How to Avoid Coaching Failure… More Lessons from the Soccer Field

Jason Jordan

In a previous blog post, I recounted the story of a coach who shouted absolutely useless advice to a team of 12-year-old boys who were trying to win the last game in a soccer tournament. More specifically, he shouted: “Come on guys… We really need this one.” Yeah, they already knew that. They already wanted to win the game – probably more so than the coach, for that matter. What they really needed was not a reminder of the desired outcome – they needed some guidance on HOW to win the game.

This is the equivalent of sales managers telling their salespeople that they “really need to make their quota.” Of course, salespeople already know that – that is what they were hired to do. But it’s the most classic of coaching errors and one that takes place every day in every sales force around the world: Asking for the outcome you want, rather than providing the insights that can actually affect the outcome.  In essence, directing or instructing rather than providing meaningful coaching.

'Work harder' is a losing strategy

It seems that kids’ soccer games never fail to deliver fodder for blog posts, because the coach recently blurted another classic. Once again, the situation was virtually the same – a soccer tournament everyone on the team really wanted to win, down a goal, and just a few minutes remaining. Except that this time, the coach offered the following sage advice to the kids: “Hey guys, you’ve got to work harder.” Work harder? To be sure, he meant play smarter. Otherwise, how could more of the same type of play lead to any different outcome?

Interestingly, it seems that we are all hard-wired with this same disposition – If we want to do better, then we have to work harder. Perhaps it’s rooted in some work ethic that is drilled into us early in our lives. Perhaps it’s because working harder is an easier path than the alternative, working smarter. Perhaps it’s just what we say, because that’s what people said to us. Regardless, it’s not very useful coaching. And here’s why:

It’s my observation that most people work hard. In fact, I think most people work about as hard as they’re going to work, with the exception of an occasional deadline or emergency situation. If so, then badgering the sales force to “work harder” is a losing strategy. At best, you’ll get a little more effort in the near term, until the recipients of the command either exhaust themselves or realize that no more output is coming from their extra effort.  Either way, the sales manager has committed coaching malpractice. Good coaching demands more.

Good coaching is particularly important these days since, as various industry publications have reported, the percentage of salespeople at quota has steadily declined, and in 2017 for the first time, this number dropped below 50 percent. In a recent study we conducted, we found that 75 percent of the sales managers missed their revenue targets and also confirmed that fewer than half of sellers made quota. At the same time, it’s a well-known fact that revenue targets have risen: A double blow to the hardworking sales manager and sales rep.

What good coaching looks like

Coaching should not be an exercise re-iterating the destination – to win the game or to achieve quota. And it shouldn’t be an exercise in ramping up the urgency – to run faster on a soccer field or to panic more in a sales territory. Coaching should be about improving a person’s ability to do their job. Increasing their skills... Improving their decision-making… Changing their behaviors… Providing clarity of task.

In other words, making more reps more capable. Most people understand what they need to accomplish, and most people are motivated to do it. What they need is help getting there. And, our many years in the sales space has shown us that the secrets to a successful coaching approach are really quite simple. Good coaching should help salespeople execute sales activities (e.g. sales calls) to achieve specific sales objectives (e.g. improve close rates) to attain the desired results (e.g. quota.) Yes, it’s that simple. Reverse engineer from your desired results to figure out what your sales objectives are, and lastly the appropriate activities to which you should coach.

So, if you find yourself on a soccer field of with teenagers, or in a sales force of mature adults, fight the urge to yell “Come on guys… We really need this one.” And fight the need to shout “Hey, you’ve got to work harder.” Lower your voice, turn on your brain, and think to yourself, “What does my team need to do differently to succeed?” Then you’ll become the coach your players need.

Jason Jordan is a founding partner of Vantage Point Performance, a global sales management training and development firm focused on sales managers. Jason is a recognized thought leader in the domain of business-to-business sales and co-author of Cracking the Sales Management Code. Jason’s research has been published in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Entrepreneur, Salesforce and many other industry publications. Sign up for Vantage Point’s newsletter to stay up to date with the latest sales manager research and best practices.