I read an article recently from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) in Washington, D. C. that shed some light on the dearth of coaches and excess of managers (and micromanagers) in many sales organizations. The culprits: situation and circumstance.
It also seems that a perception gap exists between how sales managers see themselves as coaches versus how their people do. Managers think they are better than their reps do. In a high performance organization this gap does not exist.
The CEB first looked at the concept of direct report coaching seven years ago during the tail end of the economic run-up. Back then we had no worries over things like credit default swaps, inflation, rising unemployment, or prospects for continued economic growth. The economy had been vibrant for a couple decades. Few sensed the evil thug lurking in the shadows just around the calendar quarter.
Back then sales leadership applied pressure on their organizations to accelerate sales cycles. Many buyers were stockpiling profitable-to-turn inventory. Others were looking to add capacity. The market was solid and customers were — generally speaking — willing to collaborate on sped-up decision-making.
This was harvest time in American business. Behaviors reflected that. Deals were done and trillions churned. Consumption was full bore; and nowhere to be found was the new conservatism “paralysis by analysis” of recent times.
Today’s economy is remarkably different, which means the success formula to thrive inside the new marketplace has changed. Rather than decision-making velocity, sales organizations currently worry more about maximizing “hit rates” [the ratio of successes divided by the number of attempts]. This is a seismic shift in sales priority, some adapting better than others.
For many sales organizations and leadership teams, this recession is their first time through a down-cycle economy. Because of that (and the pressure that comes with it), an anxious, stressful need to win typifies daily activity. Emotional intelligence has become a rising leadership desirability. How else can we get the results we need without torching or burning our our sales organizations? Yelling, brow-beating, threatening, cajoling, and criticizing can drive short term results but have zero long-term sustainability — assuming the goal is a stable, self-motivated, high performance sales organization.
According to CEB research, today’s workers, for the most part, are not thrilled with the support they are getting. Here’s why:
- First, sales reps continue to score their managers low in terms of the coaching they provide. Fully 66% of sales reps indicate that their manager does worse at coaching as opposed to the other behaviors that a sales manager will need to demonstrate, such as planning, assessing risks, championing new initiatives, or even delivering bad news to senior management.
- Second, the news is not completely bleak. In general, reps who receive no coaching are rare, which means the need to coach seems to have permeated much of the landscape. While the abilities of managers as coaches slides on a great-to-poor skill scale, at least the masses seem to be trying. Managers are rated reasonably high when it comes to sharing knowledge; and they are perceived to be reasonably well prepared for development discussions. Yet there are gaps.
The difficulty sales individuals face seem to stem from weak coaching related to three behaviors known to drive performance:
- Showing people how to appropriately pressure the customer to make a decision. Professional finesse to keep a deal moving is a game-changer. Reps need it but managers don’t do it.
- Helping reps identify “next steps” with a customer. Deals do not advance without “next steps.” Who is doing what, by when? The bigger the deal and less experienced or skilled the rep, the more likely there is to be a big “next step” gap. A smart leader does not assume the rep knows what to do: He or she verifies they know what to do.
- Helping somebody identify how to overcome customer indifference. In the old days this was called “developing the need.” These are value barriers. You sell it, the customer does not see the need to buy it. The global demand for value creating salespeople remains robust. The global supply of those who can do it has diminished. A good coach can be a career changer if he or she can teach their people how to create, sell, deliver, and sustain true value. This separates the amateurs from the pros; and in today’s market, customers prefer pros.
The need to coach these behaviors is relatively new but research is showing that all three are linked to modern sales success. Because they are new, too many managers have yet to develop heightened awareness, coaching proficiency, or both.
Pro selling is an evolutionary business, since its core relies on changing tools, market timing, and technology’s influence on buyer behaviors — and these are shaped by time, expanding and contracting needs, fluctuating senses of emotional urgency, and need-versus-want utility.
Because of all this, sales organizations — especially those whose success directly correlates to the management, development, and inspiration of successful reps — must remain nimble and open to change. When compared to the old, less volatile days, success today often trades an insistent emphasis on following the process for a bit more flexibility and emphasis on coaching talent how to change the nature of the customer conversation.
The game — winning — remains unchanged; but how smart sales leaders enable consistent success has changed significantly. Embrace these changes and lead by example. Every day in America and around the world, great sales organizations achieve extraordinary wins that solidify their balance sheets, assure sustainability, and redefine benchmark excellence.
None of those wins are by accident. Stay relevant with the times and adapt accordingly. Coach the right things more effectively. Do that and you too will be a true professional: You will win the ones you’re supposed to win and some of the ones you’re supposed to lose.
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