Components of a team, displayed on a chalkboard

Great sales managers are required to become great coaches.

Great sales managers know that everyone in their organization takes a cue from them. These managers use their position and influence to challenge the status quo, galvanize their team, act as role models for change, and demand results.

While many sales managers are promoted to the role based on their success as a sales rep, it’s truer than ever that the best salespeople don’t necessarily make the best sales leaders. In many sales organizations, managers who rise up through the ranks view themselves as “super reps”—but they would do better to become super coaches instead.

What makes someone a super coach?

When you hear the word “coach,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is a sports reference.

But historically, a coach was a horse-drawn carriage that transported important people from where they were to where they wanted to be. When we talk about sales coaching, that’s a pretty good way to describe it: helping salespeople move from their current level of performance to a new one — in other words, guiding them from their current situation to their desired situation.

In fact, we know that managers who are effective coaches often help their employees travel significant distances. Employees who are consistently coached:

  • Outperform peers
  • Are significantly more engaged
  • Apply more discretionary effort
  • Are less likely to leave
  • Are more promotable
  • Retain four times the amount of information after training

report from Hubspot shows that sales leaders spend the majority of their time either managing the sales process or setting the right culture for engagement and performance. World-class sales leadership is about embracing both of these roles. A coaching culture must dovetail with broader corporate goals — the growth strategy, the need to onboard, train and develop new salespeople to become productive quickly, and decrease costly sales turnover.

Contrary to popular opinion, motivating salespeople isn’t just about money and perks. Consider the companies that consistently retain highly motivated, high-achieving salespeople. In these organizations, managers can spend close to 60% of their time on coaching. Even so, these companies are the outliers. The reality is that upwards of 90% of sales managers are not adequately prepared for and don’t have clarity about what coaching conversations should look like and what they’re intended to accomplish.

Coaching and the Connection to Employee Engagement and Retention

Great sales leadership goes far beyond just hitting numbers. It closely aligns the sales team’s actions with the company’s strategy and performing both of the critical responsibilities of sales team management:

Managing is the business side of selling: How can I help you increase your individual productivity in service of the organization’s goals? It’s about things like opportunity reviews and activity management. All of this is important, and yet it’s also entirely different from coaching.

Coaching is the human side of selling: How can I as a leader help build, develop and motivate you? It’s about asking questions, enhancing self-awareness, clarifying and progressing toward goals, and expressing belief and building confidence. Because people on their own will tend to perform at the level they internally believe they’re capable of, sales leaders have to realize that people will rise to their belief in what you see in them.  

Too often, organizations underinvest in developing their sales managers’ coaching abilities and undermine the success of sales training in the process. New sales managers can often make the mistake of thinking their role is to simply tell their people how to do their jobs. Yet the reality is, if you’ve hired great people, they’ll have way better ideas than anything you can come up with for them. And frankly, top talent today is not going to stick around and tolerate being told how to do their job.

What’s more, companies often wrongly assume that a salesperson who has been trained once (perhaps many years ago) has maxed out their capacity to learn. As a result, they don’t bother with implementing an ongoing training and reinforcement process — one that will support the development of both newer and long-tenured salespeople. Especially in a business environment that is constantly evolving, the best salespeople want to keep growing and sharpening their skills. They’re hungry for development, and if they’re not finding those opportunities where they are, they’ll go elsewhere.

Whether it’s playing piano or playing quarterback in the NFL, development never ends. Excellence requires practice. And it requires good coaching.

Building a Coaching Mindset

If sales managers say there isn’t enough time for consistent coaching, challenge them. People make time for the things they want to do. If they’re not coaching, the honest reason is that, for whatever reason, they’re not making it a priority. You won’t hear successful sales managers saying they don’t have time for coaching; they make time for it. They view sales coaching as a way to build a sense of culture, connect the team to a common purpose and send a clear message that they care about their team members’ growth and success.

These managers also know that they benefit, too, when they coach their employees consistently and effectively. They not only enjoy their jobs more and get better results from their teams, they’re also freed up from having to spend their own time micromanaging or “taking up the slack” for underperformers. And that means they have more time to devote to critical, managerial-level business issues.

But just because someone’s a great manager, it doesn’t mean they’re already a great coach. And simply giving managers a process, framework or even specific coaching knowledge and skills isn’t enough. Like an individual salesperson, the sales manager’s belief in their abilities, their motivation and their understanding of their own personal “why” and purpose are all reflected in the skills they then attempt to transfer to their teams.

