Sales Coaching 101: Focus on the Middle

Spending more than three hours a month on coaching sales staff increased goal attainment 17% compared to two hours or less, a study by the Sales Executive Council found.

Despite the generally accepted idea that sales coaching leads to higher goal attainment, many in sales management and even industry coaches can be unsure where to start. Often, managers make the mistake of directing their sales staff rather than coaching them, which leads away from the desired response.

“When leaders give orders they succeed in conditioning their people to wait for those orders, resulting in a decline in initiative and overall engagement,” writes David Priemer in .

Focus on the middle

Coaches tend to target the top and bottom performers, leaving the majority in the middle to their own devices. But there’s only so much room for improvement for those top performers, so the bottom line isn’t going to change much if you leave the rest of the team to fend for themselves.

“A simple 5% gain in the middle 60% of your sales performers can deliver over 91% greater sales than a 5% shift in your top 20%,” writes Vadim Zorin

The middle performers — the core of your team — have the most to gain. While they’re doing well enough to stay above the lowest rungs of the performance ladder, they still have room to grow. So when sales coaches spread out the coaching evenly, from the top performer to the bottom, they’re failing to focus on what they should: Focus on the middle — focus on getting the team from average to excellent.

How to train the core

Clear-cut objectives and concrete examples are necessary in the sales field, but that doesn’t mean that coaching is all about developing a step-by-step strategy for “how to get the sale.”

Coaching is more about working one-on-one to develop habits and behaviors that lead to success. In sales, this means asking your reps open-ended questions about where the sale went south with a potential client, or which sales management tools would have helped the rep do their job better. Coaching is about getting your staff to better understand themselves and identify their own strengths and weaknesses.

Behavior and performance help a salesperson go from good to great, and this applies to your core sales staff. While setting goals, outlining specific actions to take every day and advising on best practices are certainly beneficial for your sales team, a study published in the British Psychological Society argues that it is cognitive-behavioral coaching that truly enhances sales performance.

Successful salespeople know that effective sales aren’t only a result of specific activities, but also of the particular approach one takes to potential clients.

“If you want to sell consistently and increase your revenues, you may have to refine the way you engage clients throughout the entire sales process,” says the Behavioral Coaching Institute.

Don’t ignore the rest of the force

While there isn’t much payoff in coaching the top performers because they’re already great at their jobs it would be ill-advised to ignore them altogether.

“If you leave your high performer alone, complacency will eventually sink in and a decline in performance will occur,” writes Vu Van, senior manager of sales enablement and training for a digital health startup company.

The top performers are comfortable in their roles, but comfort gets boring. You want your top performers to feel confident, engaged and motivated — not comfortable. While a coach’s attention should be targeted to middle performers, a sales manager should also focus on how helping the core encourages those top performers and brings back a level of competition that drives them.

Just as sales managers target the star salespeople for coaching because it’s fun, they often target the lowest performing reps because they need the help. While that’s a reasonable impulse, the investment in time and energy is better spent elsewhere, and by focusing on the middle, those bottom performers should be chasing a rising average.

“Not all reps who get coached, even by good coaches, do better,” Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson say in . “In fact, our research shows that coaching is almost worthless when it targets the wrong reps.”

Some anecdotal evidence indicates that low performers can greatly improve with even a little guidance from an experienced mentor, but the general rule is that there is probably a reason for their lack of success. The focus here should be on finding out what that reason is and seeing if the sales manager and rep can work through it — or if they should be having another conversation altogether.

Final thoughts

The sales manager’s role is to find out what your team needs and how you can provide it — whether that’s support for the top performers, coaching for the middle performers, or an open conversation about underlying issues faced by your bottom performers. The point is that teams succeed when their leaders are fully engaged, aware and available.

John Paull

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John Paull

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