance of the issue at hand. Will your feedback be objective or subjective? If what the sales rep is doing isn’t technically wrong but it’s just not how you would do it, it might not be the best hill to die on, coaching-wise.

Plus, your sales rep might have a legitimate point, so have a conversation about it, and you may see another valid point of view you hadn’t considered before. Maybe you’ll discover a new approach that other sales team members could use, too.

However, if it’s a foundational aspect of your sales process that they’re ignoring or changing, you’ll want to push them more on it. Your sales process is sacrosanct. In order to understand what is or isn’t working within your sales playbook, you can’t have outliers.

It sounds like a hardline stance, but anyone working outside the set process will skew your metrics, forecasting, and other key success metrics.

Use your sales data

Know-It-Alls have a tendency to rely on their gut feelings. If you come to them with “I feel this” or “I think that”, they’ll just turn it around on you.

Better to use your CRM and sales metrics to show your sales rep where they achieved a measure of success and where they can make improvements. Your gut feelings can be countered by the sales rep’s gut feelings, and on and on forever, but using the numbers leaves much less room for argument.

Watch out for ‘blanket coaching’

What’s your team approach to sales coaching? Are you coaching your superstar reps the same way as your newbies?

More senior Know-It-All reps will probably resent a one-size-fits-all approach that seems to insult their wealth of experience. And newer know-it-all salespeople might actually be intimidated by unrealistic coaching that is above their pay grade. They get defensive because they feel like they have to protect themselves from failure or otherwise looking bad.

Everyone responds to coaching differently. Like motivation, what works for one person might not work for the rep at the next desk over. For example, some reps might get the most out of reviewing their recordings with you, while others would benefit more from roleplaying or writing out a script to use.

Sales coaching vs. sales training

While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there’s a big difference. Training usually refers to learning new information, skills, and techniques. Coaching is helping people apply that knowledge to their day-to-day tasks.

Coaching is about going from the general best practices to the specifics of what the rep is doing right and what could be improved. With Know-It-Alls, make sure you’re coaching them. If you just keep rehashing the training or reiterating things they likely already know, you’re going to get pushback.

Don’t be a ‘Monday Morning Quarterback’

Only coaching after a closed-lost to rehash what went wrong? Your Know-It-All sales reps might get their backs up if it feels like they’re being thrown to the wolves and then every once in a while someone comes along (you) and criticizes what they’ve been doing.

You need to establish a pattern of coaching and feedback throughout the sales process, not just as a post-mortem. There’s a big difference between analyzing what could have been once everything is said and done (aka, Monday morning quarterbacking) versus coaching a salesperson through closing a stalled deal before it’s lost.

The Deflector

Defining characteristics: lack of self-awareness, no accountability, under-motivated

Bird calls: “It’s not my fault.” “I can only do so much with what I’m given.” “Lead quality hasn’t been great so what do you expect?”

Tips for how to coach Deflectors:

Keep the conversation centred

Refocus your coaching session when the sales rep tries to deflect criticism away from themselves. Acknowledge their opinions, but get the focus back on them and the coaching. Be wary of attempts to get onto tangents, particularly negative ones.

For example: “Yes, I know not every lead is going to buy, but let’s get back to how you’re setting up demos with prospects.”

Don’t dismiss every excuse out of hand

If they bring up concerns, raise the concerns at the department meeting to see if it’s a more widespread issue or just a deflection tactic.

Other people might be feeling the same, but staying quiet and working through it. It’s one thing if one person is deflecting their lack of wins by complaining about, say, lead quality. It’s a different story if everyone on your sales team is noticing the same thing. It then becomes less of an excuse and more of a real problem you need to solve.

Give them more freedom and autonomy

People, like Deflectors, might put their guard up if they feel like they’re being pushed too hard or forced into making changes that don’t feel natural. This response is known as reactance.

Reactance is the internal motivation to reclaim our sense of freedom when we feel it’s being taken away. Basically, if you push people too hard through your coaching, you may end up making them do the opposite of what you intended.

It might feel counterintuitive to give people more freedom as you coach, but try giving Deflector types autonomy as you work with them. Instead of dictating changes or things to try, have them work out the best way to improve on their own (with your guidance).

By taking charge of the coaching decisions, you can lessen the possibility of reactance and provide fewer opportunities for them to deflect responsibility onto other people or outside circumstances.

Establish that mistakes are growth opportunities

Coaching is not a trick to get people to narc on themselves. Sometimes, people are resistant to coaching and feedback because of a previous poor experience with it. To them, coaching feels more like an interrogation or an accusation.

If your reps have worked in a more hardline environment, they may see coaching as a trick to get them to admit their mistakes and “get themselves in trouble”.

At Proposify, we have a policy that mistakes are okay—as long as you own them and you learn from them. In other words, only make new mistakes.

Try establishing a rule like this. Let your team know that you fully understand that stuff happens and mistakes aren’t the end of the world; they’re opportunities for growth.

The Dodger

Defining characteristics: seems receptive and on the same page as you then nothing changes

Bird calls: nodding, “Yup, sounds good!”, “I’ll get right on that” and then… *crickets*

Tips for how to coach Dodgers:

Set clear expectations

There are times where we learn simply for the joy of taking in information and pondering new ideas. Coaching sessions aren’t those times.

