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Sales Coaching: Choosing the right coach. Targeting the right outcome.

Submitted by on Wednesday, 18 July 2007

I recently got a call from a young man whose boss suggested he find a sales coach, adding that he’d have to pay for it himself so that it would have value for him.

I have a few thoughts here:

  1. Why is the manager delegating his/her responsibility for employee/salesperson success to an outsider who s/he doesn’t know and has no authority over?
  2. Great! That means the manager isn’t biased around the route to success so long as the salesperson is successful;
  3. The manager is replacing or blending group sales training with individual skills enhancement to give each seller the ability to discover their own favored model for learning and success;
  4. The manager should be a co-sponsor, and fund the endeavor as soon as the seller starts to bring in addition revenue and enhanced results;
  5. The manager should be part of the final session to ensure s/he can follow up and continue the work of the coach, and understand how best to supervise the coachee to ensure the learning gets carried forward.

The only downside I can see to individual sales coaching is that a sales rep’s new approach might conflict with the company brand, and if the manger has been out of the process, s/he might not recognize potential problems until too late. Not to mention that the sales manager may not be able to supervise appropriately when each seller is doing their own thing.

But as a coach, I’m happy. It gives me a chance to work with dedicated professionals who are actively seeking growth and change and are ready, willing, and able to learn/grow.

If this is indeed a trend, I am delighted: it tells me that the sales profession is finally recognizing the individuation of sellers, and allowing people to discover their own unique routes to success. And it should give the company greater success when sellers are able to follow their own styles and communication patterns and don’t need to fit into a possibly uncomfortable mold.

I’m more concerned that the field of coaching may not be ready to accept all this responsibility, however.

In fact, while sales coaching can be highly effective (as long as the seller acquires sound, replicable skills, and the seller gets weaned from the coach in a reasonable time period), some coaching I’ve seen makes me jittery. Some coaches use the coaching relationship as a vehicle to offer ‘advice’, based on the coach’s view of  ‘excellence’ and based on the coach’s ‘success’ in similar circumstances. In other words, the seller gets to be a clone of the coach.

WHAT IS COACHING

Let’s step back for a moment and understand what coaching is – and can be.

‘Coaching’ is a relatively new term used to describe a one-on-one relationship in which one person is meant to guide another into excellence. In fact, coaching is the new word for consulting – consulting for individuals. And, like with consultants, there is no way to know with certainty, before you begin, if one coach would be better for you than another no matter how good the referral or reputation.

Many consultants have a history of having worked with major consulting firms, so have a discernable track record. When we hire someone who has been a partner at KPMG, for example, we know we will get someone who has a background in accounting, working with large corporations, and who follows a rather linear, strategic approach to change management. Someone who has been a VP at a bank has other qualities commensurate with their work history and banking industry knowledge. But what about all of those new names floating around who have not been associated with a branded employer? And if someone has a good reputation, what does that mean for us, specifically?

While there certainly are a few governing bodies around, and a few programs that teach coaching, most coaches I know are not licensed and have had no specific training in how to ‘coach’ per se. They just deem themselves good at what they do, advertise their expertise, put a price on their heads, and hope enough people will show up to keep them gainfully employed.

Indeed, there is no way of knowing how you will ‘connect’ with a coach – even one with a great reputation – until you have already had one or two sessions.

HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT COACH FOR YOU

Here are a few recommendations to help you choose the most appropriate coach, help alleviate the downside, and maximize the upside.

  1. Write down a list of exactly what you want to walk away with. This will change as you learn and grow, but it’s good to have an initial goal. Something like: learn how to close better/faster; or determine high-quality prospects on the first call. You can also add some skills here – like, learn to listen better; or develop better relationships. This is the easiest part of your homework.
  2. Begin to grapple with the type of interactivity you want to have. Should it be a Q&A with the coach giving you answers so you could walk away with things to do? Do you want the coach to listen to a particular situation and lead you through actions to a specific goal? Do you strictly want advice?Do you want to learn new skills? Have the coach do interventions on apparent deficiencies (i.e. you may be listening only for a prospect’s ‘content’ cues rather than recognizing their unspoken metamessages, leading to faulty interpretations and wasted time), and teach you new choices? Are you ready to learn where you are less than successful, and may need to change, to garner greater success? Are you ready to change?
  3. The type of coach you require depends on the type of change you seek, and the level of trust you’re willing to impart. People who work with me expect me to use my decision facilitation model and lead them through any ineffective communication patterns that keep them from being excellent communication partners and decision strategists. People who choose coaches who have been consultants in large corporations get led through strategic approaches that incorporate the knowledge of job descriptions and responsibilities of different levels of people, internal decision makers and how they operate, and how to work with ‘internal coaches’ to achieve success. Each coach has a different style. What do you want to achieve? And what type of relationship will help you get there?

The point here is that when you enter into a relationship with a coach, you must understand the criteria you’ll use, to give you the best chance of getting your needs met.

I see my job as that of a Neutral Navigator, leading people through their own unique change process, to have them discover, choose, or learn the right skills to use at the right time. Other coaches see their jobs as high level consultants who work alongside their coachees and tell them what is going on – and what needs to happen – each step of the way.

