What is sales coaching?
Sales coaching is a one-on-one process of mentoring and skill development of sales reps by managers or coaches to help reps reach their full potential. Coaching helps reps self-diagnose their sales performance and skills, reinforces positive behaviors, and corrects negative ones.
Effective sales coaching is continuous, facilitative, and personalized. Coaching depends on mentors using their domain knowledge along with questioning and communication skills to facilitate conversations that allow reps to discover areas of improvement.
Objectives of sales coaching
Sales coaching builds on the foundations laid by training and aids reps in integrating skills and concepts into the workflow. The process aims to achieve several vital objectives:
a) Identify key factors that motivate sales reps and leverage them to maximize their sales performance.
b) Help sales reps identify high-priority goals and develop action plans to achieve these goals.
c) Guide sales reps to develop habits that help them effectively execute their plans, be productive, and manage their time and resources.
d) Provide sales reps with advice and strategies to overcome obstacles in sales conversations.
e) Identify specific skills that individual sales reps lack and coach them on the same.
f) Help sales reps master the sales pitch for different stages of the buying cycle through regular practice and unbiased feedback.
Benefits of sales coaching
As a major influence on rep performance, sales coaching has positive effects on a variety of individual, departmental, and organizational outcomes. When sales reps are able to reach their best performance, the overall success rates of sales teams are boosted, and the organization sees significant gains in revenue. Some of the key benefits of sales coaching include:
Improving selling skills:
- While sales training provides reps with theoretical knowledge of how they are supposed to sell, integrating those skills into their repertoire does not happen automatically. Instead, such integration requires regular practice coupled with specific and immediate feedback. Effective coaching provides reps with just such practice. This is not simply beneficial to new hires because even senior reps can learn new skills and techniques when provided with the right inputs in a personalized, one-to-one manner.
Accelerating ramp time for new hires:
- According to studies, the average tenure of SDRs is 1.5 years, while account executives or inside sales reps last 2.6 years on average.[i] This means, companies need reps to quickly ramp to full productivity to gain the maximum value from their tenures. However, the selling skills sales reps are taught during their onboarding can get lost amid the surfeit of product, tools, and other training. The personalized and hands-on experience of coaching is, therefore, crucial to reinforce skills learning and get reps sales-ready at a much faster pace.
Increasing rep retention levels:
- According to studies, challenges of career development have been the number one reason for employee turnover in the last 10 years.[ii] One of the best ways to strengthen sales reps' desire for growth and career development is by providing them with the learning they need to perform their jobs confidently and excel. By enhancing rep performance, good coaching creates job satisfaction and the desire to stay longer on the job. Not surprisingly, estimates suggest two-thirds of sales reps want to quit their jobs when their manager is not a good coach.[iii]
Aiding sales manager development:
- Coaching not only helps sales reps develop but also creates the space for sales managers to take more creative and long-term actions to improve sales performance. When reps perform sub-optimally, sales managers are forced to spend a lot of their time firefighting and fixing rep mistakes. But when they are coached well and performing optimally, managers can focus their time on more strategic actions.
Improving win rates and quota attainment:
- Sales coaching directly impacts a company's revenues by raising the win rates and quota attainment of sales teams. According to CSOInsights, well-structured and dynamic sales coaching programs lead to improvements in win rates and quota attainment of 32.1% and 27.9%, respectively over random or sporadic sales coaching.[iv]
Why sales coaching is important
For many years now, coaching has suffered a paradoxical fate of being recognized as essential but carried out half-heartedly. The CSOInsights report cited above, for instance, found that only 12.6% of organizations had a highly formalized and dynamic coaching program, while over 40% took up coaching in a haphazard and ad-hoc manner.[v]
The situation has only worsened with the pandemic, with 54% of sales leaders reporting being less effective coaches since their teams went remote due to COVID-19.[vi]
Yet, never has coaching been more critical than in the present day. After all, 79% of sales reps report that they've had to quickly adapt to new ways of selling in the wake of the pandemic, 72% report changing sales success metrics, and 64% report having new job responsibilities.[vii]
Further, customer expectations have grown since the start of the pandemic, with 81% of business buyers expecting this crisis to be a catalyst for business improvement. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of customers today expect sales reps to demonstrate a firm understanding of their business, develop solutions rather than pitch products, and act as trusted advisors. [viii] And studies show that among buyers who received valuable information from vendors, 81% said that their purchase decision was influenced positively by their experience with their sales rep.[ix]
Building the confidence, fluency, and abilities needed to respond to such challenging and rapidly evolving job conditions requires a robust coaching program.
