The single most important aspect of developing a strong inside salesperson is to provide them with insightful coaching opportunities. In today’s high-tech digital world we can provide new levels of analytical insight that shine a light on opportunity areas that would have previously gone undiscovered. We can access that data from the cloud, present it on nearly any device, and utilize technology in ways that redefine our roles in the industry. That said, despite revolutionary statistical analysis and the leveraging of amazing data mining technology to determine where we can be more efficient, our ability to use that data to drive change still depends on one ‘old school’ skill: Our ability to coach someone to make the change necessary to be more successful.
I often say that coaching is simultaneously the most important and most difficult skill to master in our (or virtually any) industry. I have worked in this industry for just under two decades. I don’t want to even think about how many coaching sessions I have conducted or observed. The number almost certainly is above 10,000. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. Based on that experience, I have determined that there are ten vital steps to ensure your coaching session is as successful as it can be. Before you read these steps, it might be helpful to learn a bit more about The 3 Pillars of Sales Coaching that I discussed in a previous article.
The 10 Steps to a Successful Coaching Session
Step 1: Document Your Goal
Many managers have a big heart and mean well, but do more damage than development because of a poorly executed coaching session. Before you get into a coaching session, realize that most of the work is done before the session even starts. No matter what skill or behavior you are trying to get your salesperson to adopt, the most important part of any coaching session is to have a clear goal of what you are trying to achieve. As part of your planning process, write down a brief phrase that clearly states the goal of the coaching session. You will need to refer to this after the session is done.
If you can’t clearly state the goal you are probably trying to achieve too much in a single coaching session.
Step 2: Start with a Positive
On the surface this seems extraordinarily easy. Just start by saying something nice about their calls, their efforts, or their results. However, many managers will gloss over this step or simply say something so superficial or sarcastic that it actually comes across as a negative. Think about what your salesperson values and say something positive about that.
Some managers ask, “Well, what if I can’t find anything positive?” In response I say, “Look harder.”
Step 3: Explain the Area of Opportunity
This is where the coaching session really gets going. Talk about how and why you identified the opportunity area and ensure that you have made it very clear to your salesperson. Resist the urge to try and bring up multiple issues. It’s ok to talk about other opportunities as you summarize your thoughts, but don’t let it become a list of things they need to do. Arrive at the single most important issue impacting their results and explain that opportunity area is what you want to work on in the coaching session. If they have multiple areas of opportunity, choose the one that will make the biggest impact or the one that is derailing the rest of their efforts.
If you have trouble identifying which opportunity area is the most pressing, ask yourself this: “What single improvement would impact their results the most?”
Step 4: Choose and Apply the Coaching Method
There are many different methods of coaching available to you, and you need to have many techniques at your disposal to address the myriad of personality types and opportunity areas that you will have to address with your people. In the planning stage before the session begins, think about the personality of your salesperson. Think about their values. Think about what they like and don’t like. How can you relate to this person? For some, a simple explanation will suffice. For others, they need to see it visually or hear it audibly demonstrated. Another powerful tool is using an analogy to help relate the opportunity area to something in their everyday life they are passionate or knowledgeable about. Sometimes watching or listening to someone else who performs the skill well is a smart way to go.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what methods to use. It all depends on what is being coached and who you are coaching. You have to let your knowledge of the person and how they respond to different techniques be your guide.
Most importantly, realize that you will likely have to use multiple coaching methods over several coaching sessions to fully make the new skill a habit.
Step 5: Demonstration of Skill
It is imperative that you find a method of demonstrating the skill being performed, and being performed well, to your salesperson. Too many times your salesperson has every intention of incorporating the new skill but the true message of our coaching is lost in translation because it’s not 100% crystal clear what we want them to do.
So, make life easy on yourself. Find someone doing this skill and use them as an example. Listen to a recording. Listen to them live. And if neither of those things is a possibility, create a scenario and roleplay with them and demonstrate the skill yourself. Not only will this help with your next step, but it also will help keep your skills sharp as well. Don’t rely too much on explanation.
