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Sales Performance Coaching - a Critical Tool for Sales Excellence

When it comes to driving sustainable sales excellence, sales performance coaching is a critical success factor.

However, it often either gets overlooked when organisations plan sales development initiatives or it gets deprioritised or halted when operational pressures force sales management personnel back into ‘command and control’ mode (i.e. just telling their people to sell with more urgency and/or work harder).

While many sales leaders make a large investment in expensive and high quality training programmes to develop best practice selling skills and behaviours in their sales teams, the impact is often short-lived because their sales managers are inadequately trained (or coached) to coach their people to embed the newly trained skills and behaviours and improve their performance on a sustainable basis.

To drive sustainable sales excellence in today’s marketplace, it’s crucial that sales development initiatives place a continuous emphasis on coaching by (and for) the first line sales managers. This is because the training and ongoing coaching of sales managers to be effective sales performance coaches for their people is a vital enabler for developing and embedding sales excellence across any organisation.

A Greater Focus on Performance Management

In the new ‘post-crash’ economy, demands on sales functions to deliver higher levels of sales productivity have never been greater. Despite most sectors experiencing more aggressive competition, portfolio substitution from disruptive technologies and increasingly stringent and complicated buyer decision-making processes, most companies are now demanding a step-change in the levels of performance delivered by their sales functions.

To drive higher levels of sales productivity, CRM dashboards and performance management procedures have been put in place by many organisations to monitor and manage the activities and performance of everyone in the sales function. Every blip in sales performance is now tracked and typically results in a demand to generate more selling activity and a new dial being added to the dashboard to ensure that no aspect of command and control is missed.

While recognition of the importance of sales productivity tracking and sales performance management has been long overdue, the current predominant focus on quantitative measures of sales performance (such as the number of sales calls made, the average value of deals closed and the average closure rate) has exposed many organisations to the danger of turning sales managers and leaders into ‘process conformance managers’ and losing the critical qualitative and developmental (i.e. people-orientated) aspects of the sales management role.

Driving Sales Excellence with Sales Performance Coaching

A sales function can have multiple quantitative performance metrics in place with tracking and reviews for every measure. However, if the quality of calls, meetings and leads is not continuously improved, the sales function’s overall performance simply cannot reach its full potential. Indeed, results often get worse if the quality of selling activities is made to suffer in order to hit the quantitative targets, such as number of calls or meetings.

Unfortunately, driving high activity selling without assuring the quality of the sales function’s activities will only succeed if your products or solutions are the only game in town (i.e. you have a vastly superior offer, much more effective marketing and/or greater availability in an environment with high demand).

In today’s typical selling conditions, if you want your company to achieve sustainable sales excellence and develop a world class sales force you have to focus on both quantitative and qualitative performance.

Qualitative vs quantatitive sales performance chart

This means that, as well as ensuring that your people are carrying out the required volumes of selling activities, you also have to systematically train, coach and manage the performance of your sales teams to constantly develop higher levels of quality in terms of how each and every:

  • Client interaction is conducted, both in the field and over the phone.
  • Sales lead or opportunity is developed and led towards closure.
  • Existing account/client relationship is grown to its true potential.
  • Sales person maximises his or her sales performance across the territory and the portfolio over each measured quota period (i.e. sales week, quarter or year).

To achieve sustainable sales excellence, your sales management personnel need to be effective in BOTH:

  • Tracking and reviewing the quantity and quality of activities and outcomes.
  • Sales coaching to drive up and embed the quality and quantity of selling activities that will improve sales productivity in a sustainable way.

To develop effective sales performance coaches, you need to systematically create a structured environment which enables and requires the sales managers to allocate regular quality time towards interacting with every member of their team (both individually and as a group) in order to continuously improve sales performance, regardless of how each individual is current performing. More specifically, sales performance coaching should involve sales managers holding structured sessions with their people in which they:

  • Persuade their sales people to be committed to and take ownership of planning the continuous improvement of their own sales performance.
  • Guide the sales person through the process of making the right changes to his or her attitude, activities and behaviours in order to deliver the required levels of sales performance.