Best practices of sales coaching
Optimizing sales coaching requires companies to upgrade their processes and technologies. Here are six steps to empower your sales coaching program:
Establish a detailed, formal sales coaching framework:
Sales coaching can only work if managers and reps have a clear sense of what is expected of them and are held accountable for it. Sales coaching frameworks should establish clear cadences, approaches, goals, and outcomes. What's important to note about a sales coaching framework is that it's not an off-the-shelf formula that can be applied blindly to all sales reps. Instead, it has to be a contextual structure that takes account of knowledge, skills, tools, and processes suited to the requirements of a company's specific sales culture and business needs and the individual requirements of sales reps.
Don’t focus on deals, coach competencies:
According to studies, rep dissatisfaction primarily arises because managers tend to focus too much on deal closing.5 What reps seek, instead, is more skills-based instruction that can help them develop their overall competencies.
Train managers to be better coaches:
Without training, managers are likely to simply replicate the techniques and strategies that made them successful at selling. However, successful sales coaching requires managers to know how to diagnose performance problems in individual sales reps, which problems to prioritize for sales coaching, and how to motivate reps and induce behavior change. Hence training the managers is a significant requirement for effective sales coaching.
Leverage pitch intelligence technology for practice and feedback:
An AI-enabled pitch intelligence platform allows reps to quickly record and share practice pitches and roleplays with managers and receive unbiased feedback and sales coaching on which specific skills to improve and how. This will enable reps to perfect their sales pitches before entering into a sales conversation with customers. Regular pitch analyses and sales coaching inputs by managers ensure that sales reps are sales-ready at all times in a dynamic and ever-changing environment.
Use data, not intuition:
Structured feedback based on objective evidence is always far more effective and unbiased in shaping a sales coaching program than inputs based on managerial intuition. Modern pitch intelligence platforms can perform assessments and provide objective feedback at scale. Their AI algorithms can also ensure that the entire sales coaching program—from identifying topics to making recommendations—is customized to individual learner needs.
Coach everyone, not just the weakest or strongest:
At first glance, it can be tempting for managers to focus on the weakest performers because they need the most help. Alternatively, managers might be tempted to work with the strongest performers as showing the best potential for improved efficacy and revenue gains. However, coaching has a significant effect when it is aimed at overall team improvement and growth by engaging with all tiers of performers simultaneously.
How to coach sales teams to improve productivity
Sales coaching doesn’t only offer reps the chance to become skillful, it also improves efficiency and productivity. That is, coaching can help them not only sell well but also do more selling in the process. For coaching to boost productivity, it must:
Begin with SMART goals:
Building productivity begins with having the right goals, as reps can otherwise get overwhelmed or distracted from specific outcomes that they must reach. Helping reps develop a system to ensure that goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (or SMART, for short) goes a long way in keeping them focused and working in the right direction.[x]
Numbers provide one of the most effective ways for managers and reps to track the efforts taken and the progress made toward specific goals. Indexing rep activities to quantitative benchmarks helps make the process of skill development and improvement more objective and easy to understand.
Establish rep accountability:
Sales reps can be most productive when they become responsible for their own goals and activities. When reps can take ownership of their goals and decide how they wish to achieve them in ways that match their talents and preferences, motivation automatically increases. This requires managers to be more facilitative than prescriptive in the coaching process, helping reps in discovering areas of improvement and creating progress plans on their own. Further, it also requires managers to give reps greater access to their progress data so that they can hold themselves accountable rather than needing to be micromanaged.
Enable healthy competition:
Healthy competition is one of the great promoters of productivity. Thus, helping sales reps index their own performance against other members of the team helps them stay on their toes. Managers can also help reps by drawing in ideas of improvement from veteran reps and other managers and by helping them tap into the tribal knowledge of sales teams that can boost overall performance.
Effective sales coaching tips, strategies, and techniques
Effective coaching needs the right mix of empathy, problem-solving, and metrics-driven focus. One of the reasons coaching efforts are ineffective in many organizations is that many managers do not clearly understand how to coach. Some tips, strategies, and techniques that can improve coaching outcomes are:
Do your homework:
Simply sharing ideas that come up in the moment does not become coaching. Instead, coaching requires purposeful and intentional activity driven by an iterative plan. Hence, it is important for managers to spend time planning coaching sessions based on appropriate playbooks and the past history of the sales rep. This will allow them to identify specific behavior changes to be enacted and the path to such changes.
