Sales Coaching Tips for The Twenty-First Century
Tech-savvy techniques to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace
A smarter, faster, more responsive type of salesperson
But there are some bright spots on the horizon. The BLS also insists that in some areas, salespeople are always going to be in demand. The service and wholesale sectors rely heavily on a human sales presence.
And there is growing customer demand for a new type of salesperson: one who acts more like a curator or concierge, completely tailoring their presentations to the client’s interests.
This new breed of salesperson doesn’t try to control the conversation but knows the customer’s needs inside and out and can think of innovative ways to meet them.
This new role is incredibly complex: it demands the quick acquisition of new knowledge bases; the ability to build and maintain high-value customer relationships that are deeply rooted in trust and authenticity; and the vision to nimbly and flexibly adapt to a rapidly changing world (e.g., like learning to make sales while working from home amid a pandemic!).
It’s a tall order—and that means it’s time to flash the signal for the sales manager.
The key to success in this brave new world: sales coaching
Sales managers can save the day for their reps (and, by extension, their organizations) by seriously investing their time and resources in significant sales coaching—the kind of coaching that will leave their salespeople feeling supported, inspired, and holding a clear roadmap to success.
This area of management has never been as absolutely crucial as it is now, as we enter the brave new world of the 2020s.
Read on to learn more about what, precisely, sales coaching is, why it’s so essential, and the top tips and techniques for putting effective sales coaching into practice (with a specific focus on tech-savvy sales coaching practices for the 21st century).
What is sales coaching?
Sales coaching is a broad, flexible term that can be hard to pin down. The broad definition of the word is why sales managers struggle and identify best practices.
But we can turn to decades of sales management research for help. Top academics agree that the below definition from High-Performance Sales Organizations: Achieving Competitive Advantage in the Global Marketplace—a book based on hundreds of in-depth interviews with sales professionals—does a pretty good job of summing it up:
According to the volume mentioned above, sales coaching is: “A sequence of conversations and activities that provides ongoing feedback and encouragement to a salesperson or sales team member with the goal of improving that person’s performance.”
A little industry history: Incentives vs. Sales Coaching
For over a century, an incentive-driven approach has dominated the sales industry as a means to “inspire” sales reps. Those incentives are almost always monetary: salespeople have traditionally been given either no salary or a mix of a salary and a percentage of commissions on finalized sales.
According to the study “Breaking the Sales Force Incentive Addiction,” by 2012, US salespeople were earning an average of 40% of their pay via commissions.
But studies like that one have found that incentives only work when used as a reward for completing simple tasks with clear objectives.
As soon as a task demands creative or other more advanced cognitive skills, incentives impair performance.
One researcher called incentives the “enemies of exploration”—they are proven to discourage creative problem-solving and thinking outside of the box.
And herein lies the problem: succeeding as a sales rep requires more creativity and outside-the-box thinking today than ever before.
Thanks to the internet, consumers have more access to information about services and products than at any other point in history. And they are continually educating themselves on those services and products, effectively throwing the traditional “seven-step sales process” (by which the salesperson is in control of introducing the client to their product) out the window.
So, if in 2020 we find ourselves having to abandon traditional sales approaches—incentives along with them—how are sales managers supposed to encourage the highest level of performance from their reps, especially given their anxiety about the unstable and precarious landscape in which they now work?
Time and again, studies have shown that the answer is sales coaching. Sales managers who provide positive feedback, model effective behavior, and create trust-based bonds with their sales representatives (more on all that soon) can expect a minimum of 10% more positive outcomes in sales.
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A few more reasons why sales coaching is so important
Sales coaching is proven to maximize effectiveness at closing the deal, but there are also some other crucial reasons why the practice is so important. Here’s a rundown of a few more benefits:
Salespeople who feel supported by inspirational sales managers report higher levels of satisfaction with their jobs and better well-being in general. Happy salespeople are not only more likely to stay at their place of employment but also find it easier to establish trust-based connections with their sales prospects.
Better relationships with prospects mean more sales wins.
A 2019 Bridge Group report found that in B2B companies, there’s an average salesperson turnover rate of 34%, with one in 10 companies suffering from a turnover rate as high as 55%.
The same year, SiriusDecisions found that 60–80% of salespeople leave their jobs because they felt a lack of connection to their organization’s leaders.
Compare those grim statistics to these: in that 2012 study cited above, researchers described an insurance company suffering from an incredibly high turnover rate of over 60% a year. After two years of implementing a robust sales coaching program, the company brought its turnover rate to below industry average.
In summary, stellar sales coaching impacts employee retention directly.