The Power of Facts and Data

Any sales performance review and associated sales coaching session should start with a balanced review of the sales person’s ‘factual performance’, i.e. a balanced assessment of his or her performance which is supported by objective data and rationale. This is why most companies use so much quantitative data, such as the number of wins, number of calls and number of visits, as the basis for sales performance reviews and sales performance management.

However, competent sales managers and sales coaches make much more use of objective assessments of the quality of sales activities and behaviours. These assessments have to be a qualitative assessment of how a sales person has followed a structured approach to selling at all levels (i.e. at the interaction, opportunity management, account development and territory optimisation levels, encompassing both planning and execution at all of these levels) that the sales person has already been trained in.

Hence, observations by managers of the planning and execution of the sales process (including joint customer visits, observed account planning sessions and account development planning and/or deal planning reviews) are critical enablers to qualitative sales performance management and sales coaching.

The Power of Questions for Great Coaching

A good coach ‘sells’ rather than ‘tells’. A great coach only uses questions to achieve the desired outcomes. Just like great consultative sales people, great sales coaches set up the context, purpose and ground rules for the conversation. They then take the conversation through a process of ‘funnelling’, from asking ‘powerful open questions’ to repetitively probing the response (again with open questions) to a point where a closed question can be asked to confirm a commitment to actions that will deliver the required sales improvement.

Questions asked during these sessions should be structured in a similar way to how a really good sales person might question a prospect when adopting a consultative approach to selling. When coaching their sales people, sales managers should ask questions to:

  • Diagnose and qualify the problems that represent the biggest opportunity to improve sales performance.
  • Encourage the sales person to understand the importance of improving his or her performance and the implications of failing to address any problems.
  • Gain a commitment from the sales person to make the required changes that will address any problems and improve performance.

And more specifically, in the same way a good sales person will adopt a consultative selling approach with a potential customer to get into the detail of an opportunity for creating business improvements, a good sales coach will ‘funnel’ from open to closed questions to understand, qualify and agree:

  • Current performance levels (as measured against an objective qualitative assessment framework and quantitative measures).
  • Areas where performance needs to be improved, why and in what timescales.
  • Changes or interventions that will deliver the desired improvements.
  • Specific actions that need to be taken (and timescales) to affect change and improvements in performance.

This consultative approach to sales coaching is crucial because, from experience, performance improvements can only become embedded and have a sustained impact if the sales person takes ownership for their own development. Sustained behavioural change can only happen if the person who needs to make the change actually wants and is committed to making the change. For managers of large sales teams in particular, it’s also much easier if their people are committed to owning and leading their own self-improvement journeys as the sales managers will need to spend much less time monitoring and ‘telling’ their people how and why they need to improve!

‘Situational Sales Leadership’

Alongside the quantitative forms of sales performance management, sales performance coaching is a key element of the ‘situational sales leadership toolkit’ for improving the performance of the sales function. However, it’s important to remember that it’s not the only intervention that is required.

As well as taking a consultative approach to embedding the right skills, attitudes and behaviours in your people, direction setting, ‘raising the bar’ and delegation are also important interventions that a leader should consider, depending on the specific development phase a person’s specific skill or behaviour has reached. While sales performance coaching does not involve ‘telling’ a sales person what they are doing wrong and how they can do things right, this can have its place if a sales person is incapable of understanding the issues or problems that need to be fixed to improve sales performance.

It’s also important to remember that embedding a sales performance management and sales performance coaching culture is just one (big and vital) part of the jigsaw when it comes to driving sustainable sales excellence. Alongside effective sales performance management and sales performance coaching processes, improving overall sales performance is also dependent on:

  • Developing and executing a differentiating sales strategy which is based on accurate and relevant market insight.
  • Implementing a high-quality sales enablement infrastructure (including propositions, systems, processes and training) which enables the organisation to build, develop and embed professional skills and behaviours.
  • Embedding and proficiently executing a tailored, proven and professional way of selling at the transactional, market, relationship and territory levels.

By making sure that sales performance coaching is part of a wider strategy that encompasses all of these points, you can maximise the productivity of the sales function and lead it towards driving sales excellence that is sustainable for a long-term positive impact on sales performance.

If you want help in becoming a great sales coach or implementing a world class sales performance management environment for your sales function, give Sterling Chase a call on 0845 371 3099 or email us at [email protected]

Sales Performance Coaching - a Critical Tool for Sales Excellence