Sales Coaching: What and When To Coach For Better Results

In my last blog, I addressed the underlying psychological aspects of coaching: personal acceptance of – or resistance to – change. In this blog, I will review the 5 different topics critical for sales managers to coach to and provide some questions for sales managers and coaches to use.

A 2017 CSO Insights Sales Enablement Optimization Study found that 14% of organizations didn’t make any training investments in their sales managers at all and that 42% were spending $1,500 or less per person. However, those companies that did invest outperformed those that did not regarding quota attainment, win rates, and revenue plan attainment.

According to the recent Miller Heiman Group book Sales Enablement: A Master Framework to Engage, Equip, and Empower A World-Class Sales Force,” there are five different types of coaching that every sales manager should understand and use:

  1. Lead and Opportunity Coaching
  2. Funnel or Pipeline Coaching
  3. Skills and Behaviors Coaching
  4. Account Coaching
  5. Territory Coaching

The key to knowing when to use which type of coaching is to accurately diagnose and prioritize sales performance issues and then target the coaching accordingly.

The most common type of coaching that I see is opportunity or “deal” coaching. Of course, everybody wants the deal to close. However, not all opportunity coaching is actually coaching. Often the sales manager simply steps in, usually late in the sales cycle, to tell the sales rep exactly what to do to win. This action may be necessary at times, but it isn’t coaching. The sales manager now owns the selling, and the rep is simply an observer. Not ideal.

The goal of coaching should be for the rep to own the selling work, and a continual improvement of  selling capabilities.

Let’s explore the different types of sales coaching.

First Start With Funnel Coaching

A more effective coaching cadence would be to conduct monthly funnel or pipeline reviews to have visibility to all of the sales reps’ opportunities, then decide which opportunities warrant coaching.  In my work as a sales performance consultant, organizations that have a consistent process for funnel reviews see better sales results, hands down. Those with good data analytics to assess funnel performance, which can better target their coaching, perform even better.

Funnel coaching can provide both the sales manager and the sales rep with an understanding of how to prioritize opportunities, where to allocate resources, and where to spend valuable selling time.

Once this is understood, then specific opportunity coaching at each stage of the funnel is more impactful and focused for critical “must-win” opportunities. Waiting to coach an at-risk opportunity that is in the late funnel stage is not effective sales coaching. Here are some diagnostic questions to ask yourself, as a sales coach,  before conducting a funnel coaching session with a rep:

  • Stages: Are the opportunities in the correct funnel stage, according to stage definitions? Are clear criteria identified when an opportunity is ready to move to the next funnel stage?
  • Velocity: What opportunities have moved, not moved, won, lost, died?
  • Volume: Are there enough opportunities in the funnel to meet revenue goals, rep quotas, product mix quotas?
  • Shape: Is the funnel shape out of balance? What needs to be done at each funnel stage to bring it back into balance?
  • Time Horizon: Depending on average sales cycle time, is the timeline being appropriately measured?
  • Action Planning: Where should the sales rep focus their selling time? What is the highest priority at actions?

Then, Move to Lead and Opportunity Coaching

I am always amazed at how few organizations have specific criteria in place for qualifying a sales opportunity as it moves into the top of the funnel, and specific criteria for when an opportunity is ready to move to the next funnel stage. Whether a lead comes from marketing, selling efforts, or general inbound inquiry, qualification criteria that everybody understands is critical.

Coaching has the greatest impact when it starts in the early stages of the lead and opportunity.

Coaching time is always limited, so sales managers need to focus their coaching time on those opportunities at each funnel stage that warrant additional coaching focus. Questions to consider using during opportunity coaching:

  • Which leads are most likely to turn into qualified leads based on qualification criteria?
  • Is this opportunity placed in the right stage in the funnel, based on criteria? Does the criteria include customer buying steps? What is the opportunity probability?
  • For “must-win” opportunities, what is the customer’s business problem that they need to solve, and why? Which influencers agree or disagree with solving the problem?
  • What is the buying process? Who are the influencers? What is their sense of urgency? What results does each influencer want? Who or what are we competing against and what influencer supports that competitive alternative? What are the politics? Do we have any supporters and coaches?
  • What solutions are we proposing and why? How does the customer feel about our solution fit? What does the customer think are our perceived strengths and weaknesses?
  • Then, lastly, what are the actions to move this opportunity forward in the funnel? Whom should the rep meet with next and why? How can those sales calls be more impactful and higher yield? What resources should be deployed and why? If this is not winnable, how should we exit the opportunity or move it back up our out of the funnel?

In my many years of coaching sales teams, I’ve noticed that when an opportunity is lost late in the funnel, the loss typically happened much early in the sales cycle (back at an earlier funnel stage, but the sales rep didn’t realize it had been lost and continued to sell. Good – early –  coaching can prevent this unfortunate outcome.

Incorporate Skills and Behavior Coaching

Foundational selling skills should be in place for all sellers via training or previous experience. Sales coaching is designed to further develop these skills towards mastery.

Many of the actions that are determined during opportunity coaching involve conversations that the sales rep needs to have with different customer buying influences.

Preparation for these sales calls, conversations and review after the call are ideal times for sales skills and behavioral coaching.

Thinking through the flow of a sales call, here are some areas for coaching. Where the opportunity sits in the funnel stages will determine which of these areas are most relevant:

  • Call Planning: How to get access to the appropriate buying influences?
  • Research: How to get background information on this particular buying influence relative to the business problem they are trying to solve? What is the hypothesis?
  • Credibility: How to establish or enhance credibility on the call?
  • Information Needed: What information needs to be uncovered? What questions should be asked during the call? What is the best way to phrase and sequence each question?
  • Differentiation: How to provide value and perspective for this buying influence? How to differentiate the company, product, process, etc?
  • Fit: How to communicate solution fit? How to connect solution value to customer problem?
  • Resistance: How to identify objections and/or resistance? How to address them?
  • Actions: What action commitments will be asked of the customer to move the process forward? What are the next steps?

Account and Territory Coaching

These types of coaching sessions should be conducted at least quarterly. For strategic accounts, there should be a 1-3 year strategic account plan developed for specific high-value account segments.

The account plan should be developed around where the account relationship is today, where it can be in 1-3 years, and how to get there.

It is critical that the plan be developed in collaboration with the account and with internal cross-functional stakeholders. I’ve seen many account plans developed in a vacuum, without the internal stakeholders and without customer involvement, only to be abandon after low ROI for the time and resources committed. Account coaching shouldn’t focus on existing opportunity coaching within the account – that should be addressed during specific opportunity coaching sessions.  Account coaching should focus on ensuring validation for the strategic plan from internal and customer stakeholders, securing and the deployment of resources, commitment to actions, and measurement. The person conducting the account coaching needs to be credible enough with internal senior management to be able to make commitments to the account team. Territory coaching, by contrast, focuses on a strategic look at how to approach the territory: the right accounts, industries and buyer roles, and action planning.

If all of this feels overwhelming, it can be. The reality is that sales managers need to make coaching a priority.

Organizations need to invest in it, set aside resources, set expectations, provide technology and data analytics, and hold people accountable.

If sales managers are spending the majority of their time closing deals, that doesn’t leave much time for coaching.  My observations, backed up by CSO Insights research, is that about a quarter of a sales manager’s time should be spent on coaching. The key is to know where, when, and how to coach.