Power Tools : Field Coaching
What is field coaching?
Coaching is a form of follow-up training in which you, the sales manager, work with individual salespeople, one on one, to build selling proficiency.
The aim of coaching is twofold.
- to maintain or enhance the salesperson's performance in demonstrated areas of strength
- to improve or redirect performance in areas that are found to need improvement.
Coaching is a process of observation and feedback involving you and a salesperson. You first observe the salesperson making a call; then, you give feedback to the salesperson on what you observed. Finally, you and the salesperson plan actions to correct any performance problems that were observed. This process is continuous and ongoing, and it is always focused on improving sales performance.
As a sales manager, you're accountable for achieving revenue targets. Your sales force is the resource you have to meet those targets. Like a team of professional athletes, your salespeople have individual strengths and weaknesses that, taken together, either produce the results you want or fall short of the goal.
Your job is to provide guidance, advice, strategy, and opportunities to improve individual and team performance.
The advantages of coaching for you are significant.
- Coaching is the best means for you to determine firsthand and objectively each salesperson's strengths and areas needing improvement.
- Coaching enables you to work individually with each salesperson to retain strengths and eliminate weaknesses - thus improving both individual and team performance.
- Coaching helps to instill self-analysis skills in your sales people so that they can gradually assume more responsibility for self-improvement.
Who can benefit from coaching?
Coaching can be very helpful for all of your salespeople, from the novice to the seasoned veteran.
- It's invaluable to the inexperienced salesperson. Your coaching will help this person to apply and strengthen new skills and knowledge to develop selling competence.
- It's useful for a salesperson who has a performance problem or whose performance has declined. Your coaching will help to pinpoint why the problem exists and to provide the feedback and help that the individual needs to improve or get back on track.
- It is important for the average sales person. Your coaching will help to identify areas of strength and weakness and to refine this person's skills so that he or she can progress beyond average performance.
- Coaching is even helpful for the seasoned veteran who is a star performer. Your coaching can help this person to focus on challenging accounts, specialized products, or advanced application of selling skills.
What coaching is not
To make coaching work to full advantage, it's important to have an understanding of what coaching is-and what it is not.
Coaching is an ongoing process of support and assistance -not a formal performance evaluation or an occasional checkup. When you first start to observe sales calls, you may find that some of your sales people are defensive. While it is natural for people to feel this way when they don't understand the purpose of the program and its value to them, this reaction interferes with effective coaching. To defuse this defensiveness, use sales coaching routinely as a way of helping individual sales people to improve. Once your salespeople begin to perceive the benefits of coaching, they will participate wholeheartedly.
A coaching sales call is an observed call -not a joint call. This distinction is critical. On a joint call, both you and the salesperson are active in the selling effort, and you are actually helping to make the sale.
On a coaching call, however, you are required to be an observer you do not participate in the selling effort. The reason for this distinction is simple; your intent on a coaching call is to observe and document the salesperson's performance by taking notes in order to identify strengths and areas for improvement.
As long as you remain in your role as an observer and let the salesperson handle the call, you are getting an accurate picture of those strengths and weaknesses. If you participate in the selling effort, however, you change the dynamics of the call. You are no longer able to observe how the salesperson would have handled the call - nor, therefore, where the salesperson's strengths and weaknesses lie.
Some managers find it difficult to remain an observer when the salesperson is handling a call poorly. The temptation is very strong to step in and save the call whenever the salesperson falters.
Whether you let the call take its course and use the salesperson's mistakes as an opportunity for learning and growth - or whether you step in and take over - is your decision. If you do intervene, however, bear in mind that you are changing the dynamics of the call and sacrificing some of the observations of how the salesperson functions alone. This information is what you need in order to do an effective coaching job.
Your role as a coach
As a coach, you provide support and direction from the sidelines by doing the following:
- Observe each salesperson on sales calls. You observe and document the calls by taking notes in order to gain clear, firsthand information on what the individual is doing well and what he or she needs to improve.
- Give feedback to the individual salesperson. You use the information that you gained by observing the call to give constructive feedback on what was done well and what should be improved.
- Troubleshoot and plan actions with the individual salesperson. You and the salesperson work together to determine the causes of any observed problems and to plan actions for improvement.
The following procedures will help ensure a successful kickoff.
1. Explain coaching program and benefits.
- Explain in general terms what coaching is and why you plan to accompany sales people on coaching calls.
Mention that you will make coaching a routine activity by working with individuals to maintain and improve performance. Point out that coaching is not a formal performance appraisal and that, while there are evaluative aspects to it, coaching is intended as support and assistance.
- Discuss the benefits of coaching.
Mention that coaching is intended to build performance and, by extension, success; that it's a chance for individualized feedback and learning; that it's an opportunity for joint problem solving on issues related to selling performance; and that it provides a means to help you and your team achieve your revenue targets.
