Coaching is hard. Even in sports, it’s not all fun and games.
It’s no different in sales. (Although you probably stay drier.)
As a sales manager, you combine sales coaching with many of the other roles you’d expect to find on a sports team.
You are the GM, looking at the big picture and analyzing data. You’re the scout, handling recruitment and hiring. You’re the equipment manager and trainer, making sure your team has all the tools they need to perform at their best.
Then there’s coaching. From reviewing ‘game’ tape to motivating your team to success, that’s all you, too. With so much on your plate, coaching might get sidelined without you even realizing it.
It’s easy to get off track and be mistaken about what effective sales coaching truly entails. The lines between coaching, managing, and training are sometimes blurred.
How do you know if you’re hitting a sales coaching home run or if it’s more of a bunt? Read on for some common coaching pitfalls and what to do instead.
Top sales coaching mistakes you might not realize you’re making
1. Setting quotas and goals
Now, don’t misunderstand; quotas and goal-setting are important for any sales team. Definitely do this!
It’s just that forecasting and setting quotas and other team goals isn’t sales coaching. This is plain-old management.
The act of setting parameters for what success looks like is not the same thing as coaching your sales reps on how they can achieve it.
Think about it like a sports team. The general manager sets a goal for the season, like making the playoffs. But a goal without strategy is simply an idea. The team’s coach puts that idea into action through practicing drills, drawing up plays, and making sure everyone is playing their positions to the best of their ability.
A sales manager is both manager and coach for their sales team, but they involve two different approaches to goal-setting.
2. Peer mentorship
You assess your sales team: you have some veteran sales reps who are consistently killing it and then there are the newer reps who might need some help and coaching. Aha, an idea forms!
You’ll pair your experienced salespeople with a less experienced one. That way, your newbies receive coaching and you can focus on other things. It’s a foolproof plan.
Well, not entirely. Peer mentorship can be a great way to get new sales reps up to speed and producing results faster. But, it’s not a substitute for long-term sales coaching from you. And you can’t just pair two salespeople up and walk away.
If you’re including peer mentorship as part of your sales coaching plan, there are a few things you should do to ensure it will be effective.
First, you need to get buy-in from both sides and make sure they’re on board. You also need to help them set up parameters for the mentorship. There has to be a level of accountability, and that has to come from you, their manager, at least initially.
Establish the high-level learning that the mentorship will focus on. What does the newer rep want or need to learn? In which areas does the experienced rep excel and could provide guidance? Will they focus on tips and techniques or more general sales and career guidance?
Then there are practical considerations, like how often they’ll meet and how, and the instruction style that would be most beneficial.
3. Random acts of coaching
If you’re coaching your reps by “just popping in” with an observation every so often, you can expect the results to be equally erratic.
Informal and inconsistent teaching sessions can be viewed by sales reps as annoying when it’s not announced as a coaching session. When coaching happens out of the blue, it could seem like you’re throwing random criticism their way whenever the mood strikes.
Good sales coaching is consistent and scheduled. The actual coaching can be as formal or informal as you like, but a structured approach keeps salespeople from feeling blindsided.
Having regular feedback sessions can also keep your salespeople from reacting to every little challenge by bringing you in.
For example, your sales rep knows that you have your regular check-ins on Friday. If they have a non-time-sensitive question come up earlier in the week, they can table it until your end-of-the-week coaching session.
Sometimes the salesperson might come to their own conclusion about the issue before it even gets to you. This instills a good habit of self-coaching amongst your sales reps.
4. Cracking the whip
The only thing worse than randomly and unexpectedly popping in with criticism is using a deadline as the trigger for some of that sketchy fear-based “motivation”.
Coming in and ‘cracking the whip’ as the end of quarter looms might improve results in the short-term. But here’s the thing: you’ll have to keep doing it each and every time there’s a target to hit or a goal to achieve.
Your sales reps will quickly learn that they can slack off until it’s crunch time. After a flurry of activity, they’ll revert to their previous output level once the calendar flips over and the urgency passes.
Then you’ll have to repeat this at the end of every month, quarter, and fiscal period, likely with diminishing returns each time.
Sales coaching needs a long-term approach that doesn’t rely on artificial end-points for its power. Doing consistent, scheduled, constructive coaching helps your sales reps work to continuously improve their selling.
5. Only critiquing
Coaching doesn’t mean ‘air all your grievances’. It needs to be seen as genuinely helpful, not simply a chance to dump on sales reps.
Helpful coaching comes from a place of truly wanting to help people improve. This is where the ‘constructive’ part of ‘constructive’ criticism comes in.
