As you can imagine, I get to speak to a fair number of B2B-focused CEOs and sales leaders – and I can’t recall any of them ever disagreeing with the principle that effective sales coaching is an absolutely critical skill for first-line sales management.
But the latest research from CSO insights suggest that 3 out of 4 companies are taking the wrong approach to sales coaching – an approach that is clearly holding back both individual rep performance and overall revenue achievement.
Three approaches to coaching
In the research that formed the basis for their recently-published 2013 Sales Management Optimization report, CSO Insights asked sales leaders to characterise their approach to sales coaching into one of three categories:
  • The sales coaching process is left to the individual sales manager (ad-hoc)
  • The company has an informal sales coaching process most managers use
  • The company has a formal sales coaching process managers are expected to use
You can see the breakdown (with simplified labels) in the chart below. The most common response was that the sales coaching process was left to the individual sales manager. The next largest group had an informal process. But only a quarter had established a formal, company-wide process.
In other words, formalised coaching is the exception, rather than the rule. But it gets really interesting when you compare actual sales rep performance and overall quota achievement across the three sales coaching philosophies:
As you can see, there is a pretty dramatic difference between companies that permitted an ad-hoc approach to coaching versus those that insisted on a formal process. And even those companies that had an informal framework could do even better if they evolved it into a formalised, well-documented system.
High-growth-potential organisations can derive the greatest benefits
Actually, in the companies that I most frequently work with – expansion-stage companies that are typically seeking to grow revenues at a significant rate, and are as a result expanding their sales organisations rapidly – the gap between the informal and formal approaches appears from my experience to be far wider (by the way, this is my conclusion, and not contained in the CSO Insights report).
In fact, the ability to formally and systematically induct and coach new hires in a structured manner that reflects best sales practice often seems to make the difference between a successful hire and failing to get the best from recent recruits.
That’s not to say that coaching isn’t invaluable across the whole sales organisation – I have seen it proven to my complete satisfaction that you can, in fact, teach (or coach) old dogs to perform new tricks – but it’s particularly critical when sales people need to follow a rapid learning curve.
Train the trainers – and coach the coaches
The idea of “training the trainer” is well understood in most organisations – but I believe that many organisations also have a crying need for a formal “coach the coaches” programme.  I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with clients developing coaching programmes over the past few months, and here’s what I’ve learned:
  • CSO Insights are absolutely right: formalised coaching programmes are dramatically more effective than ad-hoc approaches
  • Sales managers need to follow a structured framework if they are to support their sales people most effectively
  • These principles are best enshrined in a formal “coaches guide” that captures best practices, offers diagnostics, and includes coaching routines and role plays
  • The coaching process must be continuously tested and evolved to reflect the latest learning and best practices
  • Time must be set aside for coaching on an on-going basis, and managers must be measured on the amount of time spent on coaching
This might sound like an intimidating amount of work, but it isn’t. Even a simple, basic structure can deliver tangible benefits. Having shared diagnostics (so managers know where they should be spending their time, and on what), and shared best-practice coaching frameworks (so managers know how to maximise the learning from coaching opportunities) can be incredibly productive.
This is just as well, because as I’ve suggested, it’s the smaller, faster growing companies that in my experience can gain the greatest benefit from a formal sales coaching programme. Oh, and one final point: I’d strongly advise that any investment in formalised sales training be backed up by an equivalent commitment to on-going coaching and reinforcement. If you don’t, you’re almost certainly wasting most or all of your training investment.
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Bob Apollo is the Managing Partner of Inflexion-Point, and an accredited Funnel Coach. To read more of his insights, go to the Inflexion-Point blog.