- Anticipate and handle all questions openly and positively.
Keep in mind that ignoring or minimizing questions and concerns at this point can lead to problems later.
2. Specify roles on coaching calls.
- Point out that, in general, the salesperson will retain full control of the calls, and your function will be to observe the calls.
Mention that you expect the salesperson to conduct the call in as "normal" a manner as possible (as if you weren't there) so that you can get the best. possible picture of what the salesperson typically does well and what might need improvement. Explain that you will not take an active selling role. You will observe and take extensive notes, which will help you provide feedback based on factual, objective data - not merely your impression of “how things went." State also that there is room for flexibility and you may occasionally consider it necessary to intervene. The salesperson, however should not count on your intervention to "bailout" a difficult call.
3. Give criteria for coaching calls.
- State that coaching calls must be calls where selling is the primary activity. Mention that certain types of calls are not suitable for coaching since they involve little or no actual selling. For example, courtesy or service calls, “get-acquainted", and "pick-up-the-order” calls are not suited to coaching.
- Emphasize that coaching calls must be calls where your participation in a joint selling effort is not required.
- Explain that you must be free to observe and take notes; therefore, tough, high-stakes calls where your involvement would normally be called for are not appropriate for coaching.
4. Schedule initial calls.
- Have each salesperson schedule a few initial coaching calls.
Give each salesperson a specific time frame during which you'll be available for coaching, and then have the salesperson work out the logistics of dates, times, and advance notice to customers, as appropriate. State that several coaching calls may be scheduled in any one day as long as there is sufficient time for precall briefing and postcall debriefing. Leave at least an hour between calls.
- Point out that the salesperson may want to tell customers in advance that you will be present in order to forestall any problems or objections.
Mention that the salesperson may state that you'll be present in a coaching capacity or may offer any other suitable explanation of your presence.
Serious sports fans consider it important to have at their disposal as much background information as possible about the teams involved, their past records, statistics on the players, and so forth. With this information, they are able to appreciate the subtleties of the action.
Likewise, conducting a precall briefing gives you a mental scorecard for the call. This scorecard is useful to you on two counts; it gives you the details you need to observe the call knowledgeably, and it tells you something about how well the salesperson has prepared for the call. In effect, the precall briefing is your first chance to observe the salesperson in action. A precall briefing should occur before every coaching call. Probably the best time to conduct it immediately before the call so that the details will be fresh in your mind as you observe the call.
Bear in mind that your aim during the precall briefing is to gain a quick understanding of the situation and of the salesperson's preparedness - not to conduct an exhaustive investigation.
1. Review call preparation:
- Account information
- Anticipated needs/opportunities
- Anticipated customer attitudes
- Call objective
2. Review roles:
- Salesperson controls call
- Manager observes call
- Introduction of manager
To ensure effective precall briefings, follow these steps:
Review call preparation.
Ask the salesperson for information on the account. For instance, you'll probably want to know.
- account name, location, size and type of operation
- account history: new or established, previously purchased products/services (volume, value, applications)
- contact person: name, title, purchase authority, how contact was established
- background information salesperson needs to obtain on the call
Ask or look for anticipated opportunities, needs, and attitudes.
Keep in mind that the customer's actual needs and attitudes may legitimately turnout to be very different from what was anticipated. Nevertheless, a well prepared salesperson will have at least considered the possibilities.
- Ask what the salesperson's call objective is.
Find out whether the salesperson actually has a call objective that seems reasonable and achievable and requires the customer's commitment to some action.
- Make a mental note of your reactions to the salesperson's level of preparedness.
Remind yourself to look for confirmation during the call of the opportunities, needs, and attitudes anticipated by the salesperson so that any significant differences can be dealt with in postcall feedback.
- Maintain a low-key, nonjudgmental attitude.
Use open-ended questions, where possible, to gain information. Keep in mind that you want to gain information and put the salesperson at ease so that he or she will be relaxed during the call.
- What if you find out in the precall briefing that the salesperson is not suitably prepared for the call? Do you try to remedy the situation, or do you merely make a mental note of lack of preparedness? Here again, it's a matter of judgment. lf you're about to enter the customer's office, there is obviously no time to intervene. Under other circumstances, you may choose to intervene and remedy the problem. However, it is generally best (from a coaching point the consequences of poor preparation. You’ll have a chance to discuss and remedy this problem after the call.
- lf you do decide to intervene, one of the most effective techniques you can use is a series of questions to shape the salesperson's ideas. Ask the salesperson questions such as:
- "Have you thought about...?"
- "Don't you think is would be useful to find out... ?"
- "What do you think might happen if... ?"
- "Have you considered the possibility that...?"
