The training/coaching secrets that unlock sales performance success

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The ‘sell or you’re fired’ mentality that traditionally permeated the sales world has made way for a more nurturing approach in recent years.

In the old days, salespeople were hired and trained, given a computer and a bunch of leads and then it was up to them to get out and sell, leaving them to understand the market and work out how to drive sales themselves. Sink or swim.

These days, sales managers take a much more sophisticated approach to their staff, identifying the salesperson’s strengths so that they can be optimised, and also establishing their weaknesses, so that they can be attacked with training.

Part of this is because of the changing demographic of the modern salesperson says Patrick Stakenas, former research director at Gartner, now CEO and president of Determine.

“A big piece of this is the concept of Generation X and Generation Y,” he notes. “A lot of the baby boomers are retiring, and the attitude of working 24 hours a day or whatever needs to be done to make the sake is kind of going away. The new generation is coming up and saying that they’re willing to work hard, but they want help to be successful. Generation X and Y have a much grander expectation of using technology and being coached and nurtured in the selling process.”

But part of the shift to a more nurturing approach is because organisations are increasingly aware that this focus on sales performance management is simply more effective than merely dropping reps in at the deep end.

“Ongoing sales training and coaching is critical because it’s all about continuous improvement,” notes Sean McPheat, founder and MD of international sales training firm MTD Sales Training. “Coaching focuses in on particular aspects of a skill or behaviour, usually on a one-to-one basis and hence is very individual. Training provides wider learning opportunities in a group environment where new methods and techniques are discussed and applied. Both are vital.”

Garry Mansfield, managing director of Outside In Sales and Marketing Ltd provides some examples of the ways in which training and coaching can help leaders address challenges relating to sales performance.

“The first relates to ‘can't do’ people, those who would like to do something better but lack the skills to do so,” he explains. “This is common for bright, positive or high potential people, they should be encouraged to learn new things and try them out. Training and coaching can help to isolate potential areas for performance improvement and together build the skills of the individual so they ‘can-do’.”

He continues: “The other type of people are ‘won't do’ people. The challenge here is not that they likely can do what you need of them, but they don’t want to. Some possible reasons might be that they don’t agree with it, they're too lazy or lack motivation. In my experience this can't be trained-out of a "won't do" person but it can potentially be coached IF the person is willing to accept that they need to change. If they refuse to accept that they need to change and are unwilling to explore this further then it is best to cut this potentially corrosive element from the team. A hard line maybe, but essential for the harmony and alignment of the team.”

Training and coaching working together can undoubtedly help to raise an individual’s performance and thereby raise the performance of the team as a whole. So with that in mind, let’s take a closer look at best practices relating to training and coaching in the sales department.

Training and coaching

To start off, it’s worth making the distinction between training and coaching. Coaching is normally done on a one-to-one basis, whereas training can often be from one-to-hundreds. Coaching is more personalised and is focused on where you need to get to, where you are now and what you need to do to manage the gap; more personalised to the individual.

The key characteristics of coaching are:

  • Ongoing development of individual.
  • Facilitates an improvement process.
  • Takes place one-on-one.
  • Informal or unstructured.

Whereas the key characteristics of training are:

  • Skills focused (i.e. learning a skill or set of skills).
  • Provides new knowledge and skills.
  • Small or large groups.
  • Structured approach with agenda and content.

Training traditionally covers three general needs: company positioning (such as competitive positioning and company go-to-market training); product training; and sales execution training.

So how can you ensure that the training you deliver will successfully drive sales performance in your team?

Training tips

“Group training has a role to play in the education and awareness of new skills, techniques and approaches for the whole sales team,” notes Mansfield. “It can be excellent for introducing new company processes and systems, where the whole team need to know the new way to do something.”

But sometimes training is required because a particular skill has been identified that the employee needs to improve in order to drive up their overall sales performance. Sales leaders that have been fastidious with their recruitment processes will have developed a team resourcing plan with an associated 'performance framework' for each of the key roles, which highlights core activities, skills and behaviours, thereby enabling them to hire the right people based on the needs of the department, but also helping them with ongoing skills development activities.

Mansfield explains: “Training for personal development is about the person and how to improve their performance. This is not sheep-dipping everyone though the same training because it might be a good idea. Performance management and coaching conversations isolate an individual's performance gaps (against the performance framework) and identify gaps related to a lack of know-how. In situations like this it is appropriate to look at training for that individual rather than other development options.”

Training for personal development is about the person and how to improve their performance. This is not sheep-dipping everyone though the same training.

McPheat recommends setting up a benchmarking system to measure employee development against pre-agreed targets.

“You need to benchmark your sales teams on a regular basis against what excellence looks like in the role and then create individual development plans for each sales person,” he advises. “From that you can create a sales team/sales force training needs analysis and only then can you work out what training opportunities to create on a sales force, team and individual level.