Your sales reps have to know that they’re expected to take the knowledge that you’re passing to them and put it to work; it’s not just a helpful suggestion. Help them create actionable plans to implement change.

They need to figure out concrete, practical ways they can put their knowledge and training to work to improve. You need to set those expectations and hold them accountable.

Break it down into digestible bits

If there are too many things the sales rep needs to improve upon, they might get overwhelmed and instead do nothing and stick with the status quo.

Try picking an area or two of focus to start, then agree on a couple of techniques or tactics to try, and circle back in an agreed upon time to check in. If the issues still need refinement, make the required adjustments, and encourage them to keep trying. If things are improving, now’s the time to pick some of the other issues to tackle.

Don’t jump ahead

Coaching is a long term game. There’s no problem with taking it slow and making sure your sales reps have a good foundation in your sales process and sales techniques.

Starting with this solid foundation right from your onboarding process for new salespeople will set them up for success. It helps you coach them in a more systematic way, starting from the most basic and moving toward more advanced or nuanced techniques.

It also helps you both stay on track, not skipping over important skills or jumping ahead before the salesperson is prepared.

For example, in figure skating, coaches have a progression to how their skaters learn jumps, starting from the waltz jump to the axel. Not only does it go from easiest to hardest, there are also techniques in there that you need to master and build on for later moves. If you skip ahead, the skater will get frustrated and give up or hurt themselves attempting techniques they’re not ready for.

Keep track

Effective sales coaching leaves a paper trail. By documenting for both sides—what you coached on and what your reps agreed to do—everyone can refer back for accountability.

You can see if coaching is getting results and your salespeople can see how they’ve been progressing.

In more dire cases, you can also use your documentation if you need to fire someone. It’ll show the track record of you trying to help the sales rep and them resisting that assistance.

Be specific

Generalizations or vague instruction can cause frustration. People need clear, step-by-step guidance.

Think about that figure skating coach again. Which coaching instruction to improve a jump is more beneficial: “You didn’t land cleanly. You need to increase the speed of your rotation in the air.” or “You didn’t land cleanly. Try pulling your arms in faster and keeping them crossed just under your ribcage to increase the speed of your rotation.”

Which of these coaching approaches is going to help more in this situation?

Show them the big picture

Don’t just talk about the behaviour you want to see your sales reps change. Talk about the big picture, including any negative impacts of not changing.

The status quo is comfortable. Help them see the big picture of how making the adjustments now might cause some short-term discomfort but will lead to longer term success.

Particularly for less experienced reps, they may be focusing on one metric to the detriment of others. For example, they may be focused on increasing the amount of demos booked. To do this, they speed through the qualification process.

By strong-arming every lead into setting an appointment, you can see that most are low quality leads that never get past the demo stage. The rep, however, might not be able to see the forest for the trees. You know your rep is wasting time, but all they can see is that their demo numbers are great and they should keep their focus there.

Looking at the big picture, and learning to do proper lead qualification each and every time is much more beneficial than temporarily inflating the amount of demos booked.

Hold them accountable

Be clear about your expectations and hold sales reps accountable. You can be doing everything right with clear, consistent, actionable coaching, but if you never follow up on results, you’re teaching your sales team that doing the work of change is optional.

Sales coaching is important and you need to know who is and who isn’t buying in. A sales rep who continually avoids it, makes excuses, doesn’t follow up on it, or ignores or deflects it, isn’t living up to their full potential.

You are meeting or exceeding your obligations with your coaching duties. If the salesperson is continually not holding up their end of the bargain, you might have a bad apple to deal with.

The Rebel Without a Cause

Defining characteristics: overall bad attitude toward coaching and training, brings your team down (even if they are otherwise high performers), motivations remain unknown.

Bird calls: Could start out as one of the above types, parroting the same things, but refuse to change after repeated tries, warnings, and interventions. With this type, it’s less about what they say and more about their poor attitude and negative actions.

Tips for when to coach and when to cut your losses:

Assess their capacity for, and attitude toward, coaching

Ask the rebel sales rep how they prefer to receive feedback, or a way they’ve been given some in the past that really worked for them. You’ll be able to tell a lot from their answer, like if they can’t think of a time or just shrug the question off.

Showing apathy towards coaching in the past tells you a couple things. First, it’s not personal; they’re rejecting coaching as a whole, not just your attempts. Second, this could indicate that the sales rep has an attitude problem that all the coaching in the world isn’t going to solve.

Anyone can be coached on skills development and make incremental changes, however slowly, if they have the will and the potential. It’s definitely possible to help a keen B- salesperson become an A or A+ sales rep through coaching.

But if they have a crappy attitude, it might not be worth it.

Know when you can’t “coach them out of it”

Is your rebelling sales rep always contrary with you, especially in front of other team members? Allowing someone to stay on when they’re rejecting your coaching process can hurt your team and their respect for you as the manager.

Even if you know they have the chops, it might be time to bring in human resources and let them go.


Great coaching starts with a coaching culture. As a sales manager, it’s your job to create a coaching process that everyone can follow.

A good coach can also adapt the process for the situation. Just as you wouldn’t approach a hawk the same way you would a hummingbird, sales reps are unique in their coaching needs.

With the help of this field guide, you can quickly identify the differences as you take your sales team under your wing and watch their sales soar.

The Sales Manager’s Field Guide to Coaching Defensive Sales Rep

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