These questions convey the message that you expect the salesperson to have considered certain issues beforehand. Even though the salesperson's responses may not be adequate on the first call, you can be sure that on subsequent calls the salesperson will be better prepared.
- Review roles.
- Remind the salesperson that he or she will control the call and that you will observe and take notes.
- Determine how your presence will be explained, how you will be introduced, and what remarks each of you might make at the beginning of each call. You may or may not explain that you are coaching; it is the salesperson's decision, based on the circumstances of the call. If the salesperson asks you to explain your coaching role, plan to keep your remarks brief so that the salesperson can get on with the call.
For the ex-player turned coach, the temptation to do, rather than watch is strong. Likewise, the sales manager who used to sell may have a difficult time refraining from an active role on taking calls. But the urge to help or to "do it right" should be tempered by your interest in observing and recording, by taking notes, what happens so that feedback can be given later.
Despite proper selection of calls, there maybe times when you have to decide whether intervention are is more important than pure coaching. Two situations are particularly challenging:
1. The sales person is unintentionally misleading the customer by giving incorrect or incomplete information. If the error is serious enough to warrant correction, you can gracefully intervene by saying something like, “There’s some new information that you may not have received yet..."
2. The scope of the call changes suddenly. What had looked like a promising coaching call becomes inordinately difficult or a high-stakes call. In this case, you may have to forgo coaching and conduct a joint call.
The fact that you are present on the call will influence the salesperson’s behavior to some extent. Generally, this influence is a positive one. Keep in mind, however, that if you intervene too quickly or if you build up a reputation as a manager eager to turn coaching calls into joint calls, you will not only miss the chance to observe actual performance but you may also make your salespeople less receptive to coaching.
The more thoroughly and specifically you record the sales interaction, the more objective and useful your feedback will be. Your play-by-play documentation of the call will make it possible to not only coach on the use of selling skills, but also on a range of other issues like product knowledge, industry knowledge, account planning, and so on.
- Mention note taking to customer
- Record observations/highlight consistencies
- Express appreciation to customer
These procedures will help to ensure effective call observations:
1. Mention note-taking to customer.
- Explain your presence to the customer if the salesperson has asked you to do so.
You may describe your coaching role briefly, discuss your desire to gain information so as to serve customers better, find out first hand what the concerns in the field are, or gain a better understanding of your client base.
- Mention note taking by introducing it casually, as in: "lf you don't mind, I'm going to take notes." Research has shown that few customers object to note taking.
2. Record observations/highlight consistencies.
- Take notes regarding the interaction between the customer and the salesperson.
- Remain unobtrusive during the call. Avoid facial expressions or gestures that communicate your feelings about the call. Maintain a low profile so that the call can proceed as normally as possible.
3. Express appreciation to the customer.
- At the end of the call, thank the customer for the opportunity to sit in on the call.
- Don't discuss with the customer the content of the call or how the salesperson performed.
Every sports coach knows that the post game analysis plays a big part in improving future performance. When people know what's expected and can analyze what they've done well and what could have been done better, performance improves.
Sales people usually operate in relative isolation where there are few chances for feedback and analysis; therefore, most of them appreciate opportunities for constructive feedback.
Your feedback will have the greatest impact if the post call debriefing occurs immediately after each call, when the details are still fresh in your mind and in the salesperson's mind. The longer the delay in feedback, the less relevant and meaningful it is - like yesterday’s news.
The style in which you give feedback, as well as its content, will be important in debriefing.
In general, it is important to promote a high level of interaction. You can achieve this interaction by following these guidelines:
- Elicit comments from the salesperson.
- Avoid argumentative discussions.
- Discuss both the good points of the salesperson's performance as well as any points that require improvement.
1. State debriefing steps.
2. Elicit salesperson's self-analysis:
- Ask which skills were handled well
- Ask which skills could have been used more effectively
3. Give feedback:
- If time permits, reconstruct the call
- Summarize skills handled well
- Summarize skills needing improvement
4. Determine next step:
- lf performance problem requires action, go to troubleshooting
- lf not, go to next call
To ensure effective postcall debriefings, use the following procedures:
- State debriefing steps.
- Review what you'll cover in debriefing; the salesperson's self-analysis, your feedback, and a determination of next steps.
- Make it clear that you want the debriefing to be a two-way communication during which you and the salesperson share perceptions, even when they differ.
- Elicit salesperson's self-analysis.
- Ask which skills the salesperson feels were handled well and how did they think they handled the sales call.
- This step stresses the fact that it is just as important to retain strengths as it is to improve weaknesses.
Ask which skills the salesperson feels could have been used more effectively.
- Limit your reactions about the salesperson's self-analysis to brief acknowledgments. Your aim is to get the salesperson's ideas out on the table and to encourage self-analysis, not to debate the accuracy of the self-analysis or to offer your feedback at this point.
