4 Killer Tips for Supercharging Your Sales Coaching Sessions

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David’s article originally appeared on the Salesforce.com blog


Coaching is the #1 thing leaders do to drive the performance of their teams. Not surprising then that the Sales Executive Council found that sales reps who received 3+ hours of coaching per month had 17% higher goal attainment than reps who received less than 2.

But despite the huge impact of this behavior, few organizations hold their leaders accountable for doing it. What’s even worse is that there’s a huge disconnect between employees and their managers when it comes to what exactly constitutes coaching versus simply meeting 1:1.

recent study by Zenger/Folkman showed that first line managers feel, to a greater extent than their executive counterparts, that it’s their responsibility to give orders and directives versus work collaboratively with their team members. Unfortunately, when leaders give orders they succeed in conditioning their people to wait for those orders, resulting in a decline in initiative and overall engagement — crappy.

So how do you supercharge the coaching experience? Let’s begin by defining what coaching actually is.

I like this definition because it reflects both the actions and outcomes of the interaction:

Coaching is about helping your people experience meaningful progress at work by listening and driving accountability through data-driven conversations where we write things down.

Of course, the concept of coaching is like going to the gym; easy to understand, hard to do…or at least do well andconsistently. Here are four killer tips sure to supercharge the impact of your coaching sessions:

1. Have a plan

A 1:1 that starts off with the participants saying, “Sooooo, what do you want to talk about today?” is a recipe for failure. A proper coaching session should be like a productive workout where you plan the regiment in advance. Unfocused workouts are sporadic, fragmented, and unrewarding, resulting in the decreased motivation to stick with the program (which is pretty much what happens when people don’t get value from their 1:1’s).

The best 1:1’s include an agenda framework to keep both participants on track. Some topics can be chosen by the manager, some by the team member, with time baked in for “other business.” For example, a 40 minute sales-focused 1:1 can include: 10 minute sales rep forecast review for the current period, 10 min pipeline review for the next period, 10 minutes on sales rep skill development, 10 minute freeform time.

You can also keep your 1:1 regiment relevant by changing it up depending on where you are in the sales period or fiscal year. For example, 1:1’s at the beginning of the quarter or month may have an increased forecast/pipeline focus to them. 1:1’s at the middle or end of the period may focus more on specific deals and how we can bring them to close. 1:1’s near the end of a fiscal year may have a career development focus to them.

Regardless of the tone or focus on the meeting, going in with a plan will result in a high value interaction that both parties are likely to repeat.

2. Do more listening by asking questions

The personal and professional journey of your people should always be the focus of the 1:1 meeting. As Ben Horowitz, co-founder of prominent VC firm Andreesen-Horowitz states, that means that the manager should only do 10% of the talking and 90% of the listening (the opposite to how many 1:1’s actually work). Since striking that balance may be tricky for some, the best way to train yourself to do as much listening as possible, is to prime the conversation with questions!

Some questions can be outlined in advance and even baked into the agenda. For example:

  • Where are you forecasting to finish the period in terms of commited / most likely / upside revenue?
  • How much pipeline have you generated for the future period?
  • What skill(s) would you like to focus on developing this month?
  • How can I help?

Additional questions can be used ad-hoc to drive conversions around culture, motivation, or reveal blind spots, such as:

  • Are you doing your best work? What’s holding you back? Why?
  • Are you happy? Are you having fun?
  • Do you feel you’re growing in this role? How so?
  • If you were me, what changes would you make?
  • What’s the biggest opportunity you feel we’re missing out on?

Coming prepared with a list of questions will not only help drive the conversation and keep you on track but also make the coachee feel like their success is the focus of it.

3. Use data

As the coach of a professional athlete or the director of a feature film, you’d never think of giving your stars advice without watching replays of their performances first. The best coaches use data to drive these conversations because data is both insightful and objective.

Data can help facilitate awareness, performance improvement and can be a coach’s best friend in difficult conversations. The key is sourcing the right data to drive the conversation you’re looking to have. For example, if you’re planning to provide sales coaching around revenue attainment, pipeline development, and marketing campaign efficiency, you need to ensure that the reports and dashboards you’re using highlight those metrics. Using data to drive key conversations is a subtle by highly important concept.

As we kickstarted our B2B sales operations we would often get together to discuss areas of product and process improvement. These conversations would invariably lead off with someone tossing out a statement like, “Users are getting hung up on our registration process…we should change it” or “I think our sales funnel is leaky. What we need to do is…”.

While it’s a safe bet than tons of processes could be improved in any organization, the one counter-question that would consistently challenge us to maintain our data-centric focus was:

Is that a hunch or a fact?

Over time, driving our conversations and decisions based on facts vs. hunches forced us to have more focused conversations. It also helped us refine the metrics we used to run the business and resulted in faster improvement. The result should be no different in your 1:1 coaching interactions.

While it can be tempting to start coaching advice with “I think…” or “I feel…”, starting with “What the data shows is…” is always a better choice (especially when you’re delivering critical feedback).

4. Write things down!!! (<- you need to start doing this now!)

Writing things down is the easiest thing you can do to create huge returns on your 1:1 investment. When you crystalize topics, deliverables, and outcomes in writing, something magical happens! Writing things down drives massive accountability, helps confirm understanding in 1:1 meetings, and overcomes the inertia which ultimately results in lack of action. Conversely, when we don’t write things down, we undermine the commitments we make to ourselves, our teams, and each other.

As GTD movement leader, David Allen, says “your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Yet despite our fast-paced lifestyles, human ability to forget, and the abundance of technologies available for us to recall information, I’m consistently shocked by how few of us write things down, especially when it comes to 1:1 coaching conversations.

Now, when it comes to coaching your team, you don’t have to write everythingdown. Just the important things. The things you don’t want to forget. The major deliverables. The topics you want to revisit the next time you meet. And the more specific the better. For example, suppose you met with one of your sales reps who needed to amp-up their pipeline generation tactics. After discussing new pipe gen strategies in your 1:1, documenting the agreed-up follow-up activities, success metrics (i.e. data), and time frame, creates a unified view of interaction; one either party can revisit to reinforce the accountability for getting it done. Magic!

The trick here is writing things down in a place where both participants can view, contribute, and track progress towards the next discussion or deliverable. Sending an email that inevitably ends up in the inbox abyss doesn’t count. Google docs, Evernote, or your CRM are all better choices.

Like going to the gym, providing your team with expert 1:1 coaching has huge returns but is easier said than done. Through patience, practice, and these 4 key tactics, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a coaching black belt!

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