Becoming a Sales Coach

Apr 25, 2012

A lot has been written about sales training and its importance to the success of a business. And rightfully so. A well-trained sales force is not only essential for bringing in revenue—the lifeblood of your business—it can also provide your business with a competitive advantage. But what about sales coaching?

Training vs. Coaching

Coaching is arguably as important as training in getting your salespeople to perform optimally. But what exactly is coaching? One way to answer that question is by distinguishing between training and coaching. Training is introducing new skills, approaches, methods, strategies, techniques, and knowledge (typically product knowledge) to one or more employees. It’s done off the job, either off site or in a conference room in the office. Coaching is observing an employee one-on-one on the job using existing or new skills, approaches, methods, strategies, techniques, and product knowledge in order to ensure that they are being used, and used correctly and effectively.

For example, if you’ve ever taken a class in order to learn a new skill—say, cooking— then a few days later tried to use the new skill (cook the meal), you’ll understand and appreciate the difference between training and coaching. In the class, you were trained on how to create the dish. You were introduced to a recipe, shown how to prepare it, and you then prepared a meal using the recipe—likely with the help of the instructor, and in collaboration with other classmates. But when you came back home to cook the meal yourself, you weren’t able to replicate what you’d done in the class. More than likely it’s because you didn’t utilize what you were taught properly, or didn’t utilize it, period. Having the instructor observe and coach you would have made all the difference in the world. The same thing applies to your salespeople when they return from a sales training engagement.

Effectively translating what your salespeople learned in training into results on the job is imperative for your training investment to pay off. But that’s not going to happen without subsequent and regular coaching by either you or your head of sales. In fact, after recruiting and selecting the right salespeople, developing your salespeople is arguably the most important aspect of your head of sales’ job—where “developing” means both training and coaching.

Essentials for Effective Coaching

Let’s look at an example where the results you want are achieved. Say you want to improve your sales staff’s ability to handle objections. You send them to a two-day training class on handling objections. They learn strategies and techniques for dealing with all sorts of objections, through a combination of lecture, role plays, simulations, and other methods. Two weeks after the training, you’re out on a call with one of your sales reps and observe him addressing a prospect’s objection, but failing to use the objection handling techniques that were taught in training. You jot a note to this effect. As he continues past the objection, you note that while the person who raised it doesn’t pursue it any further, he also doesn’t seem to you to be convinced by your salesperson’s response.

After the meeting, while debriefing downstairs in the building’s lobby, you bring up the objection. You ask your salesperson if he feels he handled it successfully. He answers, “Yes.” You then ask, “Why?” And he replies, “Because he didn’t contest my response.” Since you know that just because the prospect didn’t contest the objection doesn’t necessarily mean he accepted it, you see this as an opportunity for coaching. You point out what you witnessed: that while the person who raised the objection did not contest the salesperson’s reply, his body language and facial expressions suggested that he didn’t buy it. After reflecting for a moment, your salesperson will likely realize you’re right. At this point, you ask him if he remembers what was taught in the training, specifically, what step must be taken before moving on from the objection? In this case, the response should have been to ask for confirmation from the prospect that the answer given did indeed address the concern, at which point the salesperson would have learned that it hadn’t. Ideally, the salesperson will provide this answer, and in doing so, realize that he failed to ask if the concern was addressed. If he doesn’t realize it, it’s your responsibility to point it out.

Coaching is not about giving the answer, as this example illustrates. It’s about guiding the person to come up with the answer himself. It’s a skill, and like any other skill, it has to be developed. But once it has been, it’ll be one of the most valuable contributions you can give to your salespeople—and to your business.

5 Ways to Become a Better Coach
How can you better guide your salespeople? Try these five techniques:
1. Start by having a coaching mindset. A big part of a company’s responsibility to its salespeople is to develop them. Coaching is one of the best ways to do so.
2. Get out from behind your desk and into the field with your salespeople.
3. Observe, but do not intervene— even if you see something egregiously wrong.
4. Post-call, ask for your salesperson’s assessment of the call—or, even better, of a specific aspect of the call (the one on which you want to coach).
5. Gain agreement with your salesperson on what needs to be improved— then make sure that improvement takes place.

Craig James is president of Sales Solutions, a sales productivity improvement business. He can be reached at

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