Is the Sales Coach Obsolete?

Recently a major hotel chain removed desks in some of its rooms in an effort to attract millennials. The rationale was that younger customers don’t use desks because they are more accustomed to working in “coffee shop” environments, communal spaces where others casually congregate working on laptops and iPads. Regardless of the merits of this strategy, it serves to illustrate a point about those entering today’s sales force. Millennials are different, and require a new set of conditions to be successful. They thrive in a team environment and are adept at problem solving through collaboration with others such as fellow salespeople and sales managers. The days of the lone wolf road warrior may be a thing of the past, as this new generation becomes full-time salespeople. At the same time, the sales coach who is a lone wolf – taking on the sole responsibility for training, planning and execution – may be equally outdated.

Obviously, we’re in changing, challenging times. A fast-moving marketplace demands cooperation of salespeople and sales management to reach peak performance through high-functioning team efforts rather than manager-centered thinking. In Leading Teams, authors John Zenger, Ed Musselwhite, Kathleen Hurson and Craig Perrin discuss “stuck” or stagnant organizations, “Most stuck organizations are also management centered. In other words, managers see themselves as the central players in the organization and assume they need to control almost everything. In contrast, successfully changing organizations use employee involvement to build and benefit from the knowledge, skills and commitment of non-managers.”

The case for sales teamwork doesn’t stop with the challenge of managing millennials.

In the last decade, huge shifts in corporate America have exposed sales managers to a dizzying rate of change. Customers have become more demanding and price sensitive due to the proliferation of online competitive information. If they don’t like your price, they’ll find a better deal online. Combine global competitive pressures and shaky economic conditions, and you have companies cutting costs at unprecedented levels. This volatile mix of economic, technological and sociological issues presents a host of perplexities for sales managers:

Rep-per-manager ratios are steadily increasing every year, consistently expanding managers’ scope of supervision while multiplying their workload.

Training and administrative support for sales managers are decreasing because of increasing budget constraints.

Pressures on managers to produce sales results are rising exponentially.

A recent Gallup poll noted that only 30% of the American workforce was “engaged or inspired” at work with 70% either unexcited or discontented.

Numerous studies (including sales-specific research) are showing declining trust of managers among subordinates, especially younger ones. One study showed only 35% “moderately trust” their direct boss with 31% showing strong distrust.

It is the paradox of our times: At a point when sales managers are being asked to do more and more, they have less and less to work with. Sales teamwork and collaboration are taking on an increasingly important role in the sales arena.

It’s easier to describe teamwork than define it. You know you have teamwork when sales people work with each other and with sales management as partners to improve sales by sharing and implementing innovative ideas in all phases of the sales process including: product improvements, sales techniques, sales campaign implementation, competitive strategies, pricing and a multitude of other procedures and policies. In this context, the sales manager becomes a servant leader, a partner who listens and facilitates rather than directing and commanding. The result is a team environment that serves as an incubator providing sales people with encouragement and development to better do their job.

A Stanford University study recently showed that people who worked together on a difficult task persisted 48% to 64% longer than those working individually. Collaboration, as opposed to working solo, increased people’s intrinsic motivation and made the challenging project more interesting.

Are sales managers moving from an era of the sales coach to the sales partner? That’s up for debate, but consider these benefits of the manager-as-partner:

1. Improves sales team performance.If two heads are better than one, the multiplier effect pertains as all your sales people work together and with you to improve each other’s success. The result is better sales for the whole team. And, of course, better bottom-line results for you, the sales manager.

2. Enhances individual performance.Salespeople in a team environment learn from each other better ways to sell. In addition a sales team adds an element of peer pressure and accountability that further amplifies sales potential.

3. Speeds innovation.Salespeople working together can quickly identify problems and solve them by sharing information and creating solutions.

4. Improves retention.People enjoy working within a supportive team where they are part of decision-making. In addition to allowing sales people to play a meaningful role in the company’s future, a team environment decreases stress since sales people are working together rather than working against each other. That means the good ones are more likely to stay on the payroll.

5. Teamwork makes it easier on the manager. It provides sales managers with more time to manage and takes away the pressure of making all the decisions and designing all the sales programs.  

In traditional, command/control sales hierarchies, managing people is relatively simple: The sales manager provides the commands and uses control mechanisms to facilitate the commands. The control methods are: pay (commissions, bonuses, etc.) or punishment (reprimands, demotions, termination). Remember Pavlov’s dog, taught to salivate at the sound of a bell? It’s pretty much operant conditioning – rewarding desired behavior and punishing undesirable behavior. No matter how manipulative it sounds, pay-or-punish is fundamental to any sales group; it’s how we reward high-performers and weed out underachievers. However it is not the only way to motivate a sales team.

Studies have shown that employees increasingly are looking for more than a paycheck. They are searching for meaningful work, recognition of their abilities, and control of their work life. Hence we’re beginning to hear a lot of concepts such as collaboration, empowerment, continuous improvement, job ownership – all are part of Total Quality Management (TQM) which can augment command/control methods. TQM gets employees involved in decision making and gives them a sense of ownership in and commitment to the company. In addition, it allows managers to tap into the combined energy, knowledge and experience of their people to improve everyone’s sales.

This notion of teams and teamwork became the buzzword in the 1980’s as Japanese manufacturing prowess reached America. Originating in Japan after World War II, TQM was facilitated by Edward Deming, an American consultant. The original effort was called Kaizen and incorporated the idea of continuous improvement through employee participation at all levels. TQM was an underlying force that led Japan to world dominance in the automobile and electronics markets. Back in the 1940’s, as Edward Deming discovered, continuous process improvement was everyone’s job – from the janitor to the CEO – to look for better ways of doing things. The results went far beyond process improvements. Employees were energized and felt a sense of ownership. Self-esteem rose. Loyalty to the company increased. Stress decreased.

Instead of being given daily marching orders and repeating their routines mindlessly, suddenly employees were being asked for their opinions. They now were being involved in decisions that affected their work lives. The result was increased enthusiasm, creativity, and belief in the company. The TQM principles that revolutionized manufacturing apply to sales because sales people, though temperamentally different from salaried manufacturing employees, are still people. Providing even a modicum of control in the workplace energizes them by giving them a voice and a vote in their future.   

Getting back to the main point: Is the sales coach obsolete, overtaken by marketplace change? It may be a thing of the past if you define the sales coach model as a manager-centered role, as a man with a plan who will single-handedly shape a successful sales force. The traditional sales coach management model may be evolving, but sales coaching is alive and well. In fact, sales coaching is a vital part of sales partnering, but the partner concept goes well beyond coaching, and includes team building, empowerment, continuous improvement and rep involvement in decision making. The sales partnering model focuses on developing individual sales people through one-on-one coaching; however, it goes a step further, creating a high-performance team that serves as an ecosystem to further amplify individuals’ performance. Teamwork does not replace individual competitiveness which has and always will be the force that sharpens our abilities; rather it enhances our skill set and makes the entire organization more successful.

 Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, called it the “boundary-less” organization where information, decision-making and power are shared at all levels of the company by managers and non-managers. There’s a certain pride and protectiveness that comes with involvement and job ownership. Do you want renters or owners in your sales group? Mercenaries or warriors? Do you want team players who can help you and each other attain results, or would you rather settle for a fragmented group of sales people operating only with their own best interests in mind?

Max Cates is author of the new sales management book, Seven Steps to Success for Sales Managers, which shows how collaboration, teamwork and continuous improvement build winning sales teams.

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