Coaching is pivotal to sales success. This is not a radical statement. If you’ve been in a sales management position for any length of time, it’s not even news. It’s now well-established that a strong coaching culture is something high-performing companies have in common. In study after study, coaching is shown to play a key role in driving sales performance and revenue achievement.
So why do so many companies still struggle to make coaching pay off for them? We recently conducted a research project in partnership with the Sales Management Association to try to get to the bottom of that question. This study validated one of the paradoxes we’ve seen repeatedly on an anecdotal level: Few activities are considered as important as sales coaching — 76% of the sales managers in our study said coaching is important — but most (again, 76%) believe too little coaching is provided, if it’s provided at all.
Our study also reinforced the value of coaching: Firms that are effective in coaching their salespeople report 15% higher revenue achievement than the laggards. What’s most telling, though, is to look more closely at the factors relating to the biggest performance boosts. The largest gains come when firms:
- Provide specific coaching objectives (+12%)
- Use coaching ability as part of their sales manager hiring criteria (+10%)
- Provide coaching for the sales managers themselves (+10%)
- Include coaching in sales managers’ performance appraisals (+8%)
Right away, we can see that these companies aren’t just implementing coaching in name only. It’s a clearly defined initiative, integrated into the culture, and supported by leadership, as evidenced by the way managers are hired, developed and held accountable for coaching their sales teams. These leaders aren’t telling sales managers, “You’re responsible for coaching,” and then leaving them to go figure it out or assuming they’ll just naturally do it well.
But plenty of companies are doing just that. Half of the firms in our survey provide no training for managers on coaching, and only 27% say that sales coaching effectiveness is assessed at any level. This leads to another problem: Managers (if they coach at all) aren’t necessarily spending coaching time on the areas that will have the biggest impact on a salesperson’s performance. Many also seem to confuse coaching with performance management. When we asked what coaching topics are considered most important, focusing coachees’ attention on performance (73%) and prioritizing sales opportunities (71%) were the top two. But when we asked them if they believe attitudes, motivations, beliefs and values significantly affect sales success, a resounding 84% said that they do. That’s right — those factors significantly affect sales success, and yet they’re frequently not part of the coaching conversation at all.
Recalibrating What Gets Coached
Why aren’t most managers focusing on these pivotal performance drivers? It might be that they don’t think these are things you can coach and develop in people. But good coaches know how to help their salespeople expand their view of what they see as possible so they can ignite their own inner motivation and drive to achieve more.
Every salesperson has developed unique, unconscious beliefs about their abilities and possibilities — what’s possible for them to sell and earn, what size sales are possible for them to make, what level of people they’re able to call on, what level of value they can create for other people, and how deserving they are of higher success levels, among others. Whether or not those answers are based on the truth, they’ve become that person’s perceived realities, forming boundaries that keep them within a limited area of what seems possible for them to achieve. As a result, these beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Other people can define or reinforce those boundaries. When they haven’t been effectively trained or supported in how to coach, sales managers can sometimes act in a way that puts a cap on a salesperson’s success. They see what the person has achieved or what they believe they can achieve, decide that person has reached their potential, and then they stop challenging them to do more. The salesperson picks up on this and locks in even deeper into that area of limited possibility.
This is why it’s so important for managers to understand the dynamics at play and know how to help their employees break through these boundaries. The highest and best use of coaching isn’t simply enhancing product knowledge or checking in around review time. It’s focusing on the internal values and beliefs that regulate and control someone’s sales success. Until those are strengthened and expanded, the status quo will prevail. Our study backs this up: When coaching to improve motivation is likely to happen, organizations see a 7% bump in performance vs. an 8% dip when it’s unlikely to happen.
Coaching to Unlock Potential
One of the most valuable things you can do as a coach is help your salespeople work through the beliefs that are preventing them from reaching their full potential. Here are some coaching practices that will help you get at the inner game that influences a salesperson’s success:
Bring the belief boundaries to the surface. Your salespeople need your support to recognize those self-imposed limits. By seeing more in your team than they themselves might see, you will also build their confidence.
- Ask open-ended questions to encourage reflection.
- Listen for perceived limitations and belief boundaries.
Focus on helping salespeople reach goals just beyond their peak. When salespeople hit a plateau, they need to be encouraged that they can achieve breakthroughs and improve their performance.
- Set incremental goals just beyond belief boundaries.
- Use praise to reinforce success.
- Re-frame failures as learning.
Keep in mind, this isn’t something that only applies to new or struggling salespeople. Our study found that firms providing this kind of sales coaching to their top performers realize 10% higher sales goal achievement, proving that everyone has the opportunity to break through self-imposed boundaries and go for more — as long as they have a good coach in their corner.
Mike Esterday is partner and chief executive officer at Integrity Solutions, a performance improvement organization that focuses on developing sales and service teams. Mike’s 35 years of experience includes a variety of sales, management, and training roles. Mike has been CEO of Integrity Solutions since 2011.