Even the best communicators have trouble getting their message across. Don’t tell them. Show them.
Step 6: Gain Buy-in
While it’s easy to assume that everyone we coach goes in with an open mind and the best of intentions, the reality is that you are likely working with someone that has a large ego and a lot of pride. That should not be taken as a negative. Frankly, it’s why this is the business they’ve chosen (or the reason they ended up in this business)! Keeping in mind that you are dealing with someone that has a lot of ego and pride, you will have to sell them on the reason why you want them to change. You will have to plan this out before you coach them and sometimes you will have to make adjustments on the fly.
Do they understand why they need to change? Do they believe it will help them? If the answer to those questions is “no”, then you probably aren’t going to get them to change. Your reasons need to be compelling and not based in a culture of “do it or else”. You want them to sell? Sell them first.
Step 7: Check for Retention and Practical Application
I have a saying I am very fond of: “If you haven’t seen or heard them do it, then they probably can’t.”
This isn’t to say I don’t trust people; it’s quite the opposite. I absolutely take people at face value when they promise to use a new skill. That said, I have grown to be cautious in a sales agency because the only thing more abundant than results is the promise of results. People will say or do just about anything to ‘escape’ a coaching session. Talking about yourself and admitting that you need to do things differently is difficult and uncomfortable.
So, how do you check for practical application? Ask them to perform the skill you just coached them on. Ask the salesperson to repeat back to you what you want them to do and require that they demonstrate the skill. Explain that the session won’t end until they do this. This may seem harsh, but it’s a part of coaching. You tell them what to do, and then you have them do it. Their demonstration of the coached skill may not be perfect and it might not be adequate at this stage. The effort and your encouragement are really what matters. They’ll get there eventually, but make sure we are on the right path.
Step 8: End on a Positive
Encourage their efforts. Thank them for their time. Make them feel good about what they’ve just done and what will happen as a result of their commitment to continuous improvement. Positive reinforcement is the single most powerful tool you have. The thing that people crave more than anything in life is praise and recognition. Do not allow your session to end with a negative tone, because the hard work is yet to come.
Now they have to implement the skill and they will need you by their side encouraging them every step of the way.
Step 9: Set Expectations for Follow-Up
Many coaches walk away after ending on a positive. This is a colossal mistake. Imperative to the coaching effort is the agreement you make with your salesperson on how they will use the skill and when you will follow-up to inspect and make adjustments.
Most important to your efforts should be an understanding that people don’t like to change. And if they know that no one will check in and evaluate, they probably won’t change unless you really did a fantastic job at every other step. Even when a person knows a change will help, they will still resist. How many people have you met that agree that they need to exercise, lose weight, be more healthy, spend more time with their kids, etc, and yet they don’t change? It’s human nature.
How do you break the cycle? Explain what you expect and when you will follow-up. Do not threaten them. Don’t speak about consequences unless this session is for disciplinary reasons (I will address how to give corrective action in a future article). Encourage them and make sure they know that you will be there to help them. And then simply deliver on your promise.
Step 10: Evaluate and Plan
So, how did it go? Refer back to the goal that you documented back in Step One. Did you meet the goal? If yes, don’t forget to follow-up and work to make that new skill an unbreakable habit. Most importantly, make sure to praise them and encourage them every step of the way. If no, then evaluate where it went wrong and create a plan for your next attempt. When will it happen and what will you change?
Don’t be afraid to call in reinforcements and get a second opinion. Coaching is difficult and sometimes it takes a village.
Coaching is not an Event
Most importantly, realize that coaching is not a thing that happens once in a while. It’s a way of life. It’s a philosophy. It’s a way of communicating. You are coaching people with every action and non-action. You are on a stage. Everything you do and everything you say is in itself a small coaching session. While you can’t follow this process in everything you do, if you follow these steps and are honest with yourself about your own performance, when you have more formal coaching sessions it will bear fruit. Best of all, your team will thank you…in the form of better results.