Even as a 20+ year veteran in the sales industry, I often find myself wondering what is the key to sales excellence? I personally and professionally understand the significance of managers in helping their sales representatives achieve their goals, but what specifically can these managers do to improve their own coaching skills to affect business results?
In the Delta Point 2016 Industry Survey Report, we surveyed more than 100 sales representatives and 100 First Line Managers (FLMs) across the country to understand the ability of managers to be truly effective coaches. Specifically, we wanted to determine how FLMs perceive their roles, and how they can most effectively coach their sales representatives in selling excellence. We wanted to know:
- What impact do FLMs have on the sales organization?
- What do FLMs see as their core responsibilities, and how do they execute against those?
- What is needed within sales organizations in order for FLMs to be more successful in their roles?
In my own experiences as a sales representative, I wanted practical ideas from my manager on how to be more effective. FLMs should be more than managers—they should be coaches that both teach and model the desired behaviors for success. In order to succeed, you need instruction on messaging, client relationship-building, and sales effectiveness. This leads me to share an important thought from Don Beveridge, a leading professional business speaker. Beveridge emphasizes that the first thing employees want from their manager is “competent job instruction.” For this, FLMs need to outline and define their expectations, job responsibilities, and priorities. Specificity helps a sales representative measure success, and ultimately, to understand what is expected to do the job well.
Where Do Sales Reps Turn For New Ideas?
While it seems obvious that sales representatives should look to their FLMs for ideas on enhancing their selling skills, our survey revealed that they look elsewhere. In fact, 53% of sales representatives surveyed turn to their peers for “new ideas” on how to best engage their customers, and 23% rely on themselves and personal experiences. Only 14% seek out their managers for new ideas and advice. Perhaps even more interesting, 36% of sales representatives are NOT sure if their manager helps them be successful at selling.
I found this very surprising, because personally, I always believed my sales representatives would look to me for guidance and coaching at least as much as the other members within the district or region. I’m not suggesting that turning to peers and relying on past experiences—specifically successes—are bad ideas. However, reliance on one’s own manager would seem like the obvious choice when seeking opportunities to improve.
First Line Managers’ Top Priorities
We probed to see if FLMs see coaching as their responsibility. When asked to identify their priorities, FLMs’ No. 1 response was meeting or exceeding sales goals. Additionally, three-quarters of FLMs believed field coaching is the most effective tool to improve performance among their sales representatives. Furthermore, both sales reps and their coaches agreed that if they could take their skills to the next level, they would reap a benefit of 11% to 30%! The results lead us to conclude that FLMs believe they are tasked with improving sales, and that the key to that improvement is coaching.
Next, we wanted to know what specifically FLMs should coach to most improve sales. Overwhelmingly, the skill that sales representatives most desired to be developed and the skill most responsible for current success is the same: Asking good questions. The response from FLMs was consistent with the majority selecting “asking thought-provoking questions” as the skill that contributes most to sales success. Alignment is a great thing!
The Lack of Sales Coaching
So, if coaching to these skills is the key to increasing sales, what is the commitment among FLMs to coach? While FLMs recognize the importance, they responded that they spend only approximately 29% of their time coaching. And only 10% asked for additional training on “how to” coach more effectively. Given the potential positive impact of sales coaching, this number seems remarkably low. Unfortunately, this is not unique to our industry. The Sales Management Association reported similar findings in the November 2015 “Research Report: Supporting Sales Coaching.” This report revealed that 77% of those surveyed believe too little coaching is offered to their sales force. A simple increase in coaching time could increase coaching effectiveness.
What’s preventing them from executing? Lack of time? Lack of skill in coaching to selling specifically? Lack of support from above? Most likely, these factors are all contributors. I know firsthand that the nature of a manager’s role requires navigating between many competing priorities. But, I ask this: If coaching is the key to increased sales, is reprioritization of responsibilities warranted?
The development of and investment in coaching selling excellence is the ultimate goal. Our CEO Jerry Acuff strongly believes in the word coach, and he often refers to Dr. Keith E. Webb, a Professional Certified Coach, who has shared his take on the modern use of the word. It was first applied in 18th century England when students studied for exams, using private tutors. Private tutors worked to quickly and comfortably bring students to their end goal: Passing their exams. The slang referenced for these private tutors became “coach.” Excellent sales managers should be certified private tutors of sales excellence. They have the expertise, knowledge and experience necessary for coaching selling excellence. Jerry has told us often: “if the goal of an organization is selling excellence, because obviously that is what you need to compete, then you need great private tutors.”