The three essential components of sales coaching
So far, we’ve identified at least two challenges facing the modern salesforce:
- Sales reps must think creatively, and studies show that incentive-based techniques don’t facilitate this kind of success.
- Organizations must be continuously training and coaching reps or risk a high turnover rate.
But as a sales manager, what does that mean in practice?
There’s no way around it: sales coaching is time-intensive. One study found that effective sales coaching can take up as much as 60% of a sales manager’s work hours. Therefore, sales leaders must have a firm grasp of sales coaching fundamentals to maximize that time.
In his landmark study, “The Constructs of Sales Coaching,” researcher Gregory A. Rich broke sales coaching down into three main components:
1. Supervisory feedback
As its name would imply, this component of sales coaching involves the sales manager offering helpful and constructive feedback to their sales reps.
Sales leaders should vary how they deliver feedback and observe how each method affects individual employees.
Some employees are best helped by informal, off-the-cuff feedback after individual sales calls. Others prefer to have written feedback on a quarterly or monthly basis to clarify areas of opportunity.
Offering helpful feedback is a skill and can easily be botched, ironically resulting in low employee morale or worse performance. Let’s drill down into this topic to offer the best feedback for your team and avoid common pitfalls.
Positive or negative feedback?
It can be tempting only to offer feedback when a sales representative makes mistakes. Errors tend to be far more glaring to a sales manager than the right decisions.
But studies like Rich’s have demonstrated that positive feedback is crucial to motivating the salesforce.
Instead of just picking on what the salesperson is doing wrong, encourage them whenever they show the behaviors you want to see replicated.
A good analogy for this is that of a bank account. Every time you offer positive feedback, you’re depositing cash into the account. This builds trust with the employee so that when the time comes to provide negative feedback, your “withdrawal” doesn’t break the bank.
This balance (no pun intended) is crucial: offering a flurry of critical feedback points without a single positive one is like withdrawing cash on a bank account with a zero balance. Employees can only take so much of it before you utterly destroy their motivation and burn them out.
When should sales managers give feedback?
When it comes to offering feedback, what you say is as vital as when you say it. Positive behaviors should be recognized and rewarded with positive feedback as soon as they occur.
Waiting to recognize a salesperson’s good work until their official performance review is far less motivating than offering that positive feedback continuously throughout the sales process.
Sales wins vs. winning behaviors—which to reward?
The most effective sales coaching feedback addresses all positive behaviors demonstrated by the sales rep through the entire sales process, from drumming up good sales prospects to conducting excellent research, and so on.
Don’t make the mistake of only focusing on outcomes: offering praise for the whole spectrum of good behavior is far more motivating and encourages sales reps to implement best practices consistently.
Plus, your team can’t control outcomes, only the actions that lead to those outcomes. It’s far more motivating to offer feedback on things within the realm of your reps’ control.
2. Role modeling
When it comes to modeling good behavior, Frank Pacetta, a high-achieving sales manager for Xerox, put it best: “I believe in the power of personal example. You can rant and rave and threaten, but the most effective way to get results is to show someone what you want done.”
In other words, if you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself (or at least show your team that it’s possible). Leading by example is a crucial sales coaching method.
The following is a list of behaviors sales managers should always strive to exhibit to inspire their salesforce. (Rich compiled these tips after surveying hundreds of sales managers working in a variety of businesses.)
Seven ways sales managers can model desirable behavior:
- Always be punctual
- Consistently maintain honest, ethical interactions with colleagues and sales prospects
- Maintain a professional appearance
- Actively listen to your salesperson’s concerns and make them feel validated
- Demonstrate an “all for one and one for all” attitude
- Never ask your sales reps to do something you wouldn’t do yourself
- Demonstrate winning sales techniques
3. Fostering trust
Linda Richardson’s 1996 book Sales Coaching: Making the Great Leap from Sales Manager to Sales Coach might be an oldy by now, but it’s still a goody. In it, she offers this precious insight:
“A person’s openness to coaching is usually proportionate to his or her level of trust.”
The cynics among us will be tempted to dismiss this as Yoda-esque fortune cookie wisdom. But that’d be foolish.
We know that trust is the absolute key to a salesperson’s success. But sales coaches can’t expect their salespeople to forge those trusting connections with prospects if their sales reps don’t trust them first.
Establishing trust may seem like an emotional, intuitive process that’s hard to quantify, but there are some established best practices in this arena, too. Here’s a breakdown:
How sales coaches can successfully create trust with sales reps
Sales coaches should have a demonstrable history of successful sales behind them and continue to exhibit a high level of competence for sales reps to trust in their expertise.
Sales coaches must prove that they are honest, reliable, and care about their sales reps’ needs.