The reason for this is that, over our lifetime, each of us has developed beliefs about how successful we can be, how much money we can earn, the type of people we can call on and so forth. All of our actions, feelings, behaviors and abilities are bounded by these beliefs. Overlook these emotional aspects of performance—which ultimately influence both the manager’s and the employee’s success—and it will be very difficult to make any real headway.

If these mindset issues aren’t addressed, the manager and the salesperson can end up stuck where they are, trapped by the Law of Limited Performance. Employees discover the level of performance their managers will settle for and then gravitate to that level. The manager then assumes that’s all the person is capable of achieving, so they accept it as fact and quit challenging them to get better. They each reinforce what the other already believes.

For coaching to be effective, it needs to recognize the connecting points in people’s belief boundaries—their actions, feelings, behaviors and abilities—and then focus on expanding those boundaries beyond what their current barriers are.

So, whether you think of a “coach” as the catalyst for guiding an athlete to peak performance or the vehicle for moving someone to the next stage they want to reach, success requires a deeper understanding of how these emotional aspects affect the person’s energy, achievement drive and engagement in the growth process.

The most effective sales leaders have something called coaching adaptability, meaning, they don’t employ a one-size-fits-all coaching style. Instead, they adapt their style to suit each individual. Because no two individuals are alike.

A Model for Asking Great Coaching Questions

The degree of value and engagement with customers that your sellers will be able to create hinges in large part based on the culture of coaching that is (or isn’t) established.

To get the positive outcomes coaching has to offer, your managers have to be able to:

  • Break the law of limited performance so they can see more in their people.
  • Understand the emotional aspects of performance and how they drive success.
  • Adapt their coaching approach to draw out more potential.

As a starting point, managers can develop a set of questions in each of the five areas of our GAP Model to help them coach their people more effectively, adapting the original set of GAP Model questions to each of the four Behavior Styles.  

the gap model

When you ask great coaching questions, it helps someone discover for themselves what it is you desperately want to tell them. We advise managers to focus on asking open-ended questions without interjecting any thoughts of their own for as long as possible to keep the person talking.

It’s the same kind of open-ended questioning salespeople should be applying with their customers. And managers should continually assess how they’re modeling the behaviors they expect in their team. 

Coaching and Its Impact on Sales Culture

Ethical, customer-centric sales cultures start with trust. And companies strive for things like strong values like integrity. In fact, over 57% of Fortune 500 companies have “integrity” as part of their stated values or in their mission. But making that come to life through a culture and relationship of trust between companies and their customers is also dependent on a culture of trust between the salesperson and their sales manager. Your customers have an innate sense of when someone calling on them is trying to help or exploit them. Unless customers feel like you’re an ethical organization looking out for their best interests, what you have written on your website or the walls of your offices is meaningless.

Organizations with great sales cultures attract — and keep — great salespeople because their reps feel supported and confident in their ability to achieve their sales goals, more fulfilled in what they do and more passionate about the work and the impact they have. They’re purpose-driven, because the sales culture sets the tone and helps sustain them through tumultuous times.

Ultimately, a sales culture is created and cultivated from the top down, so sales managers need to learn the right way to coach and mentor their teams. This includes striking a balance between stepping in, modeling the right behaviors and techniques, and allowing team members the room to succeed or fail on their own. If you continuously step in, you risk signaling to your team that you don’t trust them. The best sales managers foster high achievement drive and connection to purpose by being fully present and empathetic, not by coddling or micromanaging.

A crucial lesson from the Great Resignation is that sales leaders need to shift their focus from simply hiring and developing the “best” salespeople to hiring and developing the best salespeople for their sales culture. After all, your sales culture is the sum-total of the attitudes, values and behaviors that permeate your team.

At a broader level, your managers need to reflect on two big questions: Do you trust your people, and do they trust you? If values and integrity are important to you, that will come across in your own behaviors and in day-to-day interactions with customers.

A strong sales culture starts at the top. If you don’t have that commitment from your senior leadership, take the responsibility to lead from where you are. Sales managers can create a winning culture within their team, and that will make all the difference.

If frontline sales managers provide regular coaching and support to reinforce new behaviors and processes, great things can happen.

About the Author
Derek Roberts

Executive Partner & Board Member

Derek Roberts has built, trained, and coached sales teams and sales leaders for nearly thirty years. He is an executive...
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