Sales leaders know developing their sales teams is worthwhile because it can make a difference, so it needs to be a priority. They also know the pivotal job for getting it done belongs to the front-line sales manager. One cannot have a superior sales team without great front-line sales managers who know how to coach.
Investing in sales team development is more crucial today than ever because a sales force must not only be able to sell a competitive advantage, it must be a competitive advantage.
With rising global competition, advanced manufacturing technologies and just-in-time logistics, it’s hard to sustain a competitive advantage by product alone. Although a superior sales force is extremely difficult to develop, it is one of the few sustainable advantages remaining.
Further, sales excellence is difficult to achieve. Not only is superior sales performance more important than ever; it’s harder to attain. The complexity of the buying process and the sophistication of product portfolios require a sales force to know more and possess a higher level of competency. Companies simply cannot succeed with only a great selection process and terrific training. Front-line sales managers must be involved in talent development.
Despite the need, front-line sales managers’ coaching efforts often fall through the cracks. Ask sales managers what stops them from coaching, and comments often include: “I’m always putting out fires.” “I spend my time helping reps put deals together.” “I’m inundated with emails, voice mails and reports.” “My territory covers too much geography.” The top reason consistently reported is lack of time.
How can the time challenge be addressed? First, successful front-line sales managers can coach smarter. For example, they could look for opportunities to coach one-on-many vs. one-on-one. This works particularly well to develop account strategy skills. Several sales representatives likely will have the same strategic dilemma, and the manager can leverage the insights for the entire team during the learning process.
Second, managers are more likely to make time to develop their people if they dismiss the mindset: “I’m the expert. I’ll diagnose what’s wrong. You practice what I recommend.” Instead, learning leaders should encourage them to embrace their role as a facilitator, and emphasize how they can provide direction and hold sales reps more accountable. Over time, this mindset is not only more efficient; it’s more effective.
Third, successful managers can use a coaching process designed to meet the time challenge. A process designed to have a positive impact is as follows:
• Determine the starting population. Focus on a few people, not everyone — three or four is a good start — and begin with average performers. There’s more potential for performance improvement, plus a small group is easier to coach.
• Develop a shared diagnostic. Develop a joint diagnostic between the sales manager and sales rep, thereby avoiding coaching the wrong thing. Not every performance situation is coachable; some require other management techniques.
• Select a performance area. Avoid working on all issues at once. Sales managers should pick a few to start with that will enable them to build early success stories that can be leveraged to build momentum and buy-in with more challenging issues later.
• Develop a joint plan of action. Be specific about the coaching plan. Delineate expectations for the sales manager and sales rep, recognize the importance of individual differences and leverage other learning resources.
Many sales managers begin coaching initiatives, but far fewer complete them, and the most prominent barrier to success is time. To overcome the time barrier, front-line sales managers must proactively and systematically tackle the challenge, and senior sales leaders must commit, reward and recognize that an important part of the front-line sales manager’s job is developing direct reports.
Richard D. Ruff is a co-founder of Sales Horizons and author of Parlez-Vous Business. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.