COACHING FOR CHANGE VS. COACHING FOR ACTIVITY

Of course, there are certainly times it’s necessary for me to give advice, especially when folks need a few Facilitative Questions to help clients make decisions. But I deeply believe that people possess most of their own answers as well as very competent, usable skills: they just don’t always recognize when to use one skill over another, and sometimes end up using a great skill at the wrong time.

Here’s an example of taking a highly effective skill from a personal situation and transferring it into a selling situation. Let’s work with a client’s annoyance at a prospect’s objection. I would ask my client to compare how she heard that objection versus how she might ‘hear’ a small child tell her of an incident at school. I’d have her then recognize the difference in how she listens in each situation, and lead her to discover how to listen with the same ‘ear’ that she listens to a child with, and see if that changes the choices she’ll have with her prospect. Ultimately, she would end up being able to choose the best listening filter for every communication.

Not everyone wants to go through this sort of process, nor is it relevant in every situation. And some people only want to walk away with a recipe of ‘to dos’.

As you go about the process of choosing a coach, make your best guess as to how will you know, before you begin, which coach would be flexible through time, through contexts, through change. It’s vital that you ask yourself these questions before choosing a coach.

AN EXAMPLE OF COLLABORATIVE SALES COACHING

The foundation of my coaching style is the belief that people exhibit the same communication issues with me as they do with their other communication partners, and we can use our relationship as a model for change. It’s real, it’s real-time, and when something happens between us that I notice as being potentially harmful in a collaborative decision making communication (one of the skills necessary for helping buyers make buying decisions) my client can learn new choices and make any learning mistakes with ME prior to going out and trying the new skills on their prospects and clients.

In my personal belief system, if I continually tell my clients what to do, I’m giving them fish rather than teaching them how to fish. And when I can help folks learn new skills, the skills become a part of their unique style and personality. I’ve just provided the vehicle for learning.

To give you a model of one sort of coaching, I’ll walk you through one of my recent sessions with a new client. Use it as a way to help you consider your own comfort zone and to get clarity on your criteria for choosing the best coach for you.

Prior to our first session, my client sent me a long missive, requesting a list of Facilitative Questions for some complex prospecting calls to “C” level execs. The email contained several pages of types of clients, types of situations, all with requests for input from me.

“Is there a specific reason you decided to send this to me prior to our call?” I asked, as soon as we began, wondering what was behind the missive, curious as to why he didn’t want to wait to discuss the material together, and wondering if he expected me to do a certain amount of homework on his behalf prior to our call.

“I like to have some sort of control over my calls, to know where a call is going to end up and to make sure I would walk away with exactly what I need. I was just taking care of myself.”

“Do you always do that sort of thing?”

“As often as I can.”

“Does it work?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes the call gets away from me and the other person takes over, and then I don’t know how to get it back to where I want it.”

“And how do you know the difference – before you go into ‘control’ mode – between when it will give you what you want, when it won’t, and when it will make the situation worse?”

“I have no idea.”

And so we started our first coaching session.

Much of our session was about his need to have control – what I call an “I Space” (defined as a communication directed toward getting your own needs met without considering the effects on the communication partner or the overall communication), which is very different from a “We Space” (in which both communication partners work toward a Win Win) – over his communication partner.

We then discovered the beliefs he’d need to expand in order to add ‘Win-Win communications’ as a behavioral choice. I didn’t want to suggest he stop trying to wield control. I just wanted him to know the difference between when it would be successful and when it wouldn’t, and have another choice when necessary.

I gave him homework to help him begin to differentiate between the times he
would naturally gravitate toward using control tactics and the gentle, collaborative choices he usually made in his personal life in similar circumstances. From there we built in alternative skills to use for when he recognized the need of a new choice.

In the last fifteen minutes of the call, I gave him some Facilitative Questions for an upcoming conference call with a group of senior partners. We also agreed that in the future, we’d allocate the ‘change’ portion to one half the call, and the ‘to do’ portion in the other half.

KNOW YOUR COMFORT LEVEL

Not every coach works this way. Nor does every coachee want to make personal changes. Working with the type of change that uncovers possibly hidden issues is risky and uncomfortable and takes coach/client trust, coach skill, and client courage.

Whatever the parameters will be, you must be as clear as possible prior to choosing a coach, and get agreement on your preferred working arrangement on the first conversation. And because you’ll sometimes need to shift gears, make sure you have a coach who is flexible enough to be able to offer different types of communication styles.

And, your most important criteria for choosing a coach is your comfort level around change. How much change can you handle? Would you rather be given answers? What would you need answers for, and what would you be willing to go through the change process for? It’s vital that you be honest with yourself here so you can choose the coach to help you achieve your goals.

In summary, your coaching relationship will only be as effective as the clarity of your initial criteria. It’s important to know the difference between when you’re on course and when it’s time to shift. And recognize quickly if the coach you’re working with is not meeting your criteria, and be willing to have a discussion to shift the communication to better meet your needs. In the coaching situation, it’s really all about you.

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