How NOT to Coach… Lessons from a Soccer Coach

Jason Jordan

I was recently at a soccer tournament with my teenaged son. His team had won its first few matches and made it to the semifinals. The stakes were high – win and move up the bracket, or lose and go home. The kids were playing well, but losing by one goal with only a few minutes left in the game. Their coach, whom I know to be a very smart man, then said something that I thought was particularly dumb. He shouted onto the field, “Come on guys, we really need this one!”

The kids’ reaction to his comment was actually quite interesting. As you would expect from a good group of kids who really wanted to win, each of the players immediately turned to their coach as soon as they heard his voice. And with all their attention on him, the coach used that invaluable undivided attention at the end of the game to say, “We really need this one!” Great coaching?

Well, just as quickly as the players turned their attention to the coach hoping for some wisdom or guidance, they dismissed his comment as the usual coaching gibberish. They returned to their soccer game no better or worse for the uninvited intervention. Because, of course, they already knew they really needed this one. They knew it was a must-win situation. In the end, the coach’s words were not very useful.

Unfortunately, I have seen many smart sales leaders squander precious time with their salespeople saying similarly stupid things. Like the VP of sales on stage who announces, “I really need you all to hit your quotas this time!” Yep, they already knew that. Or the manager who tells his team, “Q4 is going to make or break this year for us!” Yep, they knew that too. Or the “coach” who tells a failing salesperson, “If you don’t improve your performance, we’re going to have a difficult conversation the next time we meet.” Yes… The salesperson could already see that conversation coming. So why do smart sales leaders say such ill-advised things at precisely the time their sellers are in need of guidance and coaching? Is it because they don’t have anything more insightful to say? I don’t think so. I think it’s actually a programmed response following decades using motivation as the primary management strategy to run sales forces. Motivation, motivation, motivation.

If you think about it, we do everything possible to instill urgency in the sales force. Weekly meetings, monthly commissions, quarterly quotas and constant reporting… All meant as mechanisms to keep the sales force working as hard as possible. The rational is: more work = more sales.  

Perhaps motivation was the best management strategy in a time of transactional selling when knocking on more doors would consistently yield more deals. But sales has evolved into a sophisticated profession in so many ways. Today, sellers need more than just motivation… They already have quotas and commission plans. They know they “really need this one.”

What salespeople need today is effective coaching. They want thoughtful guidance on how to succeed in their jobs. You’ve given them clear go-to-market strategies. And smart sales processes. And good tools and training. What they need now is help using all these things effectively. Research we conducted with the Sales Management Association indicated that sales coaching was either the number one or number two topic in order of importance in sales organizations. Further, sales coaching was identified as the most important sales management training topic. What does this tell us? Let’s lighten up on the overplayed motivational stuff and start coaching our reps to higher levels of performance. If a group of teenagers can tell the difference between the motivation and sales coaching, you can be sure your sales team can too.

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.