Why Coaching Salespeople Doesn’t Always Deliver Results

Coaching is a hot topic at the moment, particularly coaching salespeople. It’s one of the many levers that leadership can pull to improve performance and influence revenue. And, it works.

According to CSO Insights, organizations with a formal or dynamic sales coaching approach see win rates improve by more than 27 percent and rep quota improve by more than 31 percent.

There’s also no shortage of coaching methodologies and coaches. Unfortunately, not all of those methodologies work as well as others, and almost 70 percent of all organizations use random or informal coaching approaches that do not positively impact sales performance.

So, with all those resources and data, why aren’t organizations realizing the ROI they’d hoped for after investing in coaching salespeople? After my years of experience in sales and sales management and owning a sales consultancy practice, I believe it comes down to each person’s capacity and readiness to truly change.

What I’ve learned in my many years of training and coaching salespeople and sales leaders is that the best coaching mechanisms in the world won’t deliver results if we don’t understand the inherent motivation of people to change or not to change. Don’t get me wrong, there are some very solid sales coaching methodologies and practices that can deliver great results. However, what I see missing from the equation is the inherent psychology of how people change and their receptivity to change.

Any discussion about coaching needs to begin with a working definition of the topic. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll use CSO Insights, which defines sales coaching as “a leadership skill to develop each salesperson’s full potential.”

The keyword in that definition I’d like to focus on is “skill.” Many sales managers became managers due to their exemplary sales performance. There is an assumption that because they are high performers, they can be excellent at coaching salespeople. Not necessarily. Knowing how to coach is a skill to be developed and isn’t natural to many high performing sales reps who are promoted to sales managers and leaders. Without developing that skill, sales managers will not be able to successfully coach salespeople in a consistent way that results in ROI.

The goal of coaching is to change behaviors or reinforce desired behaviors—and the process of changing creates its own paradox. Most coaching recipients fear two things: vulnerability and loss of control. However, both the ability to be vulnerable and to manage a sense of a loss of control are crucial to the change process. Coaching is about helping another person change and for that person to change, both the coach and the coachee must have trust and be willing to be vulnerable. As the coachee moves through the change process, they may experience that feeling of loss of control. It’s how they move through that feeling that matters.

When a manager is coaching salespeople, he or she needs to be aware of the potential for resistance to change, which has a biological and psychological component. The fundamental purpose of coaching is learning, and learning requires the coachee to increase his or her self-awareness and tolerance for discomfort. Often, traditional advice can ignite defensiveness, as can setting a goal that is too aggressive or overwhelming. Being told what to do can cause people to defend their existing positions, which doesn’t create an environment for change. Understanding this foundational aspect of change can influence the coaching engagement.

In her book Coaching Skills: A Handbook, Jenny Rogers explores coaching theories throughout history, all the way back to Socrates 2,400 years ago. The Socratic method involves solving a problem by forming a question. In doing so, a person must examine his or her own beliefs and question their validity.

So, managers need to start the coaching process with questions to understand the sales rep’s point of view. A manager’s perception may be entirely different from the rep’s. Then, the coaching needs to be built around asking insightful questions so that the coachee comes to his or her own conclusions, which can increase the stickiness of coaching and result in more lasting change.

Effective coaching is a skill worth developing as a manager. In my next series of blogs, we’ll explore what and when to coach, and the skill of asking good coaching questions.