If your feedback varies considerably, do not contradict the salesperson. Simply acknowledge exists and that you'll discuss it when you give your feedback.
- Give feedback.
- lf time permits, reconstruct the call. The most effective way to do this is to "walkthrough" the call in sequence using your notes to provide an "instant replay" of what actually happened during the call. This reconstruction ensures that your feedback is based on objective data. Your comments on skill use may address the "mechanics" of skill usage (whether or not the salesperson followed the skill models), the content of skill use (relevance of questions, benefits, or proofs), or any other issues on which you have decided to coach. It is strongly recommended that you reconstruct the call with the salesperson. If time is short, however, you may have to skip the call reconstruction and immediately begin to summarize. In this case, you can refer to your observer notes as backup for your comments.
- Summarize skills handled well.
Working from the consistencies you highlighted during your observation of the call, give the salesperson credit for:
- specific skills used appropriately on several occasions
- specific skills used more appropriately than on previous calls
- attempts to use specific skills at appropriate times, if this is an improvement over previous performance
- any knowledge of the product, market, or customer that was used to good effect during the call
- any call preparation efforts that paid off
Cite any examples of skill use and state specifically what elements make the skill use effective.
- Summarize skills needing improvement.
Again working from the consistencies you highlighted, state specific skills needing improvement:
- specific skills used inappropriately several times
- gaps in knowledge of the product, market, or customer that became apparent during the call
- inadequate call preparation
- Acknowledge any rationalizations or differences of opinion, but don't dwell on them.
- Use neutral, nonjudgmental language such as: "It didn’t seem to me that…” or “It's usually more effective to..."
- Comment on obvious connections between problems on the call and in adequate preparation.
- Do not try to deal with all performance problems at once. Instead, select one or two problems to work on so as not to overwhelm or discourage the salesperson. You can pick up other problems later. Remember that there may not be any skills needing improvement; you will often observe sales calls that are handled well.
Determine next step.
If the answer to at least two of the following questions is yes, go to troubleshooting.
Otherwise, go to the next call.
- Have I observed a performance problem in the use of selling skills or application of knowledge on this call?
- Was the performance problem I observed on this call so frequent and/or severe that it requires action beyond feedback?
- Have I given this salesperson feedback on the same performance problem in a previous postcall debriefing?
- If you decide to go to troubleshooting but find that there is not enough time between sales calls to handle the performance problem, set a time when you and the salesperson will not be rushed.
A knowledge deficiency exists if the salesperson is not demonstrating adequate knowledge of the product or service, the market, the industry, or the customer when he or she makes sales calls. There are two possible reasons:
- The salesperson may lack the knowledge that is essential as a context for the effective use of selling skills.
- The salesperson may be reluctant to prepare for calls because of a lack of self-discipline, comfort with old habits, or because he or she doesn't perceive the value of doing so ahead of time
Your strategy when confronted with these knowledge deficiencies should focus on increasing the salesperson's knowledge of the product, market, and/or customer; you must also follow through to make sure that the sales person applies this knowledge in preparing for and making calls.
Taking fast action on performance problems caused by lack of skill and/or knowledge is most often the first step. It usually helps to overcome a salesperson's reluctance or lack of motivation as well because a salesperson, not knowing how or what skills/knowledge to use, tends to be reluctant or uninterested in trying to use them. Thus, addressing the "can do" issues (skills and knowledge) can have a positive impact on the "want to" attitudes (motivation) of your salespeople.
- Determine cause of performance problem
- Ask for/suggest improvement options
- Confirm action(s) planned
Follow these procedures to ensure effective troubleshooting.
Determine cause of performance problem.
- Ask the salesperson what he or she thinks is causing the performance problem. Use open and closed questions to uncover the cause.
- Then offer your own ideas, based on your observations.
- Keep the discussion as interactive as possible.
- Check with the salesperson for agreement on the cause.
Bear in mind that you and the salesperson may not agree. Continue the discussion until you and the salesperson are able either to achieve a common understanding about the cause or to reach agreement to try out some actions that you both will determine.
Ask for /suggest improvement actions.
- Ask the salesperson what he or she could do to overcome the problem. Acknowledge the ideas so as to encourage the salesperson to offer additional ideas.
- Offer your own suggestions.
Confirm action(s) planned.
- Summarize the improvement actions that you and the salesperson have agreed upon.
- Summarizing is especially important if several possibilities have been discussed or if more that one action is to be taken.
- Check for agreement with the salesperson and agree to make sure you both understand and agree with the action(s) to be taken.
- Once the salesperson has committed to these actions, establish checkpoint(s): when you and the salesperson will meet next, and what will have been done by then.
Remember coaching is an ongoing process that is one of the most important aspects of your role as manager and coach.