Sales coaches should always keep a two-way channel of communication open with their salespeople. Successful coaches are just as amenable to giving feedback as they are receiving feedback.
For the skeptical among you, hear me out on this one. Openness to receiving feedback doesn’t mean you need to agree with everything laid at your feet. It merely means that you need to be approachable enough for your team to bring things to you.
Malcolm Gladwell, the author of several best-selling books, included Outliers, which studied the success of high performers, once spoke about his father on a podcast.
His father was a successful, learned man. The key to his success, according to Gladwell, was that he always “pretended that he was the dumbest person in the room.”
This meant not being afraid to ask honest, sometimes stupid-sounding questions. The point is not to be intentionally ignorant but to be completely absent of ego (something sales leaders all struggle with, especially when they’re pulling in big numbers).
This posture of approachability, openness to feedback, and a lack of ego will take a sales coach lightyears ahead in building solid trust with their employees.
Sales coaching techniques for the 21st-century
Now that we better understand the three main components of sales coaching let’s drill down into how we can start translating those principles into practice.
We’ll also explore how to leverage modern technological advances to coach reps even more effectively.
First, let’s lay out the two distinct parts to the sales coaching process:
Part 1: Understanding your sales rep’s performance during a sales call or presentation
Before you can offer your sales rep any kind of in-depth feedback or concrete advice, you need to know what they’re doing (both right and wrong) and how those behaviors are translating into quantifiable metrics.
Let’s take a look at how you can get some valuable insights into a salesperson’s performance.
Four ways to monitor a sales rep’s engagement:
- In-person observation in the field – This is the most straightforward technique for assessing your rep’s performance: simply accompany the salesperson on their sales call or presentation as a silent observer.
- Roleplaying – Because in-person observation can create a high-pressure situation for the salesperson, it’s also useful to throw a fun, lower-stakes method into the mix: roleplaying sales situations with the entire team. You can glean plenty of insights into your rep’s performance in a less stressful way.
- Video recording – This is the happy compromise between in-person observation and roleplaying. If you monitor your rep’s sales presentations over video (with the prior consent of all parties, of course), you’ll get a more accurate impression of their actual performance without the added pressure of your physical presence in the back of the room.
Many sales activities have moved over to cloud-based video platforms like Zoom, so analyzing “game film” after the fact has never been easier. (Bonus: You can use those recordings as sales coaching aids for the rest of the team.)
Harness the power of new technology – While the three methods listed above are tried-and-true, in 2020, there are a host of tech solutions for tracking sales rep engagement and performance.
These platforms not only make the sales coach’s life a lot easier but offer them even more accurate insights.
Accent’s AI-drive Sales Management platform, for instance, includes a comprehensive sales performance dashboard, complete with engagement timelines and rep scorecards. These insights give sales coaches unprecedented, real-time, easy-to-read data on any assigned rep’s performance.
Part 2: Following up with your sales rep based on gleaned insights
Once you’ve acquired data on rep performance, it’s time for feedback. By now, you know that feedback should focus on the positive first, followed by the negative (or constructive might be a better term).
But what does it look like in practice? Let’s take a closer look.
Four sales coaching tips for giving useful feedback:
- One-on-one, in-person feedback – This is the most straightforward method and entails offering verbal praise or constructive advice informally throughout the sales process.
- Group feedback – Tap into that hive mind! It can be incredibly helpful to get the whole team involved in offering feedback, praise, and tips and tricks. While in the past, sales reps may have had a highly competitive relationship with one another, in today’s changing marketplace, teamwork and collaboration are paramount.
- Tap into social media – This one’s particularly handy right now while many of us are working from home or taking other social distancing measures. You can easily create short videos presenting best practices, sample sales dialogues, and so forth with the power of your smartphone, and then post these helpful tidbits on a private YouTube channel or Instagram for easy access.
- Create visuals to illustrate performance – One great way to help your sales reps better understand their performance metrics (and adapt their behaviors and practices accordingly) is to generate easily understood graphical representations of those numbers. This is another place where the right CRM software can add significant value. The Accent CRM Supercharger, for instance, offers real-time, highly accurate visualizations of every in-progress and completed sales situation for your team. These visualizations afford both the sales coach and the sales rep instant, leverageable insights.
Harness the sales-coaching power of data-driven, tech-based solutions
We’ve seen by now how products like Accent’s innovative, AI-powered, data-driven platforms give sales reps the open, transparent, real-time access to all analytics that they need to perform better.
These kinds of solutions help sales coaches to get the best out of their reps in today’s competitive environment, which in turn translates into what we’re all fighting for: winning deals and increasing revenue.
We’d love to show you how Accent Technologies affords you both granular and high-level insights into sales performance. Contact our team for a demo today.