skip to main content
Business Journal
Are You a Winning Coach?
Business Journal

Are You a Winning Coach?

by Benson Smith
Coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths

Over the past decade, "coaching" has become a part of many managers' job descriptions. Sales managers are no longer expected to be just bosses -- they are now coaches who lead teams.

Admittedly, the idea of coaching sounds positive. But what exactly are managers supposed to do as coaches? Should they run around their companies' halls with hats and whistles? Give pep talks like Vince Lombardi while reminding their sales reps that "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing"? Or is coaching just another way of repackaging some of the employee development strategies that great managers have used all along?


This much is certain: Coaching courses are now among the most popular training programs offered to managers. They would be a dime a dozen, except they're a lot more expensive than that. What's more, almost every issue of the top sales magazines offers some kind of article on coaching advice. And many organizations are now evaluating managers' "coaching skills" during their annual performance reviews.

The Gallup Organization's own research, including interviews with more than 25,000 sales managers, confirms that managers who help their employees grow and develop are more likely to have engaged sales forces. If we think of coaching as putting people in the right roles, setting clear expectations, and praising accomplishments, then the more coaching managers do, the better it is for their organizations.

Unfortunately, what managers are taught in many coaching classes won't help them build winning teams. These programs essentially train managers to be more effective at critiquing performance. One coaching course teaches that every call is an opportunity for constructive criticism, so sales managers are encouraged to conduct call reviews in the car after each sales visit. The purpose of these reviews is to point out where the sales rep can improve. But the problem is that when a manager says, "Here is something you can do better," what the salesperson hears is, "Here is something you did wrong." This kind of criticism feels like a punch in the face.

What's worse, this approach erodes performance. A well-documented research study found that employees reacted negatively to criticism more than half the time (54%). In contrast, employees reacted positively to criticism just once out of 13 times (8%). (See "Scrap Your Performance Appraisal System" in See Also.) Moreover, salespeople rarely express their true feelings about these critiques and might even mouth a half-hearted "thank you" -- so managers often mistakenly think these little chats are doing some good.

Managers, take note: Every time you offer a critical suggestion to a sales rep, it's unlikely that you're helping that person. Instead, you probably just caused a negative reaction that may adversely affect his or her performance. Given that, just how much critiquing do you want to do?

Sales managers can learn a great deal from gifted coaches. Besides understanding that coaching is not critiquing, here are some other crucial lessons:

Have an eye for talent

Coaching begins with recruiting, so keep in mind that 7 out of 10 people currently employed in sales don't have the talent to perform at a consistently high level. Don't be fooled by years of experience and a smooth interviewing persona. Take time to develop talent-revealing interview questions, and keep asking yourself, "How does this person compare to the very best salespeople in our organization?" If you settle for someone with average sales talent, you're also settling for average performance throughout his or her tenure with your organization.

Build a constructive relationship with each sales rep

On paper, you're the boss. Therefore, most employees will treat you with a good deal more deference than they would some stranger on the street. When you say something, employees are more likely to say they agree with you, even when they really don't. Surface agreement is not a good indicator of trust.

Genuine trust takes time to develop, but it's a requirement for a healthy coaching relationship. So establishing a constructive and positive relationship is your very first task when working with sales reps. Not surprisingly, on Gallup's Q12 employee engagement survey, the item "My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person" is a key indicator of employee engagement. Showing concern develops trust.

Understand the sales reps' strengths

One manager told us about a rep who wasn't very good at breaking into new accounts, but he was tremendously effective at building up favorable long-term relationships with his key customers. To help the rep build new business, the manager suggested that some of the rep's existing customers might be willing to introduce him to some potential new customers. As it turned out, several of his customers were happy to do just that. In this way, the rep could build on his strengths to grow his business even more.

When coaching your employees, think about how your sales reps' talents and strengths can be put to even better use. Give suggestions that build on what reps do really well -- they are much more effective than critiques that focus on their mistakes.

Find the right way to praise performance

According to a Gallup Poll, 65% of employees in America reported receiving no recognition at work in the past year. It appears that too many managers essentially believe "If I haven't yelled at you recently, that means you're doing OK." Yet most of us need a little more in the way of recognition than simply not being yelled at.

In fact, praise influences employees' engagement levels most meaningfully when it is given frequently and for good work, according to Gallup research. And to be effective, praise must be genuine. This means that you must know what your sales reps are spending their time on and what their successes have been during the week. Often, this requires taking time on the phone with your reps and letting them explain just how many good things they have accomplished.

Great coaches are quick to recognize stellar performance. But they also know that some people prefer a quiet pat on the back, while others relish public congratulations. Some might prefer a phone call, while others would rather receive a handwritten note. More good performers leave managers because of a lack of praise than a lack of pay. The best performers are likely to improve with a raise in praise.

The goal is excellence, not perfection

As sales managers, you are not trying to create perfect reps. And that's a good thing, because if you were, you'd fail. The best wide receivers occasionally drop the ball. Champion home-run hitters strike out. And even the best salespeople miss sales they should have gotten and lose business they should have kept.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out what went wrong after the fact, when it's easy to point out what mistakes were made. But it takes a genius to find just the right thing to say to rebuild people's confidence, keep them engaged in spite of setbacks, and prevent them from becoming complacent in the face of success. That's the stuff of great coaching.


Benson Smith is coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030