How to Drive Sales Transformation with Tailored Coaching

Brian Lambert

By Brian Lambert, Senior Analyst, Forrester Research

Today’s customer expects the sales team to engage with a clear understanding of who they are, what they do, and the problems they face. However, many firms’ go-to-market strategies lag behind customers’ buying requirements, perpetuating the product push and forcing salespeople to play on the same old turf—responding to RFPs and being treated as a commodity provider. To sell higher, capture wallet share, and deliver the business outcomes clients desire, sales leaders will need to transform their organization from product pushing to problem solving.

In an attempt to accelerate salesperson performance, organizations are standardizing and defining key elements of their selling systems (e.g., documented sales processes, defined metrics, and defined new hire profiles). While all these initiatives have potential value, achieving the goals of any sales transformation first requires a change in salesperson behavior. Organizations ultimately can become more effective in the sales process by creating lasting behavior change through one-on-one conversations that are relevant, developmental, and motivational.

Behavior-focused sales coaching conversations are purpose-built to improve performance and are more effective than conversations focused only on salesperson results. These tailored coaching conversations require sales managers to monitor, direct, evaluate, and reward specific rep behaviors related to the end-state of the desired transformation—such as cross-selling to grow wallet share. By helping salespeople improve specific knowledge (e.g., industry knowledge, competitive knowledge, and role knowledge), as well as selling skills (e.g., listening, presenting, and business analysis) coaches become a critical resource in empowering reps with the confidence they need to sell higher. To help leverage your sales coaching program and help sellers improve skills, Forrester offers the following recommendations:

Find out who’s coaching already. Chances are that pockets of coaching excellence exist within your organization. Identify as many sales coaching champions as you can to figure out what’s working for them and what’s not. Ask reps about who provides great advice or invests in their personal development and growth. Based on input from the sales team, sales managers should meet with the recommended coach(es) to find out what they know and what they do to successfully coach. Once you have determined how each prioritizes coaching interactions across the team, enroll that individual as a coaching champion to help positively influence others.

Help coaching conversations flourish. After gathering information on what works and what doesn’t, work with the sales management team to design, implement, and reinforce a coaching strategy that reinforces the use of tailored coaching conversation and helps build a coaching culture. It’s important to solicit input from Human Resources to understand the differences between managerial and sales coaching and ensure agreement. Whereas managerial coaching typically focuses on skills relevant to all management employees across the organization, sales coaching takes the unique sales environment into account, driving the sales process forward and expanding sales-specific skills. As you build a sales coaching strategy, first pilot the program with the sales coaching champions you have identified.

Remember that salespeople are unique. Even if your sales organization, using a rigorous screening process, selectively hires only top performers from the competition, each new hire brings different motives, personalities, knowledge, skills, and expertise to the work environment. As a result, coaches need a way to tailor sales coaching conversations to the uniqueness of the individual. Coaches can motivate salespeople based on strengths, especially if they have taken the time to understand what each salesperson brings to the table.

Keep in mind: While tying sales coaching conversations to reps’ financial interests works for some, this type of motivation isn’t sustainable in a tough economy where sales targets are hard to hit and rising. Assuming that all salespeople are driven by money reduces the interpersonal aspect of the job to a shallow level where hucksters might operate—and most high-performing reps don’t.

Document coaching success. To keep momentum, find a way to communicate the success of sales coaching in your organization. For example, in a recent conversation with Forrester, one sales manager said: “While the metrics are helpful, I’ve found the stories to be more so. Finding the story of how sales coaching helped my manager in Asia connect with his sales team and, more specifically, how his use of coaching conversations helped land a big sale, provides me a way to explain that sales coaching must be part of the job, not an afterthought.”

The bottom line: Sales enablement initiatives will fail without sales coaching. Ensuring successful adoption of any initiative requires tailored sales conversations as a core enabler—especially when the initiative is designed to drive a sales transformation. If coaches focus conversations only on salesperson activities or achievement against metrics (e.g., sales volume, profit contribution, or revenue attainment), the desired behavior change becomes secondary. To put it more simply: Your transformation initiative will crash and burn as salespeople focus on other things. Over the next couple of years, Forrester expects sales coaching targeted at behavior change to emerge as a lynchpin in the transformation strategies of successful sales enablement professionals.

Brian Lambertis senior analyst at Forrester Research, where he serves Technology Sales Enablement professionals. He will be giving a keynote speech at Forrester’s Technology Sales Enablement Forumin San Francisco, CA, February 14-15, 2011.