Criticism alone is antagonistic. Constructive criticism is a more friendly approach, using positive and negative comments. It focuses less on the person themselves and more on their actions or results. It’s specific and actionable.
Consider the difference between these two comments:
“You droned on and on during the demo and put the prospect to sleep.”
“Your demo included lots of good points about our product’s features, but I think we can make it more concise. Maybe include only the two or three most important features. That would leave more time for the prospect to participate.”
The first critique is negative, personal, and vague. Was it the sales rep’s monotone voice that made people want to doze off? The content? Or something else?
In the second critique, there’s a focus on the action (“your demo” instead of just “you”), a positive mixed in with the negatives, and the measures the coach would like the sales rep to take are clear.
6. Training and otherwise just telling people what to do
Training is not coaching. Full stop. Training is about providing knowledge, while coaching is helping someone apply that knowledge to a task or situation.
A good sales coach doesn’t just give the salesperson all the ‘answers’ and call it a day. The sales rep might take that one of two ways. They may resent being dictated to when what they really want is assistance. Or, if they’re receptive, they may stop looking for answers themselves.
You may be tempted to step in when a sales rep has encountered a challenge and simply tell them what you would do if you were in their shoes. Sharing techniques and solving problems through training like this can be beneficial in certain situations.
However, coaching involves helping reps to be more aware of their performance and thinking about how to improve it from different perspectives. It can be hard to tell between an opportunity for coaching and when you, as a sales manager, should go in and help the sales rep sell.
It can also be difficult to hone that ability to understand when to diagnose and solve issues for your sales team and when to step back and guide them towards improvement. But sales experts agree that knowing the difference is vital to effective sales coaching.
7. Sharing ‘big fish’ stories
“Back in my selling days, I landed an account that was THIS BIG!” *Gestures widely with hands.*
Sorry, but telling anecdotes about your glory days as a sales rep isn’t sales coaching.
Done right, though, it could be mentoring. Sharing your hard-earned wisdom and experiences with sales reps can be valuable, as long as the intention is to be insightful and helpful. Out-of-context boasts and not-so-humble brags aren’t going to cut it here.
If you truly want to share your stories as part of mentorship, it could be particularly valuable for your higher-performing reps. They might not need much coaching, but could use some direction on overarching things, like their career goals or pushing to the next level of success.
8. Giving opinions masquerading as best practices
Coaching isn’t carte blanche to be a know-it-all, especially about trivial stuff that will have your sales reps rolling their eyes. Your coaching needs to be specific, “meaty”, and able to be backed up by experience, studies, and experts.
If you’re coaching on something that is subjective, or can be interpreted that way, point that out. Explore the different perspectives and help the sales rep evaluate them to find a way forward that’s best for them.
Sometimes, in sales and in life, it’s better that things just get done, even if it’s not exactly how you would do it.
For example, there will be certain kinds of messaging about your product or service that your sales team will need to use to maintain consistency and accuracy. However, scripting your salespeople’s pitches down to the pauses and smiles isn’t going to be effective.
9. No planning and no path
The saying “If you fail to plan, plan to fail” is a go-to for parents and teachers for a reason: it’s true. My dad, who, as both a parent and a teacher, also liked, “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.”
The point is, planning is important for proper coaching. It’s easy for your team to notice if you’ve put any thought or follow-up into the coaching you’re doing.
You might be meeting with sales reps consistently, giving constructive feedback, asking key questions, and getting all those other coaching things right. But without a clear way to act on them and a plan to implement those changes, it’s kind of useless.
You’re flitting around from issue to issue without follow through or follow up. By the next coaching session, you’re onto a new topic and all the old coaching is abandoned.
This only teaches your sales team to ignore whatever you’re on about this time because you’ll have forgotten all about it in a week’s time.
Accountability is key as you move down the established coaching path. Continue to check in on activities in progress and only move on to a new coaching topic when comfortable. Speed isn’t the important thing in coaching; results and improvements are.
10. Making your coaching one size fits all.
Occasionally there will be coaching topics that your whole team does need to hear. But for the most part, coaching needs to be individualized. People have different skills, experience, motivators, strengths, and weaknesses, and your one-on-one coaching should reflect that.
This could also include focusing your coaching on one perspective. A good sales coach includes coaching on a mix of the big picture stuff, like your sales process, nitty-gritty tactical and situational help, and behavioural or personal improvement, like communication skills.
Sales coaching can be hard but it’s important for your sales team’s success.
When you muddle coaching with managing and training, your sales reps can get confused and frustrated. The game plan starts to fall apart and your team will struggle to hit long-term targets.
Avoid these mistakes for more effective sales coaching and celebrate more wins.