Stop Wasting Your Coaching Time

Brian Williams, PhD

Enough already, let’s get practical about sales coaching. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone that didn’t agree on the importance of front-line sales managers. “They’re the lynchpin of the sales organization”, is a common mantra these days. Modern selling is hard, and reps need meaningful support to succeed.

Yet, sales coaching in practice continues to fall short. We’ve analyzed over 5,000 sales managers in 2018 across a span a variety of industries: tech, healthcare, transportation, financial services, and more. We found a disappointing amount of time spent on coaching. On average, sales managers in our dataset devote less than 25% of their time to coaching activities.

While this reality can be frustrating for senior leaders, we’re sympathetic. Sales managers have a lot on their plate. And more is added every day: Too many conference calls and meetings, new hire onboarding, hands-on selling in open territories, running reports, reporting on reports, and of course forecasting! It never seems to end.

Adding insult to injury, our benchmarks show average manager spans-of-control continue to increase. Quality coaching quickly falls into the “important, but not urgent” time category. Telling managers to do more coaching might make us feel better. But the truth is, most managers already know the importance of coaching. What they’re struggling with is: how to do it more efficiently?

Helping managers understand the different forms of coaching is the first step to improving their efficiency. Knowing that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to coaching is a big move forward. Different coaching interventions yields different outcomes. There are three distinct modes of sales coaching:

  • Skills Coaching – This involves observing and providing feedback on a rep’s core selling skills. A focus is on the basics like conducting good discovery, delivering the message, and handling objections. This may also include process skills such as call planning and account management.
  • Pipeline Coaching – This is evaluating the health of a rep’s funnel. It includes prioritizing opportunities, assessing deal velocity, and assigning resources. Pipeline coaching helps reps understand how the quality and quantity of deals in their funnel aligns to their targets.
  • Deal or Opportunity Coaching – This form of coaching helps reps increase the win rate of individual opportunities. Ideally, it involves assessing the unique aspects of a deal and identifying appropriate sales strategies and tactics.

For most managers, finding time for Skills Coaching comes easiest. It’s a natural part of joint sales calls and other frequent rep interactions. In the same way, Pipeline Coaching tends to occur more regularly because its tied to monthly forecasting. A discussion around a rep’s sales funnel is a common part of the manager’s ongoing cadence.

In contrast, our research finds that managers devote far too little time to Deal Coaching. And that’s ironic as this form of coaching tends the have the biggest impact on overall sales results. Solid deal coaching is more important than ever because the number ways opportunities stall-out continues to grow. 

More deal coaching is a good thing. But the question becomes: How can managers be more efficient deal coaches? How can they can fit more of it into their calendars?

Traditional deal coaching conversations aren’t particularly efficient. They start with the rep telling the long back story of the opportunity. They also include a rundown of the many players as well as review of the selling actions taken to date. For complex deals with multiple influencers, this part of the discussion takes a very long time. And the selling strategy part of the conversation can take even longer! Multiple close ideas might then be tossed back with forth between the manager and the rep. We’ve seen managers spend more than an hour on just one mid-funnel opportunity – one deal among dozens in one rep’s pipeline.  

Time efficiency in deal coaching starts with a new mindset. Deal coaching sessions can't obsess over finding a magical close strategy. Such things don’t exist. Today’s deals are just too complex, even in sales models once seen as transactional. Deals involve a series of steps with many roadblocks and hurdles at multiple points. These are what we call the Pivot Points of a deal. They’re moments of situational awareness, redirection, and adaptability. Faced with a barrier or objection in a deal, reps assess the situation and pivot to a targeted play, or sales action. The role of the manager is to coach the rep through these pivots.

We’ve transitioned many companies to Situational Deal Coaching. In this model, managers engage reps in brief deal check-ins, some as short as 10 minutes. The focus shifts from determining the grand deal strategy to a more targeted dialog: 

  1. What’s the situation and what factors did you rely on to make that assessment? The manager is simply checking the accuracy of rep’s assessment of the situation. Together, they pattern-match to a pre-determined set of common deal situations. Asking a few questions is usually all it takes: “Which previous deal is this current deal like and why?”. Managers don’t need the full color commentary or all the gory detail.
  2. What’s the right play for this particular situation? There may be a number of possible sales plays – what to say, do, and show. But particular plays are best suited for particular deal situations. Once the situation is defined and the pattern matched, the right play becomes more apparent.

For many companies, less than five questions can help the manager and rep form a clear understanding of deal situation. Once the pattern is known, determining the sales play is easier (and quicker). The coaching conversation is focused, centered on overcoming one hurdle at one point in the deal.

This approach is similar to a coach helping a quarterback manage a specific series in football. Great football coaches don’t focus on a ‘touchdown play’. They use a select set of situational factors (position on the field, time on the clock, down and distance, and so on) to select a play. Touchdowns come from calling the right play at the right time to move the ball forward. Likewise, winning deals come as a result of good play-calling throughout the sales process. 

Using this more targeted deal coaching, managers can help their reps navigate many more deals in a shorter amount of time. Coaching is more defined and targeted: understand where the deal is on the field of play, then ensure the rep is running the right play to move things forward.

Making the transition to more efficient deal coaching can be challenging, especially for managers distracted by a growing list of to-dos. We’d love to share some tangible strategies for improving the quantity and quality of coaching. Contact us to learn more about Situational Deal Coaching and our related benchmarks.

Brian Williams, PhD

Brian Williams, PhD

Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.