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Sales Coaching 101: Focus on the Middle

When you put effort into coaching a sales team, you can improve seller performance by up to 19%. In fact, a report from Challenger notes that effective coaching for sales has the highest impact on performance and increases revenue.

On the other hand, poor sales coaching can demoralize sales reps, negatively impact engagement and in the worst case lead to employee churn.

Despite the generally accepted fact 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 4 Killer Tips for Supercharging Your Sales Coaching Sessions.

In this article, we will explore exactly what sales coaching is and how it differs from sales training. We will also look into why sales coaching is essential to performance improvement, who needs a sales coach and the sales coaching process.

Table of contents


What is sales coaching?

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

Rather, sales coaching is about working one-on-one with individual sales reps to develop habits and behaviors that lead to success. 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 sales teams is about getting your staff to better understand themselves and identify their own strengths and weaknesses.

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.

Sales coaching activities are not a one-size-fits all experience. They are usually derived from individual difficulties that a team member may be facing. Some examples include:

  • Confidence building exercises for a sales rep who is afraid to approach senior decision-makers in a company

  • Teaching a shy sales executive how to speak with confidence and authority on a sales call

  • Working on lead qualification and scoring with a rep who is spending too long chasing dead-end deals

  • Role-playing exercises to teach a former field sales rep how to remote sell

  • A coaching conversation with a sales rep who is taking too long to follow-up with prospects

Each of these activities is tailored to an individual rep’s needs and the sales coaching techniques can widely vary from salesperson to salesperson.

So, how exactly does sales coaching differ from sales training?


Sales coaching vs. sales training

While sales coaching focuses on individual action plans to improve performance, sales training is more general in nature and is given to every new member of a sales organization as part of the onboarding process.

Sales training equips a sales rep with pertinent information that they need to navigate the company as a whole and as part of the sales team.

Key sales training activities may include:

  • Training on the key features and functionality of the CRM

  • Familiarizing the new hire on the sales strategy, sales cycles, KPIs and key metrics

  • Introduction to the current deals in the pipeline, clients and prospects

  • Sales territories, competition and team roles

  • Product knowledge

  • Successful sales methodologies that may be specific to the company or product

These are quite different from the confidence building and role playing exercises involved in sales coaching.


Why every sales team needs sales coaching

As sales coaching focuses on the long term development of individual team members, it is likely to produce overall gains. There are many benefits that companies realize from developing a sales coaching program.

Benefits of sales coaching:

  • Improved revenue. Value Selling’s 2020 report on sales coaching found that 67% of the companies who have had a formal sales coaching program for the last three years experienced high revenue growth and higher quota attainment.

  • Building selling skills. The same report found that reps who regularly undergo sales coaching significantly improved their sales competencies across the board including communication skills, product know-how, presentation skills, prospect engagement and navigating sales processes.

  • Better retention. Companies that invest in regular sales coaching have less turnover in their salesforce, as 69% of companies with a sales coaching program report higher engagement and retention rates.


Who needs sales coaching?

In Second Nature’s 2021 survey of more than 1,000 sales professionals, 96% agreed that sales coaching can make a significant difference in performance with 64% indicating that they would like more coaching time.

These statistics indicate that not only are salespeople open to receiving coaching, but a big majority are actively looking to sales coaching to improve their win rate, close deals and level up their skill set.

As a sales leader, where should you focus your attention and resources to bring in the highest return on your sales coaching investment?

The middle.


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, director of SalesMore.

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.


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 The Dirty Secret of Effective Sales Coaching. “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 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

A great sales coach is an invaluable member of a sales team. Every sales leader should consider a coaching plan as an integral part of developing individual sales reps and the overall team’s performance.

Coaching for sales is about finding 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. Teams succeed when their leaders are fully engaged, aware and available.

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