Balance formal and informal coaching:
While coaching needs to be personalized, it doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel every time, either. Managers should possess a healthy mix of formal, predetermined skill development exercises and informal, in-the-moment instructions specifically tuned to a particular situation. This ensures that both general skill development and relevant, situation-specific learning take place.
Vary coaching topics/areas:
Sales reps often need a mix of strategic, tactical, and task-focused guidance. While the first helps them develop a big picture view of their role, tactical guidance helps them navigate the nitty-gritty of specific relationships and processes, and task-focused guidance teaches particular individual skills. Neglecting any one of these areas could leave crucial gaps in reps' skills and knowledge.
Focus on self-discovery:
If coaching simply becomes a process of telling reps what to do, they learn nothing from it and become dependent on their managers to make their decisions for them. On the other hand, when coaches help reps find their own answers, they boost the latter’s self-reliance and decision-making.
Focus on one improvement at a time:
If coaching pulls reps in too many directions at the same time, they'll simply end up confused and frustrated. Instead, it is vital that coaching should be an iterative process, focusing on one easily understandable task at a time and building upon each previous interaction.
Stay process-focused but don’t ignore rep wellbeing:
Sales coaching is a targeted activity. But it is also important to remember that reps are not automatons, and several factors outside the immediate process impact their performance. So provide some opportunities for reps to reflect on their general wellbeing. Showing such care for reps creates greater buy-in for the coaching process.
Try out new techniques:
While it is important to have standardized and consistent processes, finding out what’s uniquely effective for each rep or team requires managers at times to be experimental and innovative as well.
Understanding when to coach
Effective coaching depends not only on great content and processes but also on timing and cadence. This requires managers to know when and how to provide coaching according to a formal plan, as well as recognize moments when unplanned guidance can be given.
Some formal coaching opportunities include:
a) Regular one-to-one meetings typically with a weekly frequency.
b) Pre-meeting planning and pitch practice sessions for customer interactions.
c) Post-meeting debriefs to review customer meetings.
d) Pipeline reviews.
e) Opportunity/deal reviews.
Some informal opportunities include:
a) When managers sense that a rep is off track or something is not working.
b) When reps ask for support regarding a particular area of the sales conversation.
c) When managers receive feedback for action from sources, whether internal or external.
d) When managers observe certain patterns of interaction or habits of sales reps that need addressing.
e) When managers detect certain improvements that need reinforcement.
f) When managers follow up on certain plans of action decided in consultation with the rep.
Sales coaching tools and software
When it comes to reasons for coaching failure, insufficient manager resources is one of the most typical reasons. Managers often struggle to find the time and resources to carefully observe and analyze rep performance in sufficient detail for coaching to be effective.[xi] Thankfully, there are a variety of coaching tools and platforms that help sales leadership overcome these problems, including learning management systems, sales enablement solutions, and sales readiness platforms.
Let’s briefly look at each one of them. Traditional learning management systems, while good at imparting knowledge, are a little outdated when it comes to meeting the needs of an agile sales team, which is, developing and integrating sales skills into actual practice and delivering real-world outcomes. Sales enablement solutions, on the other hand, function more like a repository of marketing content for the sales teams. While they can be used for coaching sales teams, they often do not have the capability to enable reps to practice, get assessed, and apply what they have learned to continually improve upon their skills.
Sales readiness platforms provide more outcome-oriented results. They can identify the capabilities that individual reps lack and enable them to develop those skills so they can apply them in their sales conversations. In addition, these platforms can provide sales managers with granular level details of how the reps are performing so they can build the practice of necessary skills into their coaching programs.
An AI-enabled pitch intelligence and sales readiness platform, such as Nytro, allows sales reps to easily record and share practice pitches and demos with their managers, analyzes their performance in detail for factors, such as tone, speed of delivery, keyword usage, and topic coverage, and be indexed against the benchmarks of top sales performers within their organization. What’s more, Nytro can be integrated with an existing LMS to provide the experiential learning element that the latter solution lacks.
How to measure sales coaching effectiveness
As an ongoing and iterative process, sales coaching must be progressively assessed to see if it is successful and what kind of changes it is producing in sales reps. However, measuring coaching effectiveness can be tricky because organizations must be able to identify the effectiveness of the coaching kits and resources provided to managers, the skills of managers in providing coaching, and the absorption of such coaching and its implementation by reps. Hence, measuring coaching effectiveness requires a range of quantitative and qualitative benchmarks:
Sales rep and team performance:
Since coaching is directed at improving rep performance, this is the first place to start measuring coaching effectiveness. Measuring rep performance should include measures of efficiency and efficacy. Some common metrics include pipeline coverage, quantity of leads, time spent on selling, lead conversion rate, opportunity conversion rate, average sale price, and average length of sales cycle. Measuring team performance over and above individual rep performance allows organizations to decipher if challenges in coaching are arising at the rep level or the manager level. Team performance can be measured using metrics such as team win rates and quota achievement rates, average deal size and profitability, and average size and frequency of upsells and cross-sells.
