The 4 Leadership Qualities of the Best Sales Coaches
By Mike Fisher
When it comes to sales, it’s all about the numbers, right? Quotas, pipelines, forecasts…we’re laser focused on hitting those numbers. But is a number really enough to keep people in the game?
Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick, authors of “The Best Team Wins,” recently analyzed the responses from more than 5,800 salespeople who took their Motivators Assessment, and it turns out that most salespeople say they aren’t working for the number. Instead, they found that the top sales motivators are things like family, making an impact, learning, solving problems and developing relationships. Not even money—the classic score-keeping tool in sales—made the top 20.
Of course, motivation is something that comes from within, and different people are motivated by different things. This is why sales leaders look for ways to unleash that motivation—and the hook they often use is the number. The assumption: Working for the number keeps that fire lit.
The problem with this approach is that people are willing to let a number down. It’s not personal. It’s not a purpose. It’s not something to believe in. Yet most companies choose to sacrifice the people for the numbers, not the numbers for the people. And as author Simon Sinek points out, “That’s a little bit backwards. When you put the people first, watch what happens to the numbers. The people will give more and more.”
Just think about the best bosses you’ve had in your own career. Sure, they had high expectations for you. They likely also saw your potential and held you accountable to yourself so that you could achieve those expectations. They spent the time and invested in your growth. And because they “walked the walk,” they inspired you with the impact you could make. They believed in you, and because of this, they could be brutally honest with you. You didn’t like it, but you knew they had your best interest in mind. You trusted them. And you didn’t want to let them down.
Salespeople may not be willing to go to bat for a number, but they will put it all out there for a leader they trust and respect. And the leaders who are most effective at this are those who excel at and are committed to coaching their people.
What Effective Sales Leaders Do
When you consider those things effective sales leaders do to develop high-performing, highly motivated sales teams, you’ll notice that coaching is ultimately the enabler. It’s how they do it. And it’s why they’re the ones who consistently earn respect, build trust, and attract and retain top salespeople.
Let’s take a closer look at a few of these leadership qualities.
- They build strong relationships. A 2016 study found that two-thirds of U.S. managers are uncomfortable talking with their employees. That’s a pretty astounding number. Obviously, you can’t build relationships with your people if you’re scared to talk to them. The question is, why are so many managers so uneasy?
One reason is that they simply don’t know how to do communicate effectively with their people. This is particularly true in sales, where people are often promoted because they’re good salespeople, not because they know how to lead people. Another common argument we’ll hear from sales managers is that they don’t want to “bother” or micromanage their people.
The reality is, most people want the check-ins and the follow-up. They want to be able to gauge how they’re doing, and they want the pats on the back when they hit the milestones. That’s how they know their manager is truly invested in their success. The good news is, learning how to communicate and coach is a lot easier than people might think.
In many ways, good coaching is like good selling. It’s not about showing up and telling, or having all the answers. It’s about asking good questions and recognizing that your people have the answers inside them. Your job is to bring those answers out, knowing that the tough questions you’re afraid to ask are more likely to strengthen the relationship than damage it.
- They’re goal oriented. I’ll often ask sales leaders to estimate the percentage of people on their team who do goal setting—not for the goals the company made them do, but their own personal, written goals. Pretty consistently the answer to that question is “maybe one percent.”
Building a strong relationship and opening the lines of communication with your team members is critical, but effective leaders also build trust by having a written plan they execute on. And they expect the same from everyone on their team. Good coaching practices balance the people orientation and goal orientation aspects of leadership, both of which are necessary for keeping people motivated and engaged.
- They hold people accountable. As mentioned above, there’s a difference between micro-managing and holding people accountable to their goals. But many managers believe that high-performing salespeople, in particular, don’t really need or want follow-up. That’s hardly the case.
A salesperson once told me about the very thorough process she went through with her manager to set goals and create a plan with milestones to reach along the way. It was a great meeting and she left completely energized. Then she starting achieving those milestones and goals. She wanted to share her successes and get that well-deserved pat on the back—who wouldn’t?—but her manager never checked back in.
Too many managers sit down once to go over goals and never follow back up, especially when the salesperson’s performing well. It’s a huge missed opportunity for strengthening the relationship, and it’s also a huge risk. After all, your top performers can easily take their talents elsewhere to get that acknowledgement.
- They re-calibrate what their own success looks like. Because so many sales leaders are promoted from sales jobs, they often miss the immediate gratification that comes from closing a sale, and this means they can be tempted to step in and do it for the salespeople on their teams.
The practice of coaching helps leaders change their mindset and gives them a new purpose. Their sense of personal satisfaction comes not from closing a deal but from coaching their sales reps to do it themselves. In the process, they’re empowering their people to be problem-solvers, building trust and developing bench strength for the future.
Developing and keeping high-performing salespeople is more than just a numbers game. People tend to respect the leaders they have a good relationship with and who hold them accountable to their goals. Whether they call it coaching or not, it’s what the most effective leaders know. And those are the leaders your salespeople will go the extra mile for.
How do your sales coaching efforts stack up?
Our recent research project with the Sales Management Association explored why some organizations use coaching successfully to drive sales performance while others struggle to make it work. You can access the full report here.