Coaching is Key to Sales Training

by Hal Becker

"What a great trainer/course.  I wish it would last."

That's a common statement.  Unfortunately, corporations are wasting millions of dollars on training that does not make much difference.

Is it the fault of the training itself?  No.  Most of the blame rests with the structure of the typical sales force.  The first-line manager has become more involved in administrative duties.  If the manager does go into the field, it is usually to visit problem accounts.

Training for the entire sales force has become a nuisance.  The idea comes up after a quarterly or annual sales meeting when results are lower than expected. At this point, mangers submit proposals for the annual training session.

Let's compare the development of selling skills to that of athletic skills.  No one would expect a person to become a tennis or golf pro after three days or three weeks of lessons from an expert.  Then why do we expect salespeople to develop and maintain selling skills after one training session or viewing and listening to a few tapes?

TO COACH OR NOT TO COACH: Sales managers seeking long-term results can cure the sales training problem if they remember the concept of professional sports.  Every sales team needs a coach.  The coach is the first-line manager who is on the field with the players, not in an office doing paperwork.

So what happens?  Top managers approve a training program and hope it will magically increase sales, while the first-line managers are usually ex-salespeople who have never been professionally trained themselves.  The brass mistakenly believes this program can have an effect without the follow-up and involvement of the sales managers.

These programs usually end up as enjoyable "enter-train-ment" that involves experienced as well as inexperienced salespeople.  Although these programs do build interest and enthusiasm, a week later the program becomes a memory, and the salespeople go back to their old habits.

Now, no one is practicing the skills taught, and management makes no reference to the training program's techniques or concepts.  If sales managers are not coaching, the skills and salespeople are no better off than before the session.

THE SALES MANAGER AS COACH:  The sales manager is the key to training success.  It is his job to develop salespeople.  But first, the manager must be trained so he is guiding people correctly.

Often sales managers were named to their jobs because they were good salespeople.  Ironically, there is little or no correlation between the skills needed to become a good sales manager.  A salesperson thinks singularly and is concerned about himself.

Remember that a football coach may not be able to demonstrate football skills himself, but he is an expert in developing techniques, tactics and strategy in his team.  This should be the same in sales coaching.

You don't see a coach going in for a player who makes a mistake on the field, so why do sales managers take over the call when the going gets tough?  They shouldn't.  The salesperson should be allowed to make the sales call while the manager observes, period.

Afterward, the manager will review the notes he took during the sales call and discuss how the call went or how it should have gone.  Top management must allow sales managers more time to observe sales calls and provide follow-up coaching.  There must be an obligation to free the sales manager from the office and paperwork to provide the tools to facilitate coaching.

In fact, for a sales-training program to produce results, one quarter of the budget should be allocated to the program, and the other three-quarters devoted to reinforcing and following up that program for one to two years.  Although the ideal training and coaching approach varies by industry, usually the best coaching occurs one on one, tailored to each salesperson's personality, tenure, client mix and client styles.  Whatever the approach, whatever the style, coaching needs to be continuous.


Here are my methods to help managers increase their ability to train and develop their people.

Train sales managers to coach their salespeople.  Promoting the best salesperson isn't enough.

Help sales managers see the benefits of investing time and energy in coaching.  This will reduce sales force turnover and improve the performance of marginal and top producers alike.

Teach sales managers when to coach.  Little coaching can take place on "pick up the order" calls.  Observing selling situations is critical to the coaching process.  While coaching, the sales manager needs to be only an observer, not a participant.  If the manager participates in the call, then they cannot observe.

Provide managers with the tools necessary for coaching - a set routine or planned travel days, along with the proper forms to offer feedback.

Budget money for training reinforcement.  If you must, hire an assistant to do the paperwork, which will allow more travel time for the sales manager.  Let the sales managers improve productivity and your salespeople will sell more, I promise.

For more businesses, the field organization is the company's most important marketing asset.  Improving the performance of the sales organization deserves full attention and commitment from top management.  Therefore, training is not something that can be delegated to staff departments or handled in the annual motivational sales meeting.

Rather, the sales manager's coaching skills can spell the difference between sales-training programs which will work, and training, which does not.