The 3 Categories of Sales Coaching

The 3 Categories of Sales Coaching

“Their calls are a mess.  I have no idea where to even start.”

This is a common refrain from Sales Managers.  Sometimes there are people on your team that have so many opportunity areas that it seems easier to just move on and start over with someone else.  That can seem like an easy solution.  However, removing someone from your organization can be a huge risk as it costs a lot of time and resources to recruit, select, and train the ‘next person in’.  Even worse, the next person might have the exact same issues.  We like to think that firing someone and hiring someone new will solve all of our problems, but how often does that actually happen?  It’s usually safer and more efficient to develop someone than to start over from scratch.

That said, even when you have world-class training and development you will still have ‘problem children’, which is another way of saying you will always have something to work on from an education standpoint.  It never ends.  Once you accept that education is a constant part of the job, it gets a bit easier to deal with the frustration of having a team member that is not where they need to be from a sales skills perspective.

In order to build a development plan for an underperforming salesperson you need to get organized mentally. The best way to do that is divide all of the skills necessary to do the job into three main categories….”Call Basics”, “Cosmetics”, and “Behaviors”.  This enables you to create a list of their opportunity areas, rank them by priority, and start creating a plan for improvement.  Let’s talk about each of these categories.

The 3 Categories of Sales Coaching

3 Categories of Sales Coaching - Call Basics

Call Basics – “What we say”

For starters, I realize that your salespeople may not make phone calls.  They may do outside sales or conduct webinars for instance.  So if you aren’t in the inside sales world, modify this category to “Sales Skills”.  Either way, it’s still the “what we say” category.

Call Basics are mostly black and white.  You can listen to a salesperson speak and check a box next to a call basic that says, “Yes or No”.  There might be varying levels of skill and polish that can used to grade their effectiveness and comfort with a call basic, but overall it’s either happening or it’s not.

Some examples of sales skills that are call basics are:

  • Opening/Introduction
  • Gatekeeper Handling
  • Using features and benefits in the sales presentation
  • Offering a product demonstration (if applicable)
  • Closing (aka “asking for the sale”)
  • Responding to objections
  • Asking questions

I feel safe in assuming you have defined best practices and there is a “best way” to do something in your environment.  If you don’t, you might want to stop there and use this as a guide to build a set of best practices.  There needs to be a roadmap to success.  That could take the form of a script, a call flow, talk track or checklist, but there needs to be something documented that defines what your call basics are and how to perform them.

The other thing about call basics is that this is very likely the area you should address first when building a development plan.  Regardless of how they sound or what they do, these are the building blocks to success.  It’s often easier to get someone handling a gatekeeper or overcoming an objection first and then worry about how they sound later.

The analogy I use here is when you clean the house.  You take care of the obvious stuff first, like clothes lying around, dishes on the counter, etc.  Once that is taken care of, you do all of the polishing and address the special touches last.

It really doesn’t matter if that counter is spotless and shiny if you have piles of dirt lying around everywhere else.  So, address the call basics first.  The important thing is that they are installing call basics and through simple repetition they will generally get better over time.  Then you can worry about the polish.

Now, I did say that usually call basics are mostly black and white and they are either doing it or they aren’t.  It is also true that sometimes you can perform a call basic, but it sounds so bad that it actually has a negative effect.  When that happens, it’s usually time to move to our next category.
3 Categories of Sales Coaching - Cosmetics

Cosmetics – “How We Say It”

Regardless of what type of sales you are in, you have to talk.  I’ve yet to encounter a salesperson that could sell a product or a service without talking.  Sure, you might do your business via e-mail or through some online portal, but even then there is a cosmetic aspect to the words you choose to use, how they are emphasized and the implied meaning of your words.

I could sum this concept up by saying “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.”

Cosmetics are mostly a gray area, which can be frustrating when trying to define a set of best practices in regards to cosmetics.  I have had great salespeople that sound horrible, and I have had horrible salespeople that sound fantastic.  So, perfecting how you sound and how you say your words is not mutually exclusive to success.  This is why this category can be so difficult for a coach and for a salesperson.

Some examples of what I mean by cosmetics are:

  • Key Word Emphasis
  • Controlled Pausing
  • Voice Projection
  • Voice Pitch
  • Pace of Conversation
  • Grammar / Pronunciation / Use of Slang

So, how do we approach this topic?  First, I have found that it is mostly a waste of time to work on cosmetics before we have salespeople performing call basics at a level that you would at least consider ‘adequate’.  The reason is because if you change what they say, their cosmetics are going to have to be adjusted again anyway.  It’s sort of like adjusting the satellite dish to get that perfect signal before it’s fully installed…you are just going to have to re-adjust anyway.

