Training sales managers to coach is a hot topic—and for good reason. According to the Sales Executive Council, average sales performance is 19 percent higher for teams whose sales managers are deemed effective coaches than for teams whose managers are rated as ineffective. That’s a pretty impressive difference, but what makes the distinction between the skills of an effective coach and an ineffective coach? It usually comes down to one thing—how well a sales manager understands the anatomy of a sales coaching conversation.

To help your sales managers become more effective coaches, train them to align their coaching efforts with the following three marks of an effective sales coaching conversation.

1) Directing vs. Coaching

Without proper training, sales managers often equate directing with coaching. While sales managers may think they are coaching when they tell their reps how to solve a challenge, they may only be directing sellers to an answer instead of equipping them to problem solve. Effective coaching requires thoughtful questions that help a rep fully consider a problem and, in most cases, arrive at their own solutions.

To make the shift from directing to coaching, managers need to determine whether a rep is asking a question that needs only a quick answer or whether a longer conversation is required. If the question simply requires an exchange of information, a quick directive works fine as long as managers do not over-rely on giving direction at the risk of creating a dependent sales force. If a longer conversation is warranted and the manager has time to engage in it, the coaching can begin with the sales manager asking probing questions, such as “What have you considered?” and “What do you think is right based on other similar accounts?” Through these questions, reps discover solutions on their own. When a longer, non-directive conversation is required, but the manager does not have time, the next step is to shift the conversation to a scheduled coaching session.

2) Ad Hoc vs. Scheduled Coaching

While offering a directive during a quick conversation with a seller is necessary at times, true coaching requires a more structured framework. Effective sales coaching doesn’t just happen during everyday conversations or through sporadic meetings. Sales coaching must take place over time and be intentional, scheduled and effective.

Although managers may tend to shy away from scheduled conversations because their calendars are often overloaded, it is these longer, scheduled conversations that create high-performing reps. However, a scheduled coaching conversation does not have to be additive work for sales managers. Scheduling conversations simply provides a structure and cadence to time already being used less optimally. In fact, one hour of highly effective coaching per month will often yield better results than two or three hours of ad-hoc directives given in 10-minute increments. Focus matters.

3) Planned vs. Unplanned Coaching

It is not enough for a coaching session to be scheduled, it also must be planned. By far, the best coaching conversations are ones that are planned. Both the manager and seller have created space for it and both enter the conversation mentally ready for the topic. They arrive with all the information necessary for a meaningful interaction. This allows the manager and the rep to do their homework ahead of time. Is there paperwork a rep needs to complete beforehand? A CRM system update? Answers a rep needs from a prospect?

It is important for managers and sellers to establish an agenda prior to meeting so both parties are clear about what will be discussed. One of the most common errors is managers trying to cram too many topics into a single coaching session. Creating an agenda can help narrow the focus of the meeting. For instance, scheduling 10 items in one hour means the items average six minutes each. Like the ad hoc conversation, this creates superficial and/or directive discussion. The antidote to this widespread problem is to be very clear about what will be discussed and allow enough time to cover each item in depth. When in doubt on setting the agenda, err on the side of fewer items to allow for more detailed discussion of each one.

Effective coaching conversations only happen when sales managers understand the difference between giving directives in an ad hoc environment and engaging in a scheduled, planned coaching session. The result is a collaborative and productive discussion that arms sales reps for success and, ultimately, produces high-performing teams.

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