“Don’t guess this, do it properly because you can then benchmark your sales teams at certain times in the year to see the improvements in the skill and will of the sales rep and hopefully see a correlation to their sales performance too.”

Of course, sometimes the request for training can come from the employee him/herself. Mansfield advises: “Training for training sake is of little value. If it doesn’t relate to a performance improvement currently required, or part of a longer term development programme for future roles, then the answer should be 'sorry'.”

But he adds: “Individuals must own their personal development and should be encouraged to prepare the investment case for any training they want to do. They must convince you on the value of this training to the business and commit up front to the post-course practice before you sign off. This then requires a focused follow up plan to apply the new skills and turn these into business as usual behaviours.”

Training solutions

The proliferation of learning and development (L&D) technology has also had a significant influence on the way that training can now be delivered to sales teams. Recent years have witnessed all forms of training moving closer to the point of need. Traditionally, instructor-led training was crucial and was the only means that leaders had to communicate detail and complexity to their sales people. Now, however, digital technologies have reduced the reliance on instructor-led training, as Tad Travis, a research director at Gartner, notes.

“Even beyond just holding webinars for your sales team, for the last two years or so technology can bring training knowledge and training consumption really close to the point of need,” he says. “For instance, you can embed short videos that instruct a sales representative how to handle a competitive objection or a product quality objection right into their CRM system so that it is available to them and even presented to them based on what they have entered into the salesforce automation system.

For the last two years or so technology can bring training knowledge and training consumption really close to the point of need.

“That is really useful because we all need mentors to help us understand how to execute, and our mentors can’t be there for us 24 hours a day. But a sales representative who has got an effective three minute training video that teaches on effective objection handling in competitive situations… I think that is pretty meaningful and relevant.”

What’s more, because these services are in a digital channel, sales leaders can measure if their reps are actually using the recommendations and watching them and then measure downstream what impact it has had on the deal outcome.

Coaching tips

However, as Mansfield notes, you can’t train sustained performance improvement. “Training has a role to play of course, one of education and skills awareness. To change performance, though, you need to apply these new skills and change behaviours. This performance change can be coached over a longer period of time and focused specifically around the individual’s performance relative to expectations.”

Indeed, there has been a notable shift towards more coaching in sales teams in recent years, according to McPheat.

Performance change can be coached over a longer period of time and focused specifically around the individual’s performance relative to expectations.

“Every sales director and manager wants consistent performance over the long run instead of short-term spikes in performance. Coaching is viewed as an ongoing support activity to ensure that sales reps are always maximising their capability,” he says.

“Coaching consists of regular sit downs, field sales accompaniment and also ‘as it happens’ coaching. Even the top golf pros have a coach. The likes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have a coach even though they are deemed to the best in the world. It keeps them going and they are continually looking for those one percenters to make them better.”

So how can you ensure that you’re a good sales coach – or that you task the right members of your team with coaching?

“Coaching is all about facilitating the process of where you want to get to from where you currently are – it’s all about managing the gap,” continues McPheat. “A coach needs to be great at asking the right questions at the right time. You don’t have to be brilliant at the task yourself you just need to ask the right questions and listen. The best coaches are good listeners, supportive and motivational. You can bounce ideas off them and they can be the voice of reason when needed and also can give you a kick up the backside if you’re not being as good as you can be.

“The very best coaches understand what makes others tick and can tap into your preferences and what motivates you. After all, the process of coaching is the same but how coaching is delivered is completely differently and makes the difference between success and failure.”

Reaching your team’s potential

To drive the performance of salespeople long-term, clearly training and coaching both have an important role to play, and sales leaders should use them in tandem. One-off training will work but it only has a limited shelf life. A sales rep will go back to the office fired up, more motivated and with a toolbox full of sales skills. But although sales performance will improve, over time it will revert back to where it was because there is no driving force to keep the fires burning.

The most effective sales teams use a combination of workshop-based training and ongoing internal coaching. This approach eradicates the spikes and troughs in performance, the fluctuating motivation, and replaces it with a steady improvement, as well as generating longer-term team loyalty, and therefore lowering staff attrition.

The most effective sales teams use a combination of workshop-based training and ongoing internal coaching.

All of this is vital given the changing sales landscape, where the new generation of sales people require a more nurturing approach. But also because the job of the salesperson is tough and getting tougher – more and more markets are becoming homogeneous; businesses are facing more competition and customers are becoming more demanding. If sales departments are to hit their targets, they need to optimise their staff performance now and for the long-term.

“The sales performance management process is the system that underpins the performance of the rep. It’s the overarching catalyst to improve sales performance and training, coaching and development are all vehicles to enable this to happen,” says McPheat.

“It must be ongoing too. It’s not a shot-in-the-arm initiative. It needs to be done week in and week out and become a way of life for your sales people. If it is only done ad hoc and if there are no measurement systems in place then the whole process will lose credibility and it will be viewed as another fad. So it’s got to be driven by your sales leadership team at all times.”

About Neil Davey

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Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.

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