A good rule to use when approaching cosmetics is to ask “Is this broken?” I have encountered countless examples where a well-meaning Sales Manager attempts to “fix” a successful salesperson’s cosmetics, only to find they hurt their overall results.

Sometimes, salespeople are very successful using cosmetics that are different from what you would expect to be successful.  If someone isn’t getting sales and their call basics are solid, then address cosmetics.  If they are getting sales with solid call basics and their cosmetics could use work, consider leaving them alone or only making minor, periodic tweaks to what they are doing.  Don’t mess with success too much.

Now, you do have those cases where someone says what you want them to say, and they sound great, but they just don’t seem to do the things you want them to do consistently.  This brings us to our third category.
3 Categories of Sales Coaching - Behaviors

Behaviors – “What we Do”

“I shouldn’t have to babysit these people.”

“I don’t want to tell them what to do.”

“People need to manage themselves.”

I agree with all of those statements.  But consider this…if all of your people said what they were supposed to say every single time, sounded great every single time, and always did what they were supposed to do every single time…well, then why do they need you?

At the end of the day, your job as a manager is to set expectations and then inspect to ensure those expectations are being met.  That’s an oversimplification to be sure, but it’s pretty accurate.  Part of that process is defining what behaviors are successful in your environment and encouraging everyone to emulate those behaviors by using The Three Pillars of Sales Coaching.  It’s not enough to just tell people what to do, you have to create a culture and environment that positively reinforces the successful behaviors, and minimizes or eliminates the unsuccessful behaviors.

Some examples of the behaviors that I am speaking of:

  • Attendance
  • Consistency
  • Accuracy
  • Efficiency
  • Ethics
  • Citizenship
  • Attitude

Now, that’s a big list and there’s a lot that goes into each one of those items.  For instance, what is “citizenship”?  For me, it’s the concept that all members are part of the team and that job number one is that we support each other, help each other, and all contribute to the success of the organization.  For you it might mean something different, but the point is that you need to identify what behaviors are indicative of the core values of your team and your organization.

A good way to go about determining what behaviors are important to you and what behaviors are necessary for success is to really observe and even interview your most successful people.  Figure out what they do every day.

  • How do they act? 
  • What is their approach to the job? 
  • How do they spend their time? 
  • What are they willing to do and what are they NOT willing to do?

One of the most difficult things to do is to coach someone on their behavior.  Even when you use The 10 Vital Steps to a Successful Coaching Session you will still have people that have behavior issues.  Sometimes, people just get complacent and develop bad habits or get away from behaviors that made them successful without even realizing it.

The key is documentation.  You have to be diligent as a manager and document instances when a person was not behaving in an acceptable way.  Document the behavior and what happened as a result.  Keep emotions out of it if possible.  Behaviors have outcomes.  If I miss work, I will not make as many sales.  If I don’t fill out my contracts properly I will have fulfillment problems.  If I treat my co-workers rudely, it impacts our results and creates new problems.  The key to getting someone to buy-in to adopting a successful behavior is to show them what will happen if they start doing it, and then positively reinforcing that behavior whenever you see it.
3 Categories of Sales Coaching - Start

This is All Great, But Where Do I Start?

It all starts with setting expectations.  Make a list of all of the call basics, cosmetics, and behaviors that are vital to success in your organization.  You might even rank each list in order of what is the most vital.  Then, rank each of your people in each category.  Another good exercise is to have all of your people self-evaluate and rank themselves in each category as well.  What this will do for your team is that it sets expectations of what you expect and gives your team a basic framework for self-improvement.

What it does for you is that is creates a roadmap for you to determine where to start, and a basis for that coaching conversation to take place.  Don’t try and fix it all at once.  That’s impossible.  It’s a long journey and it never really ends.  Just focus on the most important things and really address them and don’t stop until it’s no longer an issue.  And then move on to the next one.  Over time, the list gets shorter and you will find that you have more positive examples to point people towards.  That momentum gives you more options to choose from when you coach people.

In future articles I will break down more of the items in these three categories and really dig deep as to what you should be coaching to and how to improve each one.  But for now, this will give you a place to start.

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