Competency improvement is a measure of how coaching is applied in sales behavior. This requires measuring competency levels and progress on targeted skills and behavior before and after coaching is provided. Some metrics for tracking competency improvement include number of sellers applying a behavior, improvement in competencies around specific skills, scope and complexity of competency improvement, number of skills improved, and number of new skills learned.
Feedback from sales reps is a useful tool for judging the skill and performance of managers in facilitating coaching as well as the health of coaching initiatives. If reps feel underserved by coaching, this can provide important indicators into problems with the broader coaching program, particular coaches, or particular manager-rep pairings.
Besides upward feedback from sales reps, downward feedback from second-line managers and sales leadership also provides useful cues on managers’ coaching performance and the efficacy of resources such as coaching kits. This requires organizations to build a well-connected structure of involvement of second-line managers and sales leaders in the coaching process.
Finally, measuring ancillary factors that indicate the overall health of the sales teams can also provide important diagnostic inputs. For example, rate of attrition, sales rep stress levels, rate of promotion and advancement, and levels of job satisfaction can all serve as indicators of how effective sales coaching has been in offering sales reps career development and growth.
How to get started with sales coaching
Identify strengths and weaknesses of your sales team:
Use a combination of existing performance data as well as managerial and rep inputs to discover where reps are doing well and what they need more help with. Such discovery will help determine priority areas to be focused on in a coaching initiative.
Develop a coaching strategy as part of a larger enablement strategy:
Coaching may not be the only solution for all challenges currently faced by sales reps. Some of these challenges could also be addressed with training or enablement interventions. Further, coaching is also more effective when carried out as a development on training initiatives. Hence, it is essential that the coaching strategy be developed in the context of a broader training and enablement strategy.
Create a coaching plan incorporating diverse coaching styles:
Building a well-structured plan with methods and approaches suited to different aspects of the sales process and different skills as well as the different preferences and patterns of sales reps is important to be able to deliver highly personalized and contextual learning.
Build clear structure and expectations for managers and reps alike:
Coaching works best when it is planned and structured according to set routines and cadences. This ensures that managers allocate the necessary time and resources for the process and invest consciously in coaching. It is also essential to establish a culture of coaching that stretches across the organization's hierarchy in order to emphasize its importance and significance.
Create content to support coaching efforts:
Alongside the knowledge and skills directly transmitted by managers to reps, it is also essential to create a repository of content that can be used to reinforce and deepen reps' learnings. This will ease the burden on individual managers and help build a more robust learning environment.
Coaching plays a vital role in today's rapidly changing sales landscape, as reps need consistent support to develop the needed skills. However, most organizations struggle to provide effective coaching because of the failure to build well-structured programs for this purpose. By developing a clear strategy, designing structured processes, training managers well, and leveraging the right sales readiness technologies, companies can ensure that sales reps receive valuable guidance and maximize their sales performance.
- [i] https://blog.bridgegroupinc.com/periodic-table-inside-sales-metrics
- [ii] https://info.workinstitute.com/en/retention-report-2020
- [iii] https://taskdrive.com/sales/130-sales-statistics/
- [iv] https://www.millerheimangroup.com/resources/resource/fifth-annual-sales-enablement-study/
- [v] https://www.millerheimangroup.com/resources/resource/fifth-annual-sales-enablement-study/
- [vi] https://www.allego.com/resources/virtual-sales-coaching-report-how-sales-training-has-changed/
- [vii] https://www.salesforce.com/in/resources/research-reports/state-of-sales/
- [viii] https://www.salesforce.com/resources/research-reports/state-of-the-connected-customer/
- [ix] https://demandgenreport.com/resources/reports/2020-b2b-buyer-behavior-studypurchase-plans-still-progressing-despite-disruption-but-with-increased-expectations-for-relevance-personalization/
- [x] https://wp.nyu.edu/coaching/tools/smart-goals/
- [xi] https://www.millerheimangroup.com/resources/resource/running-in-sand-2020-trends-in-sales-management/