Sales Coaching: How To Get It Right

There is a lot to say about sales coaching. First, how extremely impactful it is when it comes to a leadership method to drive sales performance in an impactful and sustainable way. And second, most importantly, how to get it right. And the latter is our topic today. Sales coaching: how to get it right.

Imagine, how you are driving now as a skilled driver and years ago when you just got your driving license. There are a lot of specific skills that must be mastered before a driver reaches the level of unconscious competence, e.g., what certain signs and symbols mean, who has the right of way, how to parallel park, and how to master European roundabouts. While all these skills are important, some are more vital than others because they are critical to success. For sales managers, coaching is such a skill, regardless if they lead a field or an inside sales team.

For most people in sales, coaching is perceived as opportunity coaching even though there are many more aspects of the sales role that must be coached. Furthermore, many salespeople, not only in inside sales, don’t feel “coached,” even if their managers call it that. Let’s start by defining what sales coaching means:

Sales coaching is a leadership skill that develops each salesperson’s full potential.

Sales managers use their domain expertise, along with social, communication, and questioning skills to facilitate conversations with their team members that allow them to discover areas for improvement and possibilities to break through to new levels of success.

That’s in one sentence what sales coaching is all about. Consequently, sales coaching is not asking things like, “What’s your forecast this month?” or telling a salesperson, “You need to build more pipeline.” Instead, effective sales coaches consider the salesperson’s personal goals, their style, current strengths, and weaknesses before engaging in a dialogue. Then, the focus of such a structured conversation is to discover areas for improvement regarding behaviours and activities that should lead to the desired results.

Sales coaching areas must be defined: lead and opportunity coaching, pipeline coaching, coaching skills and behaviours, account and territory coaching

If coaching is reduced to opportunity coaching only, the organization misses out on much of the performance benefits of coaching. As defined in my book, co-authored with B. Matthews, Sales Enablement: A Master Framework to Engage, Equip and Empower a World-Class Sales Force, sales coaching covers five different areas that can be implemented step by step:

  • Lead and opportunity coaching
  • Pipeline coaching
  • Coaching skills and behaviours
  • Account coaching
  • Territory coaching

However, in most organizations, sales coaching is often focused on lead and opportunity coaching only, it leveraged at all. It’s remarkable that the majority of sales managers – fast forward to today – spend, on average, less than an hour a week coaching leads and opportunities. Lead and opportunity coaching is a great starting point. But it should soon be enriched by coaching skills and behaviours as a foundational coaching layer. Especially for salespeople who are now working most of their time on the phone and in video meetings, lead and opportunity coaching should always be enriched by coaching the related skills and behaviours.

Sales coaching needs to be formalised to be effective

Now as you have defined your various coaching areas, it’s about developing a coaching process that follows the customer journey and your internal processes that are – ideally – purposefully aligned to the customer journey.  If that’s the case, your coaching framework sits directly between the customer journey and your internal process landscape, bridging between both sides. Imagine the sales coaching process as a mirror of your process landscape.

There are four levels of sales coaching maturity (more details are in the book):

  • Random: There is no coaching process defined.  Coaching is left up to each manager.
  • Informal: Coaching guidelines are available, but there is no formal coaching process. Managers are told that they should coach, but there is no monitoring or measurement.
  • Formal: Coaching areas and the coaching process are defined and implemented. Sales managers are expected to coach accordingly, and there is a formal effort to develop their skills. Periodic reviews help optimize processes and guidelines.
  • Dynamic: Sales managers are required to coach; they are measured and compensated accordingly. Ongoing reviews help to not only optimize the process but also to adapt it to market dynamics and the changing selling environment.

It is interesting to observe that the way how organisations approach sales coaching didn’t change a lot over the last couple of years. After moments of hope, in 2018, where the numbers increased towards a more formal or even dynamic approach, the results went back in 2019, indicating that only a small percentage of organizations (less than one-fifth*) operate in a formalised manner.

More than 60% of sales organizations waste resources due to random and informal sales coaching approaches, and only less than 40% leverage the huge performance potential of formal and dynamic coaching.

Having worked with many organisations over the last decade, and having conducted numerous studies on enablement, always included sales coaching, there are clear patterns. One pattern is called “random is a recipe for failure.” Whenever sales coaching was left up to each manager, and that’s what you consider as a random approach, sales organizations have a hard time achieving even average performance. Most of the time, their results were way below the studies’ average results.

The next pattern is “formality matters:” That means that formal sales coaching processes that go along with sales coaching skill development and a proper implementation that checks how often and how well salespeople are coached, creates first results above the average performance.

And the third pattern is called “the more dynamic, the better:” As define above, you are then in a situation where your enablement framework refers to the sales coaching framework. And as all your enablement services are designed along the customer journey, and the coaching process as well, everything is lined up to drive adoption and reinforcement via sales coaching. And that pays off: organizations following this approach, see year after year, two-digit improvements of win rates and quota attainment.

How could sales leaders ignore two-digit improvements in win rates or quota attainment?

Investing in enablement to build coaching frameworks and develop sales managers accordingly, especially their coaching capabilities, is the key to achieving the kinds of performance improvements sought by sales leaders everywhere.


The first edition of this article has been initially written for Top Sales Magazine, September 2017 issue. The article was updated in 2020.
Image source: Unsplash Images

*Source:  © 2019 Sales Enablement Study Report, CSO Insights, Miller Heiman Group, part